Louise Emerson explains how she ended up as CEO of Cheltenham Festivals, after beginning her career designing broadband amplifiers.

Photo of Louise Emerson

Looking back over my career for this piece, it’s clear that I have had an unusual mix of roles in science and arts and culture over the years, which I have really enjoyed. I think it’s a shame the two are more usually seen as so separate. At school it was not possible to mix formal study in the arts and science because the timetables did not work! So I chose the sciences formally whilst acting and singing in my spare time. The arts have always been a huge part of my personal life, from performing in choirs and orchestras, to promoting a band at one stage and doing an enormous amount of acting over the years.

Engineering, sales & consultancy (to 1996)

My first degree was in Electronic & Electrical Engineering, and my first job was designing high-frequency, low-noise broadband amplifiers for Marconi (not a topic often covered in ArtsProfessional). However, design and development meant never seeing the customer and I quickly wanted to see more – who was buying the amplifiers and what were they being used for? So I moved into the sales and marketing team of a competitor. As the only female in the team, at a time when there were even fewer women engineers, I had to work doubly hard to get the larger accounts, but it was my first experience of how thrilling it is to grow sales and build relationships.

Wanting to expand my horizons outside what is a highly specialised field, I decided to take a year out to undertake an MBA, which I hoped would open up a whole new set of possibilities. I got a distinction in my MBA and went into consultancy, working with small to medium sized businesses in manufacturing, service industries and engineering to grow their businesses.

Director, Crescent Arts Centre (1996 – 2000)

Throughout this time, I had continued to act and compete in theatrical competitions across Ireland. Although over the years I had toyed with the idea of ‘starting again’ in the arts, I always thought it would be too difficult. A turning point came when I took two weeks off work to do a small tour of a play. My little break from work convinced me to make a change and so when the chance to be Director of the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast came up, I was very pleased to take a new route.

The arts centre was in deficit, so all my business skills were needed, but alongside this the work was vibrant and fun and all-encompassing. I had never worked before with people who put so much of themselves into their work and cared so passionately about it. This is why I have so much respect for those who work in and make art. I also found out how creative you need to be when you have only a shoestring! I secured sponsorship from large corporates like Barings and Sainsbury’s, and with financial stability came a change to the reputation of the Crescent Arts Centre across the city. My best memory is establishing and building the Literary Festival in Belfast, with a great bunch of supporters and Belfast writers and playwrights.

Managing Director, London Calling (2000 – 2003)

My next role was at London Calling, a very vibrant and excellent arts marketing company, working across all genres. I was new to London and so this job gave me a great introduction to the cultural landscape. I got to know every orchestra, venue, all the theatre productions and every theatre company in the capital. My job was to take the business to the next stage of development and we more than doubled turnover.

Head of Business & Commercial Strategy, Natural History Museum (2004 – 2014)

I was headhunted for this role at the Natural History Museum. During my time there, commercial income growth tripled and we remodelled all of the shops and cafes. I was responsible for publishing, catering, retail, touring exhibitions worldwide, developing Wildlife Photographer of the Year into a global brand, corporate events and negotiating filming rights. I was very fortunate to have such wonderful assets and a group of enthusiastic people to work with at the Museum. 

CEO, Cheltenham Festivals (from 2014)

I became CEO of Cheltenham Festivals in November last year. I believe Cheltenham Festivals has a great opportunity just now to be very ambitious, as we plan where we want to be in the next five years.

The work we all do contributes so much to the enjoyment and richness of life, and gives us an opportunity to look at the world in a different way; nothing beats watching an audience escaping everyday life for a short time, and leaving inspired and invigorated.

Louise Emerson is CEO of Cheltenham Festivals.

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Photo of Louise Emerson