Photo Credit - Ellie Dailey

Hearts for the Arts 2022 Shortlist – Michelle Walker

Southwark Council's Michelle Walker has been shortlisted for Best Arts Champion - Local Authority or Cultural Trust Worker in the 2022 Hearts for the Arts Awards

Michelle Walker is Southwark Council’s Culture and Events Manager. Michelle oversees a really busy and innovative service whose responsibilities include: liaison with Southwark’s cultural and creative sector, events, films, and public art; location filming; development of a creative district to support business enterprise in the arts, and community support and development.

Michelle champions Southwark’s Cultural partnerships, bringing together leaders of key organisations and providing them with direct contact with lead politicians, and enabling peer networking. Organisations Michelle work with include: South London Gallery, The Globe, Tate, Theatre Peckham, Old Vic, Young Vic and Southwark Playhouse, Mountview and Central School of Ballet. Alongside this impressive list, Michelle is equally committed to grass roots and community arts organisations, whilst also working closely with Council colleagues to maximise opportunities to embed arts organisations in the built environment, often starting with securing meanwhile opportunities, which she then nurtures into a state of permanency.

Michelle has a committed passion for making the arts and creative sectors more inclusive and representative of the diverse communities who live in the inner city borough. In 2020, following a substantial listening exercise, the Council developed programmes to address inequality: “Southwark Stands Together”. Michelle is at the forefront of this programme, sensitively reaching out to communities, and challenging existing norms to create inspiring programmes including: leading debate on a new Black Cultural Centre; an R&D grants programme to support artists from Black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities; re-calibrating the borough’s grants support programme for cultural institutions and events, to ensure a more inclusive approach to grant giving; a major consultation on Southwark’s public art policy, linked to discussions about inequality in the public realm; a programme to diversify cultural organisations boards by training volunteers from diverse backgrounds and matching them with arts organisations.

Michelle and her small team worked tirelessly to support Southwark’s arts organisations during the pandemic. The support included: successfully advocating for the maintenance of full payment of Southwark Culture Grants; securing reduced fees for event organisers in recognition of reduced ticket income due to audience capacity restrictions; securing agreement for reduced fee income from filming activity to support the film industry; liaising with the GLA’s Culture At Risk team and spoke to 40+ Southwark organisations whose survival was under threat; brokering conversations with the local economy and business rates teams to resolve issues around grant eligibility; and supporting emergency grant application assessments. The Southwark arts sector benefitted from £23 million+ pandemic grant funding and £8m in repayable loans.

More recently, as the nation tries to look towards post-pandemic recovery, Michelle is currently championing the Council’s Cultural Recovery Plan which includes: a refresh of the Creative Network; the relaunch of the Culture Grants scheme – more inclusive, providing opportunities to fund a wider number and range of organisations; Southwark Stands Together Artist R&D grants; the creation of a discounted ‘very small event’ category to make events permits more affordable to grass roots organisations.

What the judges said:

“Just wow! I wish every borough could have a Michelle! A brilliantly effective advocate for the arts, it now appears that every possible stakeholder in Southwark is aware of the amazing power of the arts to help heal divides, improve wellbeing and drive regeneration. Her leadership of Southwark Council’s ‘Southwark Stands Together’ campaign is testament to not just her commitment to serving her community, and ability to do so, but also the respect in which she is held by so many community leaders.” 

“Michelle’s talents and passion is so very clear, demonstrating not only how she is valued by those she works with but also the noticeable impact she has had on the community. She has an obvious drive for equality and diversity in the arts and Southwark, and an emphasis on the broader impact that art and culture can have to the public. Michelle has a very impressive record and should be proud of her achievements.”