Chief executive with an art for the common touch
Published at 09:09, Monday, 07 May 2012
PERHAPS I shouldn’t have said that, Jane Robinson laughed after telling me one of her previous jobs had involved dressing as a dinosaur.
Well, possibly not. But the admission illustrates a crucial point about Gateshead Council’s new chief executive – she’s happier being herself than projecting an image of superiority.
Even when I raise the awkward issue of pay – she’s on around £160,000 – she replies with neither arrogance nor apology: “Chief executives are paid well, but they have responsibility for a whole range of things.
“If things go wrong, the buck stops with them, so hopefully I’ll show I’m worth the money.”
Certainly, the mother-of-three from Wylam has plenty on her plate, as Gateshead Council is facing £70m of spending cuts.
On the positive side, though, Gateshead is currently undergoing a £150m redevelopment, alongside revamps of the wider area, including Blaydon and Felling.
The town has also got plenty lined up for the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and Jane is likewise excited about plans for a new conference centre at the Quayside, to be paid for with an Arts Council grant.
“Investment in arts and culture has made a massive difference to the profile of Gateshead, and to the ambition and pride of people in the area,” she says.
“A lot of people are very proud of the facilities there and that translates into confidence from other investors.
“In its first five years, The Sage brought in nearly £150m to the wider economy. But there’s something more than that – there’s a sense of wellbeing and a richness of life that has a much less tangible impact.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that Jane should express such enthusiasm for arts and culture, as that’s where her own background lies.
The 41-year-old, who moved to the North-East from London with her family aged five, studied English Literature at Sheffield and Leeds before getting her first break in the sector through work experience at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham.
Following that, she took on the role of press and marketing assistant for Tyne and Wear Museums – although that, she explains, was not always as glamorous as it sounds.
“When you work for a cultural organisation, you get to be a Jack of all trades,” she says.
“The job included everything from envelope stuffing to painting backdrops for exhibitions.
“I recall even being dressed as a dinosaur once to promote an exhibition at the Hancock Museum.
“It probably wasn’t the high point of my career.”
Gradually, however, Jane rose through the ranks to become a development officer, responsible for raising funds. From there, she went on to Northern Arts, where, after completing a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), she was eventually appointed deputy chief executive.
While working for the organisation, she led the implementation of a £250m capital strategy, which included the creation of the Baltic art centre and The Sage Gateshead.
“I think one lesson it taught me was the importance of being ambitious – not in a completely pie-in-the-sky way, but in the sense of saying, ‘there’s a need here’, then making a case for something,” she says.
“Gateshead received the largest single Lottery award outside London, and some people said, ‘Why would you have a world class centre for contemporary art in a place like Gateshead?’
“Well, why not? People here deserve the same opportunities as London or anywhere else.”
Eventually, Northern Arts disappeared as regional arts boards from around the country where amalgamated into the Arts Council.
“That was a useful experience for me, because I was involved in the management of merging 10 different bodies into one,” Jane recalls.
“But I also felt I wanted to be involved in an organisation that was more locally focused.”
That organisation was Gateshead Council, which Jane joined in 2005 as assistant chief executive.
“I was lucky,” she admits.
“I hadn’t worked for a local authority before and I was very fortunate that they decided to appoint me.
“But I knew Gateshead from my previous work and, although I’d been involved in the arts and culture sector, it was often to do with managing partnerships between different organisations, including local authorities.”
Since then, she’s found the work engaging and been impressed at how officers and councillors work together, putting Gateshead’s best interests over political agendas.
Clearly, the feeling is mutual, as at a council meeting in January, it was agreed that she would take over as chief executive when Roger Kelly retired at the end of March.
She is the first woman to hold the post since the authority was formed in 1835 – although she has mixed feelings about celebrating that fact.
“I believe in meritocracy – that people should be appointed on merit,” she says.
“But I also believe you get the best out of organisations when you’ve got a good mix of people – different genders and different backgrounds and skills.
“As a working mother with three boys, I’d also hope I could be a bit of a role model – to show that these sorts of roles are not exclusively for men.
“I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of support from women who’ve told me to be ambitious; some might say that, in going for the assistant chief executive post, I was chancing my arm a bit!”
At least one man has also provided huge support for Jane – her husband Dominic, who she describes as being “an absolute star”.
Dominic runs his own business and so has the flexibility to work around the couple’s three children, Sam (12), Ben (9) and Tom (4).
But, although it sometimes feels like a “military operation”, Jane also does her bit, picking up the children from school at least once a week and getting involved with activities like the Wylam Rockets football club for youngsters, of which she is secretary.
“There’s a strong sense of community in Wylam and I think that’s really important,” she says.
“It’s also quite an intergenerational community.”
So, given her new high- profile role, would she consider leaving Tynedale for Gateshead?
She laughs. “Where we are at the moment, it’s close, but not close enough that the neighbours can ask why their bins haven’t been collected.”
Published by http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk