Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Jude Kelly: The powerhouse behind Britain's biggest arts center

September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
She's now the artistic director of London's Southbank Centre but from a young age, Jude Kelly knew that if she wanted change, she had to do it herself. She says:
She's now the artistic director of London's Southbank Centre but from a young age, Jude Kelly knew that if she wanted change, she had to do it herself. She says: "Challenge excites me."
  • Jude Kelly is the artistic director of the London's Southbank Centre
  • She has overseen over 100 productions with theatrical greats such as Sir Ian McKellen
  • She has also established the "Women of the World" festival celebrating female achievement

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

London, England (CNN) -- The year is 1969 and Britain is at the peak of its counter-culture revolution -- a time of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The Beatles are putting together their final album while a relatively unknown musician, David Bowie is making waves with his track "Space Oddity."

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, a 15-year-old schoolgirl is headed for trouble.

Though academically gifted, Jude Kelly is bored at school and overcome with a mix of teenage angst and a vivid imagination. She's beginning to hang around with a rough crowd and soon finds herself in trouble with the law. But one person has taken notice of her downward spiral -- her high school principal.

Dad raised Campbell Soup boss to lead
Gordon on realizing her dream
Woman billionaire: How I did it
Space chat with astronaut Karen Nyberg

"The headmaster said to me, 'I don't care if you do maths or biology or whatever, it doesn't matter ... but make sure that you use your imagination for creative good rather than self-destruction'," recalls Kelly.

Fast forward several decades and she's done just that. Today Kelly, 59, is the artistic director of Britain's beloved cultural institution -- London's Southbank Centre.

Read: How Hollywood's highest-paid actresses earned their millions

Looking back, it's clear how defining that very moment was.

"As soon as he said it, I knew he was right -- I feel very strongly that young people deserve help, time, space and permission to be expressive."

His advice spurred Kelly to form a drama club with her fellow classmates including Clive Barker, the now bestselling British horror author, and comedian Les Dennis.

After high school, her passion for the arts continued to flourish. Studying Drama at Birmingham University, she decided to become a director. It was a bold career choice for women in the 1970s -- but by age 22, she defied naysayers by becoming one of the youngest artistic directors in the country.

"If you have a sense that you want to make the world change, then you've got to go and do it. You can't ask somebody else to change the world for you."

It's hard not to be intimidated by Kelly before meeting her. Her illustrious career has seen her open and run theater houses across the country, such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Battersea Arts Centre. Directing over 100 productions including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, the English National Opera, the Châtalet in Paris while in the West End, she has worked with some of industry's finest thespians, including Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart.

But as Kelly enters her glass office, I'm immediately struck by how her theatrical aura and energetic spirit fills the room. Wearing a sleek black dress over her petite frame, she crosses her legs showing off a simple pair of sneakers -- an unlikely combination that works. Wasting no time, she delves into her passion for combining education with the arts.

"To lose any generation because they haven't been able to fulfill their potential is a tragedy.
Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre

"I believe wholeheartedly that in terms of human progress, arts education and arts and cultural expression is a key part of how great societies develop," says Kelly.

As she leans forward, she talks of creativity being the key to helping troubled youth -- a path she can relate to.

"My experience [is] that if I hadn't found that sense of purpose and identification, and had a way of doing it, that my life could have turned out differently."

"To lose any generation because they haven't been able to fulfill their potential is a tragedy," she adds.

So far, during her tenure as head of Southbank Centre and a once wayward teen herself -- she has made it her mission to provide a space for young people to express themselves.

To that end, Britain's largest arts center is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment to develop a festival wing which will include a youth village, a children's future center, arts education studios and a backstage space for emerging DJs, dancers, filmmakers and photographers to cultivate their skills.

Read: Tina Brown on taking risks

Additionally, the cultural hub offers a schools-in-residence program giving educational institutions the opportunity to move all of their classes to the Southbank location and immerse the students with the subjects while on the premises.

"We are also working with all kinds of urban artists -- hip-hop artists, graffiti artists, parkour, BMX riders -- sort of merging of culture, leisure and art so that young people have a route in [to the arts] via the thing that excites them."

But Kelly's commitment to ensuring the art world is inclusive goes one step further. Not content with the investment made in shaping female minds of the future, in 2011 Kelly established the Women of the World (WOW) Festival. Held each March in honor of International Women's Day, it's an event she calls "a celebration of everything women and girls can do, have done and could do."

"... people would be shocked to understand just how many women have put in the scaffolding upon which current arts policy has been created.
Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre

The week-long festival provides an opportunity for women to come together, share success stories and network. It has proven so popular that the WOW festival has spread to a number of cities across the globe, most recently in Baltimore and Sydney.

"Women very often have been amazing pioneers in a sense of saying here's something that is clearly missing on the landscape and it needs somebody to roll their sleeves up and make it happen," says Kelly.

"I'm not saying it's only women that pioneer in the arts, but I think that people would be shocked to understand just how many women have put in the scaffolding upon which current arts policy has been created."

Read: Who were the real 'Gatsby' women?

From Ethel Smyth, a British conductor and member of the suffrage movement, to Lilian Baylis, a theatrical producer who opened London's Old Vic Theater, Kelly admits, as an artistic director, she has often looked to female role models for inspiration.

These days Kelly herself has become somewhat of a pioneer of the arts. She sat on the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Board, represents Britain on cultural affairs within UNESCO and is the founder and chair of Metal, an artistic laboratory.

In 1997 she received the honor of Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to British arts and culture. And in February, Kelly was named one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain by BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour.

While she doesn't recognize her work as revolutionary, she does believe she has been part of a larger shift in the UK's cultural landscape.

"I think I have been part of a transformative movement, a pioneering movement of people saying that we must never underestimate what human beings are capable of.

"We have got a right, a duty to make more space, more time, more opportunity for the many and not the few."

Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
These 12 fashion experts have millions of followers, but who is the most social woman in fashion?
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Mindy Grossman has been the driving force behind making the Home Shopping Network both hip and profitable, but she still makes time for herself.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking at NASA Ames research center
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take threats such as asteroid strikes more seriously.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
Shenan Chuang turned Ogilvy China into the world's third biggest ad agency, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout asks how she did it.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
Imagine a gadget that knows your mind better than you do.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
When your grandmother is one of the most famous cosmetics moguls in history, it might put a little pressure on you to succeed.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT)
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.