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The Female Gaze

The Female Gaze: Elaine Bedell CEO Of The Southbank Centre, London

Our newest column, The Female Gaze, is a place to elevate female empowerment and listen to those changing the world.

In our latest edition, we speak to Elaine Bedell about her role as CEO of London’s Southbank Centre and nomination for the 2024 Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Awards.

Elaine Bedell made history when she was appointed as Chief Executive of the UK’s largest arts centre in 2017, becoming the first woman to ever hold that title in the art institution’s now 75-year history. Here, we discuss Elaine Bedell’s prestigious career, spanning both TV and the arts, the successes of female leadership, the challenges the art industry faces, as well as what’s in store for the Southbank Centre in the coming years.

Congratulations on your 2024 Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award nomination! How does it feel and what makes this recognition so special?

I’m really chuffed. I love the idea of bold women – and I’m lucky enough to lead an organisation where women make up 60% of our workforce, with a leadership team of 6 – 5 of whom are also bold women!  I’m very grateful to ALL the bold women at Southbank Centre – they make my leadership so rewarding.

You’re the first woman to become the Chief Executive of Europe’s largest arts centre in its history. What does this achievement mean to you?

It’s interesting to note that I was appointed by a female Chair. There were no doubt a number of potential female CEO’s in all the decades before me but I’m honoured to have somehow ended up being the first!  And what a privilege it is to have this role running an organisation which is not only a tourism driver for the UK, being in the top 5 most visited destinations, but that has a public programme that is 40% free and is home to the National Poetry Library. The site was gifted to the nation as a unifying balm after the Festival of Britain and it is an honour to lead the team for such an important national institution.

Can you tell us a bit more about your career before your current role.

I’ve always worked in the creative industries.  I love telling stories, whether that’s through making television programmes or through live entertainment events.  I was a BBC trainee, producing a wide-range of television programmes and ended up as the BBC’s Controller of Entertainment, looking after shows like Strictly and Top Gear and then went to ITV as Director of Entertainment and Comedy, looking after XFactor and Saturday Night Takeaway.  I also ran my own production company for 7 years, which was exhilarating – especially after being in the BBC – having complete freedom to work out your own strategy, values and culture was very rewarding.

Beyond TV I spent some time as Managing Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s commercial arm and was hugely proud to be a trustee of the V&A.   Alongside my current role I am a Trustee of the Yard Theatre and a member of the UK Council of Creative UK.

Why the move from TV to the ‘live’ industry?

I like reaching mass audiences through exciting, live (often nail-biting!) events.  Southbank Centre is the nation’s engine of creativity and a home for popular culture – from our music festival Meltdown (curated this year by Chaka Khan!) to our dance, spoken word and poetry events – as well as our free events from the summer DJ’s on our outdoor stages or our reggae lunchtime sessions on the Ballroom floor.  We have 3 music venues as well as an art gallery and all our outdoor spaces – the things about Southbank is that there’s always something going on, 6 nights a week!

Given your background on the small screen working with the most talked about TV shows (namely Top Gear, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent), how was this translatable to your current role, keeping live entertainment fresh and relevant for today’s audiences?

The thing that all “most talked about” events or programmes have in common, is excellence.  They all need to be well-produced, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some extremely talented, highly creative people – especially here at Southbank where the budgets are much lower than those in television, but where our teams constantly go above and beyond.

What does your role as CEO of Southbank Centre exactly entail?

When Forms Come Alive, Hayward Gallery February 2024 Tara Donovan

When Forms Come Alive, Hayward Gallery February 2024
Tara Donovan

Not many people realise The Southbank Centre is a charity and a key part of the role is upholding the standards of a charitable organisation. Within our site, I look after 11 acres along the Southbank, 3 music venues, The National Poetry Library and a contemporary art gallery in The Hayward Gallery.  We also have 14 bars and restaurants on site which we manage as landlords.  We produce our own events with a team of programmers across music, dance and performance, as well as curate lots of visiting companies who rent our spaces. We receive money from the Arts Council as well as earn our own income and I’m responsible for making sure the budget balances every year as a not for profit. No one day is the same – we have such an incredibly varied schedule of events. 

Is there a core memory or achievement that stands out to you from your time so far at Southbank Centre? What are the best parts about working for such an iconic cultural institution?

There are so many (I’ve now been here 7 years); watching Grace Jones (age 73!) hula hoop all the way through Slave to the Rhythm on our stage was definitely one (she also took her top off! Very bold!), being introduced to the music of Philip Glass is another, and hearing the London Contemporary Orchestra play Echorus in March 2020 – the night before going into lockdown, when the players chose to play instead of going home, and lots of the audience also turned up.  We all sat with tears in our eyes, before closing all the doors.

Last year we welcomed a Marina Abramović Institute takeover with site-specific pieces which helped new audiences discover us…and our existing audiences find new spaces and ways to experience the Southbank Centre.

What are the challenges you currently face? Both as CEO and also working in the creative industry in today’s environment?

Investment in the arts has declined in real terms by 40% and that is a real struggle for an institution like Southbank.  We’ve been very resilient and have a strong business plan and strategy but we need to keep adapting to a challenging and changing world. Flexibility is an absolute requirement for leadership here and we’re constantly looking at new ways to do things.

What did Southbank Centre mean to you before your current role?

Credit Pete Woodhead

Credit Pete Woodhead

I grew up in the East End of London and was brought here often as a child.  My dad – who loved to play the piano – knew that the Southbank was a place for people like him – not posh, but passionate about music.  He died when I was 21, so it felt like completing a circle when I came here as CEO and I’ve now named a seat for him in the concert hall.

How have you seen Southbank Centre grow and change since you joined? 

It’s been through an evolutionary change – and rightly so.  An organisation like this one needs to continue to flex in order to be relevant and vital. The thing that continually changes is our audiences and it’s such a delight to see so many people still discovering the Southbank Centre – we are really proud to be a welcoming space for all whether it’s refuge from the rain for a cup of tea, dancing through fountains with your kids or your first experience of an orchestra.

How do you envision the next ten years or so?

Southbank Centre will remain a place where culture is made, new ideas forged and people’s potential is unlocked delivering the best popular culture events in the UK.  In 2026, we will celebrate our 75th anniversary of the Southbank Centre so that will certainly be a memorable moment in the history of our site and, hopefully, a reminder about how precious our national institutions are and the role culture can play in connecting communities and enriching lives.

For you, what is the importance of female C-suite leadership in the arts industry, and beyond?

We’re not there yet – my daughter who’s just starting out in the world of work and in the creative industry is finding some of the same barriers that I did. We’ll only eradicate them if female leadership is consistent and powerfully present.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far in your career?

If you want kids, and you want to work, it’ll be messy and chaotic. There’s no way around it – so don’t give yourself extra stress by seeking perfection. Embrace the messiness.

What should we look forward to or book to see at the Southbank Centre this year?

We have so much going on every day it’s almost impossible to answer this one but I’d say Chaka Khan’s Meltdown for the remainder of June, and Unlimited Festival in September.  Come and have a drink on our terraces this summer (our programming theme is “You Belong Here”), experience our outdoor stage and enjoy our Tavares Strachan exhibition in the Hayward Gallery.

Lead image credit: Elaine Bedell, Southbank Centre CEO

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