Culture& Interview with Svetlana Leu – Culture& Vice-Chair of Trustees

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Svetlana is a cultural strategy and communications specialist with a passion for diversity and representation in the arts. Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, she is an art historian by training, having graduated with first class honours from the University of York in 2016. She has worked at the Princeton University Art Museum, USA, and the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago. Svetlana currently works in the London office at Sutton Communications, a global company which works with leading institutions across the art world and the sector. Svetlana sits on the advisory board for Mimosa House and is a Champion for the Young Trustees Movement. Svetlana is also a member of Museum Detox and the UK Black Comms Network.

What are your thoughts and hopes as we enter a third year of living with COVID-19?

The arts sector has proven to be as resilient as ever following a challenging two years of living with COVID-19. We have seen organisations show great creativity and fortitude and I hope that year three brings us more stability and revitalisation, with organisations coming back better and stronger than before the pandemic hit. Since museums and galleries reopened last May, it’s been refreshing to see people back in these spaces and enjoying art. It’s also been great to see organisations hiring again – a promising sign that things are improving and that the sector is bouncing back. As we enter year three, I hope that the sector is able to fully recover so that it can continue its work of fostering creativity, supporting wellbeing, bringing communities together and enriching society.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing an arts and heritage career?

The first piece of advice I would give is to build your network as early as possible when starting your career in arts and heritage. Having strong allies in senior positions in the organisation you’re working in, as well as externally, will help you to get your foot in the door and progress. Naturally this is easier said than done. As a first step, I would suggest sending cold emails to people you would like to be in touch with. They may not always reply but sometimes they do and when they do, they are often willing to offer their time to have a chat. One cold email I decided to send helped me to secure a mentor, so it is definitely worth a shot.

That leads me to my second piece of advice which is finding a mentor. This is quite useful especially when first starting out and you’re finding your feet in the arts. Mentors are helpful as they can be objective allies with whom you are able to discuss problems or aspirations with and even bounce ideas off of. There are often ways you might be able to help them too so that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Having a mentor is also a great way to build your network as they may be able to introduce you to other people in the industry.

My third piece of advice would be to develop yourself where you can. This could mean signing up for a free online course, attending a webinar or becoming a member at an arts organisation so that you can network and meet new people. Being open to developing yourself is a key skill that will allow you to grow and progress in the sector.

What was your path into the Arts and Heritage Sector?

My path into the sector grew from a love of historic architecture. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and I spent many of my younger years admiring the architecture that had been built by our forefathers. At first, I did have thoughts of becoming an architect, but in the end, I decided to pursue a degree in History of Art, which I studied here in the UK at the University of York. During the summer before my final year of university, I had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Princeton University Art Museum. After graduation, I secured an internship at Sutton Communications, where I am still working and have been able to progress to my current role of Senior Account Manager at the company.

What are your thoughts on the Culture& Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK heritage sector? Which point do you think is most crucial to effecting change in the arts in 2022?

I had the incredible chance to work on the Charter with Culture&’s CEO Dr. Francis, so I can definitely say it is such a vital resource to encourage and motivate the sector to go beyond their words of support and to put those into action. The point about ensuring that there is representation at all levels of institutions, I think is the most important for me. I believe we aren’t going to see the institutional change that we’re looking for if we don’t have representation at every level of organisations within the arts and culture sector.

By representation I don’t mean one person of colour in a senior leadership position. We need more than one seat at the table; half of the table needs to be diverse in order to achieve the change that we want to see. If half of the key decision-makers at institutions across the UK were diverse, all the other points in the Charter would be much easier to apply and rolled out. This would all come naturally because if there were people at the top who were filtering down their varied lived experiences, this would be reflected in strategies, policies and programming. Representation is needed not only within the teams of organisations but also within their board of trustees. Boards play a vital role in how organisations operate, and they should reflect the diversity of the UK’s population.

We have been living through challenging times, as we continue to navigate life in the age of coronavirus. How have you managed these difficulties in your daily life?

It has definitely been quite a challenging time for me because my family doesn’t live in the UK. It’s been quite difficult, being apart from them. I’ve had to make an extra effort to stay upbeat, especially during the winter months. I went for lots of long walks and had outdoor coffees with friends who lived in my neighbourhood. I also started reading more as a distraction from the news cycle. Overall, I have tried to manage the situation as best as possible and in December I was finally able to see my family again which was lovely!

In your opinion, what is the best exhibition you saw during 2021, and which exhibition are you most looking forward to in 2022?

Despite the lockdown at the beginning of the year, 2021 ended up being filled with some great art. It’s hard to choose just one exhibition but I do have some favourite shows and works that I really enjoyed including James Barnor at Serpentine, Kara Walker at Kunstmuseum Basel, Lubaina Himid at Tate, Sondra Perry at Fondation Beyeler which was commissioned by Muse, the Rolls-Royce Art Programme and Julian Knxx’s Black Corporeal at LUXX. It was also great to be able to experience art in real life again at art fairs. It was my first time at Art Basel in Basel last year and it was great to have Frieze and 1-54 Contemporary African Art back in London.

This year is looking like another year filled with exciting shows and I’m very much looking forward to Africa Fashion at the V&A, Raphael at the National Gallery and the Venice Biennale including Alberta Whittle’s, Simone Leigh’s, and Sonia Boyce’s presentations for Scotland, the USA and the UK respectively. I also hope to make it to the US in December for Art Basel Miami Beach!

What is your proudest achievement so far in your career? 

I’ve had some great achievements to date but my proudest is being appointed Vice Chair of the board of trustees at Culture&. It is an honour to have the opportunity to lead an arts organisation at a senior level at such a young age. I don’t know of many others who have had this kind of opportunity in the arts, so I am very grateful to be trusted with this role. It’s also a real pleasure to be working with and learning from our new Chair Miranda Lowe who is an experienced leader in the sector. I look forward to all that we will achieve together during the next three years.

In addition to being Vice Chair of the Culture& Board, you are Senior Account Manager at Sutton Communications, and an Advisory Board Member at Mimosa House. Tell us about these organisations and if they have any exciting projects in the New Year?

At Sutton Communications, I work with a number of clients and one that I’m particularly proud of is Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It is the largest sculpture park of its kind in Europe, their Founding Director Peter Murray CBE has just been awarded a Knighthood by Her Majesty The Queen and they have announced that Clare Lilley will be their new Director when Peter retires – lots of exciting news for them this year! With over 100 sculptures on view outdoors, it’s such a great place for a day out. This spring they’ll be opening new shows by British artist David Nash and the first UK exhibition of sculpture by the late American artist Robert Indiana.

At Mimosa House, I’m excited that we’ve opened our new space in Holborn last year. It’s great to be neighbours with major institutions nearby, such as the British Museum and Somerset House down the road. Their latest exhibition Cosmic Mothers recently closed and was a huge hit. I’m looking forward to their 2022 programme – watch this space for more!

Image: Svetlana Leu