Cat-sitter for Doris Lessing, tea-maker for Salman Rushdie, theatre producer, music festival founder, cultural leader and entrepreneur – Lady Jane Gibson (Drama and English, 1985) describes her colourful ‘non-career’
I haven’t really had a career but a series of life experiences through culture which have led me to where I am now. No one in my family had ever had any involvement in the theatre. Most of them worked in a televisions, videos and white goods business that my grandfather had set up in North Yorkshire and that my father ran.
Though I did a bit at school I wasn’t into acting. It was always about enabling other people for me. I can’t do the stuff that would put me on the stage but I have always been good at empathy, people, money – that sort of thing. It’s definitely a skill but I didn’t realise that at 18.
When I went to university, I felt I was completely hopeless and was amongst Drama students who seemed fully formed. I didn’t feel like I’d connected with people but in my second year, it all clicked. University opened my eyes to a whole new set of people from different backgrounds and new ways of doing things. At 53, I look back on those three years as being the most character-forming years of my life, so I am incredibly grateful to Hull University and the Drama Department.
In Hull, I shared a room with the god-daughter of the writer Doris Lessing. Doris always had young people living in her ground-floor flat in West Hampstead to help look after her and her cats. I rang my friend after leaving Hull and asked to sleep on her floor for the weekend. Eleven years later I moved out of Doris’s flat!
It was an amazing time because it allowed me to experiment with lots of different jobs without having to pay rent. So, I looked after Doris and her cats and I worked in theatre, TV, film, radio, the record industry and in marketing and PR. The stability of having my house with Doris just made all the difference and I met the most extraordinary people. Salman Rushdie was a big friend of hers and I used to make cups of tea for him and his security detail. It was an incredible environment. However, I’d had two years of recurring dreams about dry-stone walls and concluded it was time to leave London and get back to the north. I was working on Highway – the ITV show with Harry Secombe and owned by Tyne Tees TV. It introduced me to the North East and Northumberland. I didn’t have anything to go to but immediately started working one day a week for the Newcastle Initiative.
I then started a consultancy called Joined up North, which focused on place-making and policy, and I also ran Brinkburn Music Festival for 15 years.
When I moved to York, I gave up my business because I was getting married and wanted to spend time helping my husband Ian [Jane married Sir Ian Gibson in 2010]. I didn’t know anybody in York when I arrived but I was asked to chair the York Mystery Plays 2012, which introduced me to lots of people. I was then asked to be the chair of Visit York and helped set up Make It York, which incorporates tourism, city-centre management, business development and culture.
My work has always been about strategic placing of culture. While my heart might beat as a Drama student, I know you have to wrap it up in economic strategy to get it placed. There are very strong arguments for why more rounded, fulfilled and confident human beings make better economic sense, but, when it comes to doling out the money, the cultural sector has always been asked for more evidence. Evidence gives culture and creativity a legitimacy to be at every main table.
As Vice Chair of Spirit of 2012, the London 2012 legacy charity, and also Chair of its Programme Impact and Evaluation Committee, I have been working with Professor Franco Bianchini at the University’s Culture, Place and Policy Institute. Sophisticated research like his is hugely important for the sector. Spirit of 2012 is supporting Hull UK City of Culture through funding, and part of that involves evaluating the impact on the city. Professor Bianchini and his team are leading that work, and Spirit sits on the Hull 2017 Monitoring and Evaluation Steering Group alongside them. At Spirit, we are interested in understanding the impact of Hull 2017 on wellbeing, promoting inclusive access and increasing social cohesion. There are a wide range of audiences who are also interested in the outcomes of investing in culture – from policy makers, to charitable trusts, to international researchers – so it will be really exciting to see what they discover.
It also means I get to spend a lot of time in Hull. I can’t tell you how moving it was to be in Hull on the night of 1 January when it kicked off. We are supporting the volunteering and community elements of the arts programme and are concerned with long-term legacy and how Hull can still benefit from culture 10 years, 20 years or 30 years later. Hull gets under your skin and it’s just so wonderful to be associated with this year of celebration. I was recently back on campus for a careers event. There was a particularly poignant moment going to the fifth floor of the library. Just standing where the Drama books were, I was 18 again. That moment concertinaed my 32 years since I graduated and I remembered how important those three years were in the making of me.