The Executive Director at Mind the Gap, Julia Skelton, talks to Bethan Andrews about arts for all, New Year Honours and why Yorkshire is a hotbed for creativity
You’ve long been dedicated to the arts sector in Yorkshire, but tell us where it all started?
Well, quite a lot of my working journey in the arts has been at Mind the Gap, as I’ve been there since 1997! I’ve always worked in the arts sector, working for Harrogate Theatre before this. I studied in Sheffield and then moved to Harrogate for the job there as marketing manager in 1994, so I’ve lived and worked in Yorkshire for all of my adult life. My degree was in communication studies, but I’d always had an interest in the arts and had always been involved in stage productions – on stage is firmly in my past, though, I have to say!
Tell us about your work with Mind the Gap and how it all came about…
We’re always trying to plug that gap in the arts sector, creating and delivering work with artists with a disability or autism at the heart of everything we do, so all the creative processes are delivered with integrated groups of learning disabled and non-learning disabled people. We’ve always been about developing and looking for ways to support opportunities for people as artists, as well as audiences. I’m really interested in social change, and supporting and working towards better equality for people with learning disabilities. We’ve made amazing progress as a company, from being in the back office of a terraced house in Bradford to having our own space with three studio spaces, but there’s always another initiative that we want to pursue and always something to do.
What makes you most proud of your work with Mind the Gap?
The thing that makes me most proud is that we have successfully delivered high-quality and large-scale work that has really created exposure for incredibly talented people with a learning disability, which is an opportunity they might not have usually had. I see my role as putting other people in the limelight.
Do you think the arts sector in Yorkshire is strong?
I do, I really do. I think we have some absolutely fantastic cultural and creative organisations, particularly in Bradford with the Bradford 2025 initiative. There is some amazing work happening, which is often delivered by incredible small organisations with big hearts. I think we’ve got lots to be proud of in Yorkshire when it comes to the arts. When I’m not indoors doing arts and creative work, I’m passionate about the outdoors, nature and getting outside as much as I can. We have the best of all worlds in Yorkshire with fantastic, creative organisations, but some of the most spectacular countryside as well. Undoubtedly, these are really difficult times, so I’m mindful of how hard it can be to make the case for the arts, but I do believe that we should always keep a place for it as it creates a place for people to escape. I think we have a brilliant sector in Yorkshire and it’s about supporting and developing that, so I hope we can keep advocating for continued investment in it. I’m excited to be working in the Bradford district while such exciting changes are happening.
How did it feel to be awarded your MBE in the New Years Honours list? Was it something you saw coming?
Absolutely not! I genuinely thought it was a hoax when I got the letter! I thought somebody was having a laugh. I was initially slightly bemused how little old me could have been identified for the honour, but now I’ve had more time to reflect on it, I’m really proud that the kind of work that I do has been recognised. I hope that it does draw attention to Mind the Gap, as it’s not about me, it’s about the company and I’m just the lucky recipient of the honour, but it’s a reflection on the company. I hope it shines a spotlight on the type of work that we do, so if I can use it as a way of advocating and championing that then I’m really happy to have the opportunity.
Have you always lived in Yorkshire, and what do you love most about it?
I’ve lived in Yorkshire since I moved here for studies, so I lived in Sheffield for about 10 years and then moved to North Yorkshire, where I still live. I might never be Yorkshire born and bred, but I do consider that Yorkshire runs deeply and widely through me – it’s home and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I love the Dales and I love the fact that we have such a brilliant proximity between urban and rural settings, and we really can have the best of both worlds. You can enjoy fabulous food, drinking and socialising and then always go out and discover new rural places. I think it makes Yorkshire really unique in England, I don’t think it’s quite the same anywhere else with such fantastic countryside with culture as well, plus the coast! I live in Knaresborough and I can be at the coast in under an hour, or be enjoying fabulous shopping and eating in York, Leeds or Bradford in under 40 minutes, it’s brilliant. I love Yorkshire when the weather is a bit interesting, too, such as gloriously sunny, frosty or lovely autumnal colours, so I often wind my way through the rural routes and the villages on my way to work in Bradford.
Where are your favourite places in Yorkshire for a day out?
I love Salts Mill! I love the mix of art, retail and food, and you can have a lovely day out with a walk along the canal and into the countryside, then have some amazing lunch and see a wonderful exhibition – it’s my perfect day out. The other place I really love is discovering the emerging delights of Otley, it’s got such a lovely community and some brilliant independent restaurants and shops.
What are you most looking forward to in 2023?
It’s really the start of the Bradford District’s journey towards 2025, so that’s really exciting. For making and delivering creative work, 2025 isn’t that long in the future!