In his 12 years at the Barbican, John Tusa has transformed what was an ailing institution into one of the world's best centres for high culture. The ingredients of its success, he tells Stephen Everson, have been hands-off funding, eclectic programming and an unflinching commitment to artistic qualityby Stephen Everson / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
This July, Peter Sellars’s New Crowned Hope festival opened at the Barbican centre. Among many notable events, it includes the British premieres of operas by John Adams and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances, and string quartets by Henryk Górecki and Terry Riley. It is, in other words, a serious programme of contemporary work across the art forms, and provides another reminder of just how ambitious and confident the Barbican has become. Before the festival concludes in mid-August, John Tusa, the centre’s managing director, will have departed. He leaves the place in good shape. Last September, a £35m refurbishment programme was completed, paid for by the centre’s landlord and principal funder, the City of London Corporation. The Barbican has a front entrance at last, and even its foyers now look like those of a major international arts centre. In the 12 years since they took up their posts, Tusa and his artistic director, Graham Sheffield, have turned an ailing institution into one of the world’s best. And they have done so without following the various fashions in arts policy and administration.
Tusa’s family came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1939 when he was three; his father had been sent to run the Bata shoe factory in Tilbury. His Czechness, he says, is “very vestigial.” His upbringing, indeed, was impeccably English. He was sent to prep school, then Gresham’s School, before going on to national service and then Trinity College, Cambridge to read history. “I left home at six and a half and never returned.” After graduating with a first, he worked for the BBC’s External Services (as the World Service was known) and then as a freelance journalist and broadcaster, before joining Newsnight at its inception in 1979. In 1986 he became managing director of the World Service, and in 1995 took over the running of the Barbican, then in deepest crisis.
Tusa’s predecessor, the Irish-born businesswoman Detta O’Cathain, had made no secret of her impatience with arty types and managed in her four years at the top to lose several senior managers and the confidence of the centre’s resident companies. In 1994, having become Baroness O’Cathain of the Barbican in the City of London (not perhaps the wisest choice of title), she resigned after failing to get public endorsements from the Corporation of London, the LSO or the RSC. Tusa was appointed to save the Barbican. “Morale was very low,” he says. “There was no great respect for the Barbican’s own programming—indeed, all the serious programming was done either by the LSO or the RSC. The Barbican itself had virtually no artistic profile.”
The LSO remains resident, and its concerts are a central part of the Barbican’s musical life. Alongside these is the Barbican’s own “Great Performers” series, without which access to some of the most exciting European music-making would be considerably diminished. The Barbican theatre, in contrast, is no longer the home of the RSC, which severed its connection in 2001. “When the RSC left, their audience went with them.” says Tusa. “The theatre audience is now much younger, much less middle and upper-middle class. We are not now an elite house or an exclusive one.”
Normally, the sound of an arts administrator laying claim to have widened his audience beyond the elite would signal the kind of helpful cultural openness that wants to reclaim My Fair Lady as a lost operatic masterpiece. But the Barbican’s audience has not been broadened by this kind of manoeuvring. Notably, the theatre has shown that there is an audience for foreign productions in the original languages (with English surtitles). “Somehow being in a foreign language is not a barrier for that audience, which is big enough to sustain what we do—indeed they’d regard it as inauthentic if it wasn’t in the language in which it was produced.” At a time when it is hard to maintain audiences even for films with subtitles, this is no mean achievement.
Unlike almost all other large British arts institutions, the Barbican’s main funding comes not from the Arts Council but from the City of London. This is no doubt fortunate for Tusa, though not, he insists, because the corporation’s pockets are bigger. Indeed, the Barbican now covers 45 per cent of its annual budget itself, up from 35 per cent three years ago. In 2005-06, the Barbican received £18m from its principal funder, and itself raised £14m, of which £9.3m was income from its arts activities, an increase of 15 per cent over the previous year.
The City of London offers funding without intrusion into artistic policy, and that marks a distinct contrast to the Arts Council. “Last year,” says Tusa, “two good contacts had separate conversations with the Arts Council, in the course of which the question of the Barbican and the council’s relations, or lack of relations, had come up, and each source told me that when the Barbican’s name was mentioned [Arts Council CEO] Peter Hewitt’s face changed colour—one said he went white and the other said he went puce. And one of the contacts said, ‘You must understand, the Arts Council has always been affronted by the Barbican’s existence: it didn’t matter when the Barbican was a failure, but now that it’s a success it represents a challenge to everything the Arts Council thinks it believes in.'”
Tusa’s insistence that artistic policy must be decided first and on its own terms may explain the Barbican’s success, but as his Arts Council anecdote shows, it also puts him at odds with the political culture in which the arts are to be supported for their consequences and not because they have value in themselves. Isn’t there a point at which unless you are willing to employ instrumental arguments, whatever you say will be politically unpersuasive? “I think you have to box canny—and if the questions are being put in instrumental terms, you have to answer as many of them as you can in those terms. But the golden rule is: once you start running according to certain indicators, you distort all the others. If you concentrate on the only thing that matters, which is the arts programming, and you say that you want to be international as we have done, and you then are international, the audience will sort itself out.”
Of course, this only works if those in charge of policy and programming can tell what does work artistically. In the end, aren’t taste and judgement the only requirements for an artistic administrator? “If you were to say that what you were looking for were just taste, judgement and skill, you’d probably be run out of town and told you weren’t conducting a fair and open selection policy. But in practice you recognise the person who has those qualities, and then just jump through a few hoops to get them.”
After he leaves the Barbican, Tusa will not retire from public life. He has already been appointed to become chairman of London’s University of the Arts. At the Barbican, he will be succeeded by Nicholas Kenyon, who has been in charge of the Proms since 1996. It is no secret that there was shock and no little dismay at the Barbican that the post was not given to Graham Sheffield, who has played such a key role in the centre’s success (Sheffield will stay on as artistic director, and will also take up a new arts co-ordination role at the City of London Corporation). Certainly, Kenyon’s time at the Proms has not been marked by the kind of artistic courage that has been so notable at the Barbican. When he was asked at the press conference for last year’s Proms season why a particular concert of contemporary music could not have been given a mainstream slot rather than relegated to the late evening, he seemed rather taken aback and replied: “That would have been what at the BBC we call a ‘brave decision.'” Still, it may be that cultural bravery in the current BBC would have been self-defeating, and the role of the managing director at the Barbican is not to take charge of artistic policy. With luck, Kenyon will be astute enough to realise that a softening of the centre’s artistic profile will be in no one’s interests.
The next couple of years will be interesting as we wait to see whether Kenyon at the Barbican and Jude Kelly at the South Bank can resist the temptation to let the pursuit of audiences skew their programming. This July the Barbican hosted three performances of Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, while at the reopened Royal Festival Hall we had multiple performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel—something more in keeping with the contemporary tendency to deny the boundaries between high and middlebrow culture. When the ENO put on the Asian Dub Foundation’s Gaddafi last year, it was assured of both intense media interest and a new audience; its current production of Kismet is unlikely to prove commercially disastrous either, even if it has been critically mauled (see this month’s Performance Notes).
Yet paradoxically, perhaps, the very commitment to international theatre that seems commercially so brave at the Barbican is at least likely to maintain the diversity of its audience: London is such an international city that companies from Africa, Asia and the middle east will bring in people for the first time. What is key, though, is that productions are chosen on artistic grounds and not because they will appeal unseen to arts editors or catch a new demographic. Over the last 12 years, the Barbican has become an arts centre with the confidence to do that. We can only hope that under its new managing director, it will continue to hold the line.