1 Mid Powys Youth Theatre

I GREW up in Wales, in a rather remote part of Powys (below). My family didn’t work in the arts at all and there wasn’t much by way of arts provision, but there was the Mid Powys Youth Theatre. 

This was the youth wing of the then Theatre Powys. It welcomed young people from 13 to 22 and I joined when I was 13. My mum was so supportive and every Tuesday night she would do the 40-minute drive there, come back two-and-a-half hours later then drive 40 minutes back.

Everyone was welcome, it was hugely accessible, and it was extremely welcoming with people from all sorts of backgrounds taking part. It was led by committed and talented theatre practitioners and it was a brilliant introduction to any kind of engagement with the arts.  

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It really opened up the world to me and demonstrated the transformative power of the arts to me at an early age. 

I did a lot of growing up during my time there and it had a massive impact on my studies and where I thought I might be heading in life. 

The years there made me feel much more connected and as a teenager in Wales that was extremely important. It showed me what could be achieved by working together as a group, gave me confidence, and showed that we could depend on one another. That’s a great lesson for anyone, working in the arts or not. 

2 Swimming

I NEVER thought of myself a sporty child. I was always one of the last to be picked for games and never really enjoyed them at all. I had always been a strong swimmer, however, and I began swimming competitively at around at the age of nine.

I also swam for my county during my teenage years. 
I have always returned to swimming and it’s an incredibly important part of my life now. I find it extremely meditative; it helps me destress, and it brings me a connection to my body. 

That connection, understanding your limits and testing those limits is something which has become important to me.

A couple of times a week, before the children are awake, I take myself off to the Olympia swimming pool in Dundee. It has an amazing 50m training pool where I can do a kilometre or two before breakfast and get back to make sure the kids are ready for school. I feel absolutely sorted for the day.

It has also given me a gateway to other sports. I now run and cycle, and did my first triathlon in Haddington last summer, which I loved and now I’m planning more next spring and summer.  

I’m also taking part in my first cycling race in Kinross next April. This has also expanded my community of friends. Athletes, both amateur and professional, are so supportive. 

3 The stories of women

AS part of general studies for my O-Levels, I chose women’s ctudies. That was the first time I was able to develop an understanding of women’s rights. It gave me a strong understanding of feminism and the struggles that women faced across the centuries, as well as an appreciation of the pioneering women who fought and changed laws and policies to help support women from all backgrounds. 

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It also showed me how class and wealth and privilege cross over with women’s rights, and of course how those rights are affected by your race, your sexual orientation and what particular gender you are.

I think it widened into a realisation about civil rights across the world and people who are fighting on a day-to-day basis for the most basic of rights.

4 Studying the history of art

I WAS the first member of my family to go away to university, but I do remember my mum and dad doing Open University degrees at the kitchen table when I was a teenager.

I studied English at the University of Birmingham, but if you did single honours you were encouraged to take up a module every year in a different subject. The first module I chose was the history of art.

It hadn’t been available to me at school, but I had my interested piqued by reading about art across the world in my dad’s Open University textbooks. 
The choice of that module changed my academic career completely.

At the University of Birmingham there’s a wonderful gallery called The Barber Institute (below), which has the most beautiful collection from across the centuries, including exquisite pre-Raphaelite pieces, what I ended up specialising in.

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In fact they let me change my degree around and I ended up studying much more about the history of art than English. Once I graduated, I knew that I absolutely wanted to work with visual artists.

Studying the history of art changed how I saw the world and how I experienced the visual. It made me realise that art is completely connected to the times in which it was produced. Although I now work in contemporary art and we usually work with living artists, that training and understanding still has relevance every single day. 

5 The Great North Run

I STARTED working for Brendan Foster and the Great North Run in 2004, when it was just about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. They had commissioned a new film work by Jane and Louise Wilson, who were Turner Prize nominees. They needed a curator to come on board and work with the Wilsons and with the Great North Run to present the commissioned work.

It was such a success and had such great feedback from artists and audiences, that it became the beginning of a 10-year programme. 

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We commissioned artwork every year that responded in some way to the world’s largest half-marathon. That work wasn’t always about running – it was about people that took part in the run, it was about the geography of the course, and the history of the area. Essentially, it was about people and places and all of their stories. 

I worked with artists at all stages of their careers from Turner Prize winners Mark Wallinger and Douglas Gordon to graduates. We also commissioned music by composers such as Michael Nyman and writing by Bill Bryson. It was such an important 10 years where I could combine my two loves of sport and art.
The Great North Run is a huge source of pride in the area. To be part of such an important part of a region’s cultural and social identity was a true privilege.

6 The Clore leadership programme 

I WAS invited to take part in the year-long Clore training programme for cultural leaders, which is supported by the Clore Duffield Foundation.

Every year 20 to 25 people in the arts across the UK and internationally are chosen by the foundation, which then pays for someone to do your job for a year. It gives you the time to be given training, mentoring, coaching and put through the most incredible courses. It’s also a chance to meet people who have excelled at cultural leadership, from the director of Tate to world-renowned choreographers. 

It allowed me to think about why it’s important for me to work in culture and why culture is important to everybody. It also consolidated why I’m passionate about the transformative power of art and what I think art and culture can do on apersonal level as well as the social level.

It also allowed me to connect with a network of people across the UK and beyond, who were all going on a very similar leadership journey.  
It was taking part in the Clore programme that allowed me to make the next step in my career. It also allowed me to be able to talk a lot more openly about what I wanted to do, which can sometimes be quite difficult for women.  

7 Music

I HAD piano lessons from an early age and also played violin and double bass and guitar. I was so lucky that all of this was free at the school I went to. Music was woven into my life in childhood and even now I play piano quite regularly. I find it a wonderful stress relief. It also means that I’m keen that my children play music and again, because we are in Dundee, we have free music lessons.
Listening to music has also had a big impact. Going to gigs and festivals and moving through all sorts of subcultures in my teenage years. I bond with people over music now. I like sharing and it keeps me connected with other people as well as myself.

8 The Fierce Festival 

STRAIGHT out of university, I started to work with The Fierce Festival in Birmingham. It’s a festival of performance and live art, where I worked with most exciting and radical artists from across the world. Artists who were feminists, queer, trans – it showed me a completely new perspective on what art could be and what it could do.

It was a small team and a massively steep learning curve. We were programming the festival, working with artists, commissioning new work, dealing with venues, and of course fundraising and marketing.

It was such a contrast after the traditional museum-based work I had been doing at university. I knew then that my future lay in working with contemporary artists, particularly those who were challenging and sat outside of the mainstream.

9 Family 

ALTHOUGH I grew up in a remote part of Wales, I have an extended family throughout Wales, across the UK, and in Germany, Canada and Australia. Despite that distance I still feel deeply connected to them. 

I think when you move around for work and you have children, it’s really important for them to know as well that they have this network of family and there are people you are connected to in other parts of the world.

As a family we feel very rooted in Scotland now and it is our home, but I think it’s crucial that the children know that there is a wider world out there and that they have many connections to it.

10 DCA

MOVING the family to Dundee from Newcastle when I became director of DCA was life-changing for all of us. Of course it was a huge decision to come to a different country, but one which has been immensely positive. 

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It was a privilege to take up this post at DCA, an organisation that has an international reputation but is still deeply connected to the city – and particularly at a time when the city is going through such immense change. 

There are still issues to tackle but we’re in a better place to do that.

As a family, whether we’re driving over to Tentsmuir or heading up the coast to explore, there is so much countryside to dive into. It’s a wonderful time to be in Scotland.