Sarah Weir OBE
Chief Executive, Waddesdon Manor
Sarah Weir left school at 16 and describes herself as ‘uneducated, uninspired and unnoticed’ at that time. She began her working life as a gofer for Aldgate Group Brokers, making her way up over 15 years to become its Managing Director and the first female MD in a Lloyd’s broking firm. However, having got to the top she felt a sense of anti-climax and lack of complete fulfilment. She then started a part-time degree at Birkbeck, aged 31, left her City insurance career a year into this and changed direction completely into the arts world.
While studying for her History of Art BA she took a job at the Purdy Hicks Gallery, moving to Arts and Business as Deputy Chief Executive, before joining the Royal Academy of Arts as its fundraising director. She then became Executive Director of the Almeida Theatre and by 2003 was running Arts Council England, London. Between 2008 and 2011 she was Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy for the Olympic Delivery Authority, developing over 40 permanent artistic commissions integrated into the Olympic Park.
From there, Sarah went on to found The Legacy List, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park charity. This was set up in 2011 to encourage creative connections between people and the park, with a focus on arts and culture, education and skills. In autumn 2013 Sarah moved on to take up the role of Chief Executive at Waddesdon Manor. Built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild as a private home and showcase for his extraordinary collection of decorative arts, the Manor was gifted in 1957 to the National Trust but remains under the stewardship of Lord Rothschild and his family.
Sarah was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in the January 2012 New Year Honours.
‘The thing I am most proud of is having got my degree,’ she says. ‘Birkbeck gave me confidence; it made me believe I had an intellectual ability that I didn’t think I had, and helped me to understand a much broader way of learning. It taught me to think laterally, to question facts and increased my innate curiosity in life. I have used all of those skills in my professional life ever since.
‘Birkbeck is distinctive because it has no one template. Its students can come from so many different experiences and are all ages, which I don’t think you get in the same way anywhere else. When you are teaching mature students from all walks of life, you need to be more sophisticated in your teaching. The standard of both research and teaching was incredible, and that is what makes Birkbeck unique.
‘To be invited to be a Fellow of Birkbeck is both a completely unexpected surprise as well as an extraordinary honour. It is just wonderful. It almost means more to me than my OBE!’ she adds. ‘I’m not sure I know what being a Fellow will entail, but I look forward to finding out.
‘In the current climate I think choosing to study for a degree is about adding more value to your life. And I think there is an exponential difference between Birkbeck and a degree from anywhere else, here you gain more and so you want to give more. Certainly for me, Birkbeck added more than having a degree – it changed my life.’