- Date: 20 July 2010
- Area: London
Claudia Huckle and Andrew Watts in The Duchess of Malfi by ENO and Punchdrunk. Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
This month, our new London Chair took up her post with a call to the arts to 'hold their nerve'. Veronica Wadley tells us why she wanted the job, what she hopes to achieve and highlights some of the best shows she has seen this year.
Q: Why did you want to become London Chair of the Arts Council?
A: London is the world capital of culture. We have seen off competition from New York, Paris and Berlin, thanks to huge investment in the arts over the last 20 years, first the National Lottery and then sustained government support. I want to build on that investment with fresh thinking, to support artistic excellence and innovation and to use the city's economic and creative energies to benefit the regions too.
Q: And what are your first impressions of the organisation and the role?
A: Clearly the language and processes are very different from the private sector but the need for a clear vision, combined with perseverance and close attention to detail, is much the same.
Q: What was the last performance/exhibition you saw?
A: The English National Opera (ENO) and Punchdrunk production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Staged in vast blacked out rooms of a disused warehouse in E16, each member of the audience, wearing a white mask, stumbles on opera singers and the 80 strong orchestra, at first in small groups and then gathered for the final gory frenzy in a red draped hall the size of an aircraft hangar. Richard Morrison in The Times, describes it as 'S&M sex mixed with Catholic kitsch'. An event.
Q: What have been your artistic highlights of the last year?
A: A fabulously frenetic six months, with visits to more than 100 shows. As well as seeing high profile successes such as the Royal Court's Enron and Sucker Punch, The National Theatre's Our Class and London Assurance and Almeida's Ruined. I have enjoyed many exhibitions including Ashile Gorky at Tate Modern, The New Decor (with particular interest in Mona Hatoum) and Ernesto Neto at the Hayward Gallery, Sally Mann at the Photographers' Gallery and Nothing is Forever in the welcome extension of the South London Gallery. I have seen less ballet than I would have liked and missed Hofesh Shechter but one highlight was Michael Clark's Company - which I first loved 25 years ago. I also visited small organisations and grassroots projects all around the city, with three or four particular themes in mind.
Firstly, partnerships. Larger, well established organisations, have brought excellence to local venues. So, for example, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in Stoke Newington Town Hall, thanks to the Barbican, Serious and City of London, and John Adams's earthquake opera, I Was Looking at the Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in a co-production with the Barbican. This sort of teamwork is a great way to develop new audiences.
Next, access for children, particularly music. Last month I watched a Bright Sparks lunchtime concert, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, with six year old violinists playing alongside our regularly funded London Philharmonic Orchestra and Festival Hall. It was packed with primary school children, many at a concert for the first time. I have spent time in schools looking at music education programmes.
Third, philanthropic projects which help small arts communities. The A Foundation in Shoreditch, supported by James Moore, is one example.
And while travelling up and down and around London with my Oyster card, sometimes for three or four hours a day, I have come to appreciate more the difference that bright ideas in public spaces can make, Poems and Art on the Underground, for instance, talented musicians working as buskers, Big Screens pioneered by the Royal Opera House in Trafalgar Square - and water sculptures like at More London Riverside near City Hall.
Q: And what are you looking forward to this autumn?
A: A jam packed diary. What a September and October for concert halls, museums and theatres - Gauguin at the Tate, John Pawson at the Design Museum, the London Design Festival, Akram Khan's Vertical Road, The Place Prize sponsored by Bloomberg, the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Roundhouse and Ed Hall's first season at the Hampstead Theatre. I will catch Alice Neel at the Whitechapel Gallery before it closes in early September and I will make a point of seeing Elizabeth Llewellyn, a young black soprano who I first spotted at the National Opera Studio's Graduation Show; she's singing Mimi in the ENO's Boheme. With a particular interest in new audiences, I will be look out for pop up venues and go to Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Tomorrow's Warriors at Kings Place.
Q: You used to chair the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. What productions still stand out to you from that time?
A: I chaired the judging panel for seven years and in that time, we gave awards to many great actors and playwrights and shows such as The History Boys, Rupert Goold's Macbeth, Complicite's A Disappearing Number and The Handspring Puppet Company for War Horse, but also to The Tricycle for its political theatre and Menier Chocolate Factory as an outstanding newcomer, as well as the new playwrights including Polly Stenham (That Face), Kwame Kwei Armah (Elmina's Kitchen) and Nina Raine (Rabbit).
Q: What's on your summer reading list?
A: One advantage of taking a summer holiday in England is that you can pack lots of big books. I may re-read old favourites like Richard Eyre's National Service and Peter Hall's Diaries, both filled with passion, politics and insight into the arts generally and the National particularly and dip back into Susie Gilbert's history of the ENO, Opera for Everybody to remind myself of the vulnerability of even large organisations unless there is strong leadership. I will finally settle down with Jackie Wullschlager's biography of Chagall, one of my favourite artists, as well reading Edmund de Waal's family story, The Hare with Amber Eyes and perhaps Philip Ball's The Music Instinct. One reviewer said: 'It sends you back to the music a better listener'. That sounds useful in my new role.
By my bed, I will keep the new 600 pager, Tender Volume 1, by food writer Nigel Slater. I am seldom happier than with a dozen family and friends round the table, so this should help me with summer's suppers.
For a short trip to the States, I will have in my hand luggage Rajaa Alsanea's semi autobiographic novel, Girls of Riyadh, Wesley Stace's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer and Rose Tremain's Trepass. The theme - sibling rivalry and loyalty - is appropriate as I have two sisters who I love and admire very much. Wherever I am, I will read every week Melanie Reid's 'Spinal column' in the Saturday Times.
Q: Have you any hidden artistic talents?
A: Not really. My introduction to music was Sir Robert Mayer's Saturday concerts for children at the Festival Hall. I learned to play the piano but was not a promising student. I also played classical guitar as a teenager and went to a small studio in Soho for lessons from a struggling young guitarist called John Williams.
Q: And the last question, what would you like to achieve in your term as Chair?
A: Artistic excellence and innovation, with new partners and new money, supporting our excellent mixed economy model - significantly increasing new philanthropy to the arts and spreading it much wider. I suspect this will not be achieved by exhortation alone. The 2012 Olympics need to be a triumph for culture as well as sport, bringing ever more tourists and investment pouring into London.
I want every child to have access to the arts and music and the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and would encourage government departments to work together to make this happen.
With this achieved, the Arts Council, leaner and with an international perspective, will be respected by the public and by everyone in the arts. As John Major said, man cannot live by GDP alone, so supporting the arts for arts sake as well as for their economic potential, the creative industries will play a vital role in the UK's financial recovery - and its global future. Soft power indeed.