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Obituary: Sarah Weir, OBE

Sarah Weir, who has died at the age of 65, was a Fellow of Birkbeck, leading supporter of our mission, and a renowned advocate for Britain’s creative sector. She was widely known as ‘a lioness’ in the arts’ world.

Sarah credits Birkbeck for changing her life. Her first career started as a lowly gofer for Aldgate Group Brokers in London. At that time, Lloyd’s was a highly masculine workplace. Within 15 years, Sarah’s hard work and talent for communication enabled her to rise in the ranks to non-marine Managing Director – the first female in a Lloyd’s broking firm.

She was only 31 at the time and needed new challenges. For years, she had been spending a large chunk of her Lloyd’s salary on art and the theatre. She managed to persuade lecturers in the History of Art programme at Birkbeck to admit her to the course despite her lack of A-levels. It proved to be a correct decision, although a tough one for Sarah who was juggling a career in the City during the day with part-time university study in the evening. Her efforts culminated in a dissertation on the pioneer nineteenth century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, supervised by Professor Lynn Nead.

Degree in hand, Sarah immediately took a 90 per cent pay cut and switched careers to arts management. What followed can only be described as a stellar career, including serving as Head of Development at the Royal Academy of Arts where she raised unprecedented sponsorship from Ernst and Young for the 1999 ‘Monet in the Twentieth Century’ exhibition, one of the most popular exhibitions of twentieth century art in London. She was appointed Executive Director of Arts Council England, responsible for overseeing delivery of all public funding of arts in London. From 2008 until the 2012 Olympics, Sarah was Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy at the Olympic Delivery Authority, overseeing the integration of art into the Olympic Park. Her work culminated in over 40 artistic commissions. After the Olympics, Sarah founded The Legacy List (now, Foundation for Future London), the charity which encourages creative connections between people and the Olympic Park, with a focus on arts and culture, education, and skills. Most recently, Sarah worked as CEO for The Design Council. She was well-known for her mentoring schemes and active support for minoritised groups. For her services to the arts, she was awarded an OBE in 2011; for her services to multiple communities, she was awarded a CBI First Woman Award for Public Service in 2013 and, in honour of her advocacy of life-long learning, was made a Fellow of Birkbeck in 2013 and awarded an Honorary Doctorate for services to design from University of the Arts, London in 2019. Sarah’s experience at Birkbeck made her an advocate for lifelong learning. She believed that ‘To work in our future economy we will need to be adaptable. Agile. Creative. Emotionally intelligent. And critical in our thinking.’

In March 2020, Sarah Weir was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In March 2023, her body started rejecting the transplanted lung and she died on 19 December 2023. Sarah was a ‘larger-than-life’ character. She was celebrated for her dinner parties, bold jewellery, and enjoyment of the arts. For thirty years, she shared her life with Birkbeck historian Dr Louise Hide.