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.…