How Tusa's strategic pragmatism saved the arts

To read John Tusa’s new autobiography, Making a Noise, especially chapter 12, you’d think he saved the arts in this country. He probably did; he certainly saved the Barbican Centre, destined to become a conference centre if factions in its owner the Corporation of London had had their way, we learn here.

It is good to have endorsed the stories we, as arts journalists, were writing at the time, 1995 onwards, that tended to be confirmed by the absence of denial, but the Tusa testimony shows the extent of the malign disease that was assailing the Barbican and the arts in general. Without what he, and the team he built around him, did in that brutalist concrete bunker in the 90s, the creative industries that now lead the UK’s economic revival would almost certainly not have happened.

He was a bull in the subsidised arts’ china shop, but a bull with twinkle toes. He found himself in an alien environment and revelled in it, is still revelling. He is a journalist and editor, not an art apparatchik, and he brought his instincts for getting to the story and cutting away the crap in order to tell it truthfully, but with charm. He found a culture realm bereft of conversation, of partnership and of the creativity of risk, and he invested it with them all. “The arts could not work if management was a mess” he writes, and he was the first to coin the phrase “strategic pragmatism” to describe his approach.

Tusa was the BBC man, the Newsnight front man, the One O’Clock News anchor, the World Service chief. But he led a double life, he says, as a nocturnal lover of the arts, a frequenter of the Barbican, and he was surprised to read in The Times early in 1995 that its managing director had resigned. Still as vigorous as ever in his late fifties, he wondered if it might be a job for him. He asked around. He was encouraged, applied, and after a series of lunches and dinners – that was how it worked then – was appointed. “I should have recognised a can of worms when I saw one”.

He found that his predecessor had effectively been defenestrated by the resident arts organisations, the LSO and the RSC, with the collusion of some of her staff. He found in-fighting among the senior managers and needed to get the corporation’s permission to get rid of the trouble-makers. He found resident companies that were not concerned with the wider well-being of their arts centre, only in their own interests. He found an arts centre with little art in it besieged within a culture-free City that was indifferent to it, an unloved post-modern building difficult to get to and even harder to navigate. He found an Arts Council hostile to the Barbican because it was owned by a local authority, and a new-post arts director already installed who had made it a condition of his taking the job that he would approve of the new MD. Fortunately it turned out to be Graham Sheffield, with whom Tusa had an extraordinarily fruitful relationship for the next 12 years. Even the corporation couldn’t help itself from reverting to type. When in 1999 Tusa wrote a book of essays on the state of the arts, Art Matters, which he launched at the Barbican, the corp combed it for complimentary mentions of itself, found there were not enough and ordered him to repay half the cost of the book launch.

Within two years the troublesome RSC had decided to leave the Barbican, something he admits to not having handled well but a catastrophe that was turned into an opportunity when Sheffield and Louise Jeffreys, the drama head, created BITE – Barbican International Theatre Event – which over a decade brought an extraordinary new dimension of theatre to the UK with the likes of Robert Lepage and Yukio Ninagawa. The music head, Robert Van Leer, brought contemporary music to balance the LSO input, and almost suddenly the Barbican was bristling with art, and consequently with new audiences.

He knew the building needed a serious remaking if it was ever to work, and predictably the Arts Council turned him down for lottery funding. So with the corp he went ahead anyway, gradually and to the tune of £35m, including upgraded theatre and concert hall, film theatres and a new art gallery and well as a sensibly navigable recast geography. He instituted an outreach policy which was initially stymied by the opposition of his residents, but it began the partnerships with the likes of Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House, not to mention a whole family of associate artists and companies, that now makes the Barbican the truly international arts centre it is.

He left when the Barbican celebrated its 25th birthday. From being a “stroppy and gawky teenager” the place had “become a confident, outward-looking adult with links around the world with its artistic peers, mature relationships with its closest domestic partners”. And that describes the arts in the UK now, a collective of practitioners of strategic pragmatism.

Making a Noise, Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong in Life, the Arts and Broadcasting, by John Tusa, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25

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