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Bid Team and Steering Group

Bid Team

Rebecca Ball

Bid Director

Rebecca Ball was appointed Director of Sunderland 2021 in January 2016 to lead the creation of the city’s bid for UK City of Culture. Prior to that she was Director of The Cultural Spring, Sunderland and South Tyneside’s Creative People and Places programme which commissioned, developed and produced a number of award winning arts projects.

Rebecca has worked for a number of performing arts companies across the UK, including The Place in London, South East Dance, and North East-based theatre company ZENDEH. She worked at Arts Council England in a number of roles, becoming Director of Arts for the South East in 2010, where she led on the development of the region’s Cultural Olympiad programmes.

She has an MA in European Cultural Policy from the University of Warwick, and is a Fellow of the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme through which she spent time at National Theatre Wales and with Ambassador Theatre Group.


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Kristian Foreman

Media & Communications Manager

Kristian Foreman is currently working as Media & Communications Coordinator, developing the public campaign for Sunderland’s bid to be UK City of Culture 2021.

His role includes developing the bids marketing campaigns, fostering relationships with media partners, developing and managing the website and social media platforms, and producing Sunderland 2021 short films. He was a key member of the team responsible for the programming and delivery of the Sunderland City of Culture 2021 Launch Event in September 2015. In addition, Kristian works as part of the MAC Trust team on events including Wonderlands – The UK Graphic Novel Expo, Sunderland Shorts: Film Festival and Sunderland Literature & Creative Writing Festival.

Before starting at the MAC Trust in 2015, Kristian provided marketing, fundraising and project planning support  for international youth organisation Act Global. In 2014 he completed an internship at former US President Jimmy Carter’s non-profit organisation The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia where he assisted in the curation of over 1400 works of art from all over the world. He has BA in English Literature from Northumbria University, and is a member of U.S. Embassy’s program Young Leaders UK.

Twitter: @KristianForeman

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Richard Callaghan

Research & Data Associate

Richard Callaghan is currently working as Research & Data Associate at Sunderland 2021, developing the research strategy which will help to form the framework for the city’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2021.

He is working with organisations and stakeholders throughout the city to develop the narrative surrounding the bid, exploring data on key impacts, themes and outcomes to ensure that Sunderland’s bid is reflective of both the city’s position and its potential. Richard was part of the team which delivered the launch event for the city’s bid in September 2015. In addition, Richard works as part of the MAC Trust team on events including Wonderlands – The UK Graphic Novel Expo and Sunderland Soundscape.

Born in Durham, Richard has been a Sunderland fan all of his life, and has long had a strong affinity to the city. Richard studied Philosophy at Glasgow University between 2005-2009, and gained an MA in Philosophy from Birmingham University in 2010. In 2011, Richard was one of the authors of My Sunderland, a family history of the city, which was donated to every child leaving primary school in that year. Richard has authored or co-authored over thirty other books, including a history of Sunderland AFC. In 2014, Richard completed the Graduate Diploma in Law at Northumbria University.

After joining the MAC Trust in 2014, Richard was one of the authors of the successful first round bid to Arts Council England for funding for the proposed MAC Quarter auditorium.

Twitter: @SunderlandMAC

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Hannah Matterson

Events & Development Coordinator

Hannah joined Sunderland MAC Trust in 2015 as their Events and Development Coordinator, and has since taken on the same role within the Sunderland 2021 City of Culture bid team. As well as managing bid events, Hannah works with businesses and other organisations or individuals to gain support for the City of Culture bid and to develop partnerships across the city and North East region. She has a range of experience fundraising and delivering cultural events in both Sunderland and the wider region and attended the National Arts Fundraising School.

After graduating from Northumbria University with a 1st class degree in Geography, Hannah spent two years at The Bunker in Sunderland, creating and delivering music projects to the community with partners including Age UK, Young Carers, YMCA and Centre Point, as well as fundraising to support both The Bunker and Pop Recs Ltd . She was part of the team which ran the Urban Games 2012 in Newcastle, which was part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. In 2013 Hannah founded, organised and delivered Sunderland Soundscape, a music event showcasing talent from across the North East at more than 15 diverse venues across the city. She was part of the team which delivered the inaugural Sunderland Shorts: Film Festival in 2015, and was key to the delivery of Wonderlands: the UK Graphic Novel Expo, which saw more than thirty publishers and five hundred visitors from around the region and across the country.

Twitter: @HannahMatterson

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Helen Connify

Sunderland Cultural Partnership Coordinator

Helen Connify has been Coordinator of Sunderland Cultural Partnership (SCP) since its formation in 2013. SCP is led by University of Sunderland, Sunderland City Council and MAC Trust, working with key partners to coordinate planning and deliver an ambitious vision for Sunderland’s cultural future.

She has previously been Fundraising and Development Officer at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books; Project Manager for BBC Learning in the North East and Cumbria region; Partnership Manager at BSKYB for joint venture channels, Marketing Officer at Institute for Learning and Communications and Marketing Officer at AN: The Artists’ Information Company. She is a parent governor at Columbia Grange School in Washington, an ambassador for autism awareness and loves living by the sea.

Twitter: @SunderlandCP

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Rob Lawson

Press & PR

Rob was born in Sunderland and educated at Southmoor Comprehensive School in the city. He was a working journalist for 30 years, the last ten of which were spent as Editor of the Sunderland Echo and Editorial Director at Northeast Press and Tweedale Press. He had previously been Editor of the Shields Gazette.
Since leaving the Echo in 2012, Rob has worked in PR and at the University of Sunderland where he is an academic tutor, lecturing in journalism. He is still a member of the Society of Editors and is the current Chair of Governors at Sunderland College. He also edits the city’s Vibe magazine.
Twitter: @RobLawson1
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Steering Group

Graeme Thompson

Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Sunderland

Graeme is Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sunderland responsible for external engagement (Connections and Place). He is chair of the Sunderland 2021 steering group and also chairs The Cultural Spring – part of Arts Council England’s innovative Creative People and Places project. He is chair of the Royal Television Society’s Education Committee as well as the North East and Border Annual TV and Digital Awards. Graeme is a trustee at the Customs House in South Shields and is a member of the North East Cultural Partnership – where he chairs the International Group. Born in South Shields, Graeme started his career as a Journalist working for newspapers and the BBC where he was a producer for Radio 4. He spent twenty years as an editor and executive director of ITV. He was managing director of ITV Tyne Tees until 2009 when he moved to take up the role of Dean of Arts Design and Media at the University of Sunderland.

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Paul Callaghan, CBE, DL

Chairman, Leighton Group

Paul is Chairman of the Leighton Group, the set of technology, software, media and communications businesses he founded, whose clients include British Airways, the BBC, Sony, IKEA, Nike, Levis, Sage, Panasonic and Virgin Atlantic. From its HQ at Rainton Bridge, Sunderland, it operates globally with offices in London, Washington DC, Seattle, Paris, Singapore and Sydney.

Until June 2012 Paul was Chairman of ONE North East and Chair of Chairs of all of England’s Regional Development Agencies. He is currently Chair of the Sunderland Economic Leadership Board, of the University of Sunderland, of Red House Academy, of Live Theatre and the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative. He also sits on the Boards of the Northern Education Trust, the Sunderland Cultural Partnership and Sunderland Culture Ltd.

Paul helped formed the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust in 2013 and is developing a cultural quarter in the city centre. This will include a new auditorium for music, dance and performance and the conversion of a number of Edwardian buildings for cultural and artistic use.

Born and educated in Sunderland Paul trained as a economist and has a first degree in Economics from the LSE, a Masters degree in Management and Education from Newcastle University and a further Masters degree in Finance and Economics from the University of Salford and has written several books on Business, Economics and Information.

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Shirley Atkinson

Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Sunderland

Shirley has responsibility for the executive management and oversight of the University, including delivery of its Strategic Plan, its financial sustainability, and the quality and success of its programmes and graduates. 

She is currently a board member of the City of Sunderland College, a founding trustee and Director of the South West Durham University Technical College, a member of Universities UK international policy advisory group, and innovation and growth policy network, a Director of the Sunderland Business Group, a member of the City of Sunderland Economic Leadership Board and Chair of the Education Leadership Board, and a Director of five university trading companies including the London Campus operation and companies in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Shirley is also an Executive Board member of Million Plus and a member of the Social Mobility Working Group (led by Universities UK), which has been set up by the Minister of State for Universities and Science to support the sector in improving access and outcomes for under-represented groups.

Before joining the University sector in 2008, Shirley worked in public, commercial and not for profit organisations at Board and Executive level.

She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (qualifying with honours in 1989), for whom she has delivered over 200 lectures, chaired a number of conferences, and previously held a position on their examinations board. 

She also holds an MSc in Finance, is an alumnus of Harvard Business Schools’ Global Leaders Programme and is a Fellow of the RSA.

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Irene Lucas CBE

Chief Executive, Sunderland City Council

Irene has had a wide and varied career spanning 38 years with involvement in local and national government and the private sector. She has worked within and on behalf of 105 different councils including being Chief Executive Officer of two Metropolitan Authorities in the North East of England.

In 2008 Irene was appointed for the role of Director General of Local Government and Regeneration with the Department of Communities and Local Government with responsibility for Local Government and Regeneration and the national policy development of the then 363 councils across England. She spent the last months of her Central Government career as Permanent Secretary, crossing both Labour and Coalition administration.

Irene was awarded a CBE for services for Local Government in the 2008 New Year’s Honours List. In addition to her public sector career, Irene chairs the board of Hays Travel Group – the UK’s largest independent travel agency, which has its Head Office in Sunderland. She also continues to provide advisory services to a number of private sector and public sector clients. After working in an advisory capacity to the leadership of Sunderland City Council from early 2016, Irene was appointed its Chief Executive in April.

She is passionate about food, family and football, and her personal interests include travel!

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Julie Elliott MP

Member of Parliament for Sunderland Central

Julie is the Member of Parliament for Sunderland Central. She was born in Whitburn in 1963 and has lived in and around the city her entire life. Educated at Infant and Junior schools in Whitburn Village, she went on to attend Seaham Northlea Comprehensive before gaining a degree in Government and Public Policy at Newcastle Polytechnic.

Julie was a regional organiser for the Labour Party. She was the Agent for Tynemouth in 1997 and played a central part in Labour’s historic victory that year, winning the seat for Labour for the first time since 1945.  In 1998, she went to work for the National Asthma Campaign before becoming a regional organiser for the GMB Trade Union.

Julie was elected as the MP for Sunderland Central in 2010 and re-elected in 2015. In the last Parliament, Julie served as the Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change. Currently, Julie sits on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, is Chair of the PLP Housing and Planning Committee and Chair of the Rugby Union APPG.

When not working hard for Sunderland, Julie enjoys spending time with her four adult children and four young grandchildren, walking along the constituency’s coastline and watching International Rugby Union.

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John Mowbray OBE

High Sheriff of Tyne & Wear

John retired from Northumbrian Water in August 2012 where he was Director of Corporate Affairs and he was awarded an OBE for services to the water industry and charity in June 2012.

He is currently Deputy Chairman of the University of Sunderland, Co-Chairman of the North East Cultural Partnership, a Non Executive Director/Governor/Trustee of Narrative Integrated Communications, Husband and Brown, TEDCO Business Support Limited, Sunderland MAC Trust, Sunderland Business Ltd, Sunderland BID Limited, Sunderland Culture Limited, Ryhope Engines Trust, Castle View Enterprise Academy Trust and Castle View Community and Fitness Centre Ltd.

He has always been heavily involved in the wider community including as President of the North East Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of Durham City Vision, Vice Chairman of NewcastleGateshead Initiative and a Director of Live Theatre and the Community Foundation for Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

He also chairs the Foundation of Light Development Board as well as the Percy Hedley Foundation Appeal Committee and is a member of the Northumbrian WaterAid Fundraising Committee which he previously chaired for 16 years.

He is also the High Sheriff of Tyne & Wear for 2016/17.

He lives in Sunderland and is married with two grown up children, three grandchildren and counts watching sport, reading, walking, socialising and babysitting as his interests

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Ben Phillips

General Manager, Sunderland Empire

Ben is currently General Manager of the region’s largest theatre the Sunderland Empire. He works for the Ambassador Theatre Group, who manage the Empire on behalf of Sunderland City Council.

Ben has over thirty years’ experience in theatrical and retail management at a senior level. He has worked in Communications, Marketing, Concert Management and Restaurant Management before joining the world of commercial theatre and entertainment. Prior to coming to Sunderland he was General Manager of one of the Ambassador Theatre Groups flagship venues, the Apollo Victoria, where he worked with the hugely successful Wicked.

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Padma Rao

Artistic Director, ArtsConnect

Padma Rao, Director, ArtsConnect UK and Programme manager, Sangini is an entrepreneur, artist and an arts consultant with over 15 years’ experience in strategic planning, arts management, training and development, governance, diversity as well as fundraising.  Committed to addressing inequalities in all forms, especially for women, Padma has played a key role in increasing women’s participation in the arts and give them a platform for self-expression and creativity.

Having worked for the Arts Council of England for a number of years, Padma went on to set up a social enterprise, ArtsConnect CIC with the aim to help artists develop and thrive as creative entrepreneurs as well as leaders in the cultural sector. A published poet and editor, Padma also has a background of working in the radio in India and the BBC Radio Newcastle.  Padma Rao is currently the Chair of Hindu Nari Sangh and a trustee for Sunderland BME Network.

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Stacy Hall

Managing Director, Stacy Hall Associates Ltd

Stacy Hall is a communications and marketing consultant with expertise in tourism, regeneration and economic development.

Stacy was born in Sunderland and lived in the City for more than 40 years.  She has a strong appreciation of the value of the region’s cultural heritage and how culture contributes to employment, education and business opportunities for local people.

She has extensive senior public sector and local government experience, having worked for several local authorities and development agencies.

She is also a member of the Heritage Lottery Fund North East Committee.

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Kam Chera


Kam Chera BEng Hons in Engineering & MA in Business Management.

Kam Chera is a well connected and respected business-orientated individual with entrepreneurial qualities combined with partnership development, market and commercial knowledge within both the private and public sector.

He is well known for his contribution to the hospitality sector for high quality restaurants more recently so, The Funky Indian Restaurant and Proseccobar.

Kam is also the founder of the award winning ‘Stars on Earth’ Social Enterprise, delivering hospitality training for young people with special needs which has received numerous awards and an invitation to visit Buckingham Palace earlier in 2016 in recognition for this project.

He is an active member of the north east business community in all sectors, holding a number of board memberships for professional as well as community organisations to support and promote the Asian and wider communities.

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Chris Mullin

Author, journalist and politician

Author, journalist and politician.   Member of Parliament for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010.  Chairman of the north east regional committee of the  Heritage Lottery Fund.  Books include the novel ‘A Very British Coup’ which was made into a an award winning television series and three widely acclaimed volumes of diaries.
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Dr Karen Parry

Chief Executive, Grace House

Karen is Chief Executive of Sunderland charity Grace House which supports children with complex disabilities, health needs and life limiting conditions and their families. She trained as a teacher specialising in art, music and drama but has always enjoyed working with disabled children outside the classroom more, especially on arts and sports projects. Her proudest achievement is being founder of charity Sunderland Adaptive Snowsports between 2010 and 2016, which saw over 50 physically disabled young people have the opportunity to have a week skiing in the Alps. Her PhD explored how collective art making and story writing could be used as participatory research methodology to produce a thesis that was co-authored and contained many voices and truths. She loves combing her passions for travel and endurance sports, and has recently returned from extreme mountain biking in Mongolia.

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Ellen Thinnesen

Principal and Chief Executive, City of Sunderland College

Ellen has overall responsibility for the successful delivery of the College’s strategic plan, its financial health and comprehensive academic, professional and technical portfolio. The College has 4 campuses across the Sunderland area with approximately 11,500 students; Ellen’s overall responsibility includes their academic achievement, progress and wider success.

Prior to joining Sunderland College in January 2016, Ellen worked at several other Further Education Colleges in Greater Manchester and the Yorkshire and Humber. Ellen has worked extensively in the public and private sectors (within education and health care) and has held numerous positions at Board level (including education and social housing).

Currently Ellen sits on the Sunderland Economic Leadership Board, is a board member of the University of Sunderland, in addition to a large 6th form College; Ellen also represents the Further and Higher Education College sector at national board level.

Ellen holds a Masters of Science in Educational Leadership and Management, a Post Graduate Teaching qualification, and a first degree .  Prior to working within the education sector, Ellen also graduated as a qualified Registered General Nurse and has worked in various hospitals across London and the Yorkshire and Humber.

Ellen is passionate about her family and loves experiencing different cultures on her travels.

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Lesley Spuhler OBE

Chief Executive, Foundation of Light

  • Studied informal and community education at George William’s College, London.
  • Over 15 years’ experience of specialising in areas of third sector work.
    Set up the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear YouthBank.
  • Managed a Youth Centre in Durham.
  • Development officer for the Prince’s Trust, and a youth work tutor.
  • Managed charitable giving for over 30 local companies in the North East through the Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.
  • Lesley holds office and sits on various committees and boards.
  • Awarded the OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for 2015 for services to education and the community.
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Marty Longstaff


Marty Longstaff is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter from Sunderland. Inspired by artists such as Elvis Perkins, Carole King, Villagers, Feist, Van Morrison, Fionn Regan, John Martyn, Wilco, Damien Rice, Bright Eyes, and Neil Young, Marty’s output as The Lake Poets is as haunting as it is beautiful.

Described as ‘Quietly Devastating’, ‘Accomplished and Intelligent and ‘Spellbinding and Heart-breaking, Marty’s music regularly silences audiences and turns heads. Lead single ‘Your Face’ has received over 5 million Spotify plays as well steady daytime airplay on BBC Radio 2, Radio X, and BBC 6 Music.The Lake Poets’ self-titled debut album was recorded at Blackbird Studio, Nashville and is available online, on CD, as well as on special edition double gatefold 12″ vinyl (including a bonus Live recording of the album recorded over two sold out launch nights in Marty’s hometown medieval Minster and mixed at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio)

Marty is published songwriter who as well as writing songs for other artists makes use of his fully qualified teacher status, regularly hosting creative writing and musical workshops across his home region.

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Keith Merrin

Director, National Glass Centre

Councillor John Kelly

Portfolio Holder for Public Health, Wellness and Culture

John Kelly is a Washington born councillor representing one of the poorest wards in the city of Sunderland.

John is chairman of a number of groups including Beamish open air museum and a number of sports trust. While having a passion for Heritage and sports he is keen to look at new ways of using heritage as a tool to improve people’s lives.

As a cabinet Member for Sunderland City Council he has responsibility for Public Health, Wellness and Culture for the 265, 000 residents of the city. He is also a member of the South of Tyne NHS Governing body

Married with 3 children he enjoys his work with the Washington Trust a charity set up to support the people of Washington around community and heritage.

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Jacqui Reeves

Services Manager, Washington Mind

I am Jacqui Reeves, Services Manager here at Washington Mind; I’ve worked in mental health since the early 80’s, starting out nursing with Gateshead Health Authority and then retraining as a Counsellor. Thirty something years later I feel privileged to be a part of Washington Mind’s history of providing much needed services for our local community.

The 80’s was also the time we started our family and we are now proud parents of two lovely daughters and even prouder grandparents to our gorgeous Grandson. Any spare time I get I love to spend with them and the rest of my family and friends …throw in the odd holiday preferably with sunshine and…happy days.

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Councillor Peter Wood

Leader of Conservatives on Sunderland City Council

Having lived in St. Michael’s ward, with my wife and family, for most of my life I feel I know the ward and many of its people well.  Before retirement I was a departmental head at New College, Durham.  Apart from education – I am a director of the St. Aidan’s Catholic Academy Trust and a Governor of St. Aidan’s School – my main interest is transport.  I am a member of Railfuture, a founder member of the Conservative Transport Group and chair of the board of Compass Community Transport in the city.  I am also a member of the board of “Fushia” and a trustee of the George Hudson’s charity.  Interests outside politics include travel, playing tennis, walking, watching football (I am an SAFC season card holder), theatre and cinema.  I am currently Leader of the Council’s Conservative Group of councillors.

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