Work based learning

Virginia Tandy: giving back

by Kim Evans

Virginia Tandy OBE, is Director of Culture for Manchester City Council.  She co founded the Women Leaders in Museums Network which went on to receive support from the CLP in 2007, helping them to scale up and to provide more robust support. Virginia is proud of its impact and pleased that there are now more female role models at the top of the museums and galleries sector.  Like many senior figures in the creative and cultural sector, Virginia describes limited access to leadership training in the early and mid-stages of her career. More recently, she has attended many of CLP’s Beyond the CEO events, and explains how vital opportunities for refreshment are for established leaders to support them in keeping a sense of themselves and avoiding burn out.

Virginia Tandy OBE is Director of Culture for Manchester City Council.  She has a wealth of experience in cultural development in the North West of England and more widely. She has worked in local authorities, the charitable sector and in the North West office of the Arts Council.  As Director of Manchester City Galleries, she oversaw a major expansion and refurbishment of Manchester Art Gallery.  Her non-executive roles include being a Trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund and a member of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Advisory Board.

Like many senior figures in the creative and cultural sector, Virginia had limited access to leadership training in the early and mid-stages of her career and had to make her own development opportunities.  ‘I didn’t have any role models that I could identify with and there were very few networks where I could find people like me.’  She was determined to help ensure that the next generation had more opportunities and that there were support networks for those already in senior positions.  With support from the Cultural Leadership Programme, she headed a national network for women leaders in museums.  Over three years, the network has had a significant impact and is now self-sustaining.

Virginia began her career as a museums officer in a local authority.  When she was 26 she went on a Council management course and thought, ‘this is interesting, you can take responsibility for your own development’.  She’s done that pretty much ever since.  Like many women of her generation she’s had to create her own development opportunities.

She was progressing through the museums and galleries sector when the attraction of looking at the bigger picture and influencing arts policy took her to the Arts Council where she became Head of Visual Arts in its North West office.  It was there she did the Open University’s Effective Managers’ course.  ‘I thought it would give me loads of answers.  But no, it taught me to spot problems and find solutions.’

Like many women, she was juggling a complicated job and bringing up a child.  Having a husband who was an artist was hugely important as it gave her more flexibility.  She says that this allowed her to be ‘a bit reckless’ about the jobs she’s gone for.  In 1994, she made an adventurous move when she took over as Director of Cornerhouse, Manchester’s international centre for contemporary visual arts and film.  The organisation was about to face some significant financial challenges.  However, she succeeded in leading it through an exciting period of capital expansion and new partnerships.  This gave her skills that stood her in good stead when she applied ‘as a rank outsider’ for the role of Director at Manchester City Art Galleries. She got the job and later moved on to become Director of Culture in Manchester City Council.

Virginia had not worked in local government since 1984.  In the intervening years, she had been in a mainly female environment both in Cornerhouse and at the Arts Council.  Now she had a Chief Officer’s job and she was amazed at finding herself in such a male environment – ‘and at how much football there was!’ Not long after joining Manchester City Council, she went on the Top Managers’ Programme, which focused on self-awareness and building a self-development plan. The course became one of the models for the Clore Leadership Programme. 

It was good but I didn’t find many people like me on it.  There were lots of Chief Fire Officers and Chief Executives of smaller authorities.  I realised I needed to recognise the fact that I was different and find a way of influencing without frightening the horses.  And I realised that if I was feeling like this, other women would be feeling like it too.

Virginia wanted to re-connect with the museums sector, so in 2004 she contacted, Diane Lees who at the time was running the Museum of Childhood in London (she is now Director General of the Imperial War Museum). Together they formed the Women Leaders in Museums Network. The network started with just six people.  Eighteen months later, when the Cultural Leadership Programme was set up they were encouraged to apply for funding. 

The support we got from the Cultural Leadership Programme in 2007 allowed us to get to 24 members and provide proper facilitation and support.  For nine months we met every six weeks.  It was very intensive.  We tried to recruit every senior woman in each of the nationals and every female director of a hub museum of gallery.  Nick Serota called us the coven of witches - he was joking, I hasten to add.  But I thought, good, we’ve been noticed!

Some of the women who joined were less comfortable with the women-only aspect of the network, something that Virginia sees as a generational divide.  But everyone who joined has stuck with the network.  ‘It has been really fun and really powerful.  It has forged new connections between the regional and national organisations.  There is a real sense of camaraderie and support.  The next step will be to get people to set up their own networks.’

The Women Leaders in Museums Network is now headed by Janet Vitmayer, Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London.  The aim of the group is to be an influential leadership network, which works within and beyond the cultural sector to develop and inspire organisations and women.  The network’s three broad aims are advocacy, development and sustainability.  It has staged one-day events and some residential sessions to provide time for reflection and evaluation.

Virginia is proud of the impact that the Women Leaders in Museums Network is having and of the commitment of its members and its current Chair, Janet Vitmayer, to ensure that it continues.  She is particularly pleased to see there are now more female role models for women at the top of the museums and galleries sector: Diane Lees at the Imperial War Museum, Janice Murray at the National Army Museum and Kathleen Soriano at the Royal Academy, for example. 

I am delighted and a bit envious when I see the development opportunities available to the current generation of emerging and mid-career leaders.  I hope that continues. 

I’m enjoying the benefits of leadership development now, rather late in my career.  You don’t stop learning how to do it.  I’ve been to a lot of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Beyond the CEO events.  There still aren’t enough networks for senior leaders.  We really need opportunities for refreshment, support in keeping a sense of ourselves and avoiding burn out.  I’m doing a coaching course at the moment with other senior managers in the City Council to improve my skills.  It’s a way of giving something back but is also an opportunity to reflect on and develop my own practice.

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