SYDNEY thornbury

CEO and artistic director, the arthouse wakefield

CEO and Artistic Director of The Arthouse Wakefield.  Previously Project Director at Beckenham Place, CEO of Blackheath Conservatoire and Executive Director of Web Play

What was your main motivation to carve your organisation with a social conscience?

I feel that in order for arts organisations to be successful both in vision and financially, they need to connect strongly with their communities.  When I go into an organisation that isn’t working, it usually is because they are isolated from their community and aren’t realising a social purpose. 

I’m running The Art House in Wakefield at the moment, which I really enjoy.  But it’s an area with huge social disadvantage and there isn’t a great connection between the wider population and the arts, even though we have two of the greatest museums in the UK here; the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Hepworth Museum. People don’t feel like ‘art is for me’.  Our role at the Arthouse is to open the door and develop a sense of cultural entitlement in in local people so they can access art in a way that empowers and inspires them.  We believe in taking the art to them, not just waiting for them to come into the venue.  We’ve formed a partnership with the local shopping centre to do exhibitions and outreach activities. We need to meet people where they are and show them the art they already have in their life. If I need to do projects about tattoos because that what the local people are interested in, then I will do that because it’s a way of relating and introducing people to art forms it’s the way in. But the central point is that you must always present excellence.  Artistic excellence is key, and everyone deserves to experience that.  It’s transformative.

How do you tackle the highs and lows of running an organisation?

You need a really good sense of humour and a healthy detachment.  The wisest advice I ever received was from a mentor who said, its the decisions you make aren’t about you or anyone else, they always have to be based on what is best for the organisation.  If you focus all your decision making on this, then that’s your moral compass.

As arts leaders, or cultural/social entrepreneurs, we really need to look after ourselves.  We are phenomenally overworked especially us women who take on a lot of work and responsibility as cultural leaders.

What is the one book we should read, podcast we should listen to or piece of art we should encounter to better understand the world of social enterprise?

I still think that original paper by Sir Ken Robinson called All Our Futures which was the first paper that really widened the thinking that creativity is not just about being an artist, but key to so much else including building successful businesses and the overall economy. This is really relevant to social enterprise which is driven by creative thinking.

Read The Five Life Stages of Non-profit Organisations by Judith Sharken Simon.  It was the first time I realised businesses have life cycles and since then I try to assess where the business is on the life cycle. Is it in start-up mode or end of life?

If I was to imagine a social enterprise as a piece of art, I think I would recommend a Mark Rothko.  In his work there are often big blocks of colour with a space between.  And if you really look at them for a while, that inner space is where all the interesting stuff is happening – they almost pulsate.  I see social enterprise like that – the exciting space between for profit and non-profit. 

What are you interested in that most people aren’t and should be?

The tiny home movement. These are tiny houses around 500 square feet, built with wheels so we can move about.  We all think we need bigger spaces to live in but we can manage in much smaller spaces. I have learnt this since living on a boat. Living in a small space means you have to be sensible about what things you need, and you have to go outside which means connecting with local communities.  With environmental changes, the way we are going to live is going to change radically over the next decades.

What’s a project you’ve dreamed about but haven’t started yet?

I thought about starting an intentional community, maybe an eco-village, where people with similar values and interests form a living community together.

What’s the most ridiculous thing you have ever done in the name of Social Enterprise?

Creating the Elf Academy at the Conservatoire Blackheath.  For the whole of December, the whole staff dressed as elves and ran creative workshops for hundreds of children, under the auspices of training up a reserve army of elves for Santa, since his elves were threatening to strike.  It was exhausting, but fabulous.  And nobody’s forgotten it!

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

My best piece of career advice was when my mother made me take typing class in Junior High.  My whole career has spun out of the fact that because I could type 100 words a minute Kelly Temps sent me to Westminster City Council and I ended up being the project manager for the Westminster Education Business Partnership!  Didn’t need that Ivy League education, just Jr. High typing…

Just for fun – If someone made a film of your work, who would you ask to play you?

Katherine Hepburn

Tea or G and T?

Depends what time of day!