20 years ago, on 10 March, Mind the Gap was fortunate enough to draw Julia Skelton away from her post of Marketing Manager at Harrogate Theatre over to the somewhat less-gentrified City of Bradford, and the complex world of Disability Arts.
Since 1997 Julia has steered the administrative, structural and financial helm of the company. Little could they have foreseen that for over 20 years (17 alongside founder and former Artistic Director Tim Wheeler) Julia would lead Mind the Gap through enormous change and growth: developing from a small back-office theatre company with 4 members of staff and core Drama Club group, to the leading, internationally respected company it is today: England’s largest learning disability theatre company.
Julia is undoubtedly one of the UK art scene’s most significant female Executive Directors, and (perhaps until now) is a rather unsung hero. It’s hard to know where to start listing successes under Julia’s lead, but perhaps one of the most noteworthy is MTG Studios – Mind the Gap’s £2.4 million development within the iconic Lister Mills in Bradford, which took 7 years of dreaming, fundraising and negotiating to realise. These purpose built, award-winning premises not only provided essential, accessible, facilities for the company to make work, but raised the profile of the company, and hugely influenced its artistic output.
Mind the Gap’s productions are increasingly multi-artform, which can be directly attributed to the theatre space, dance studio and AV facilities now at their command. Since moving into MTG Studios in 2008, Mind the Gap’s Academy has expanded from 1 course with 12 students to 5 courses with 50+ students, plus hundreds more engaged through workshop activity each year. Their recent artistic successes include significant national tours, international collaborations and European projects, as well as individual artists successes including the first actor with Down’s Syndrome on the UKs longest running soap opera ITV’s Coronation Street, and the first individual learning-disabled artists to gain Grants for the Arts funding for their own projects.
Julia is deeply passionate about driving forward the equality and respect of learning disabled artists in the UK and international arts sector, and it is this ethos of high expectation and mutual respect that is ingrained in the company and can be experienced the moment you walk through the doors of MTG Studios or see one of their productions.
Of course, Julia would say that none of this success could have been possible without the wider team at Mind the Gap. While this may well be the case, there is no doubt that Julia’s leadership has shaped and influenced each step of the way – from finding the funds for wild ideas led by artist Jez Colborne that have become some of the most iconic outputs of the company’s history (Irresistible 2010-2015, Gift 2014), through to carefully choosing the colour of the chairs in the studios and the paint on the walls!
Julia’s leadership style comes down to one core motivation: for everyone to be the best they can be – students, artists and staff alike. Good enough is simply not good enough and through continuous, subtle, pushing and challenging, Julia ensures that the good enough becomes the best it can be. It is directly through this encouragement of individual successes and the freedom to try, to fail and to fly, that the company continues to thrive.
Perhaps Julia’s second most favourite place to be, outside Mind the Gap, is on the back of a horse. Mind the Gap is certainly looking forward to another 20 successful years with Julia at the reins, and can only begin to dream about where the company may be by 2037.