Theatre in Wales

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“The Arts Are About the Way a Society Feels About Itself”

Governance of Arts Organisations

John Tusa- Pain in the Arts , I B Tauris , November 22, 2014
Governance of Arts Organisations by John Tusa- Pain in the Arts Sir John Tusa.

Chair of the British Architecture Trust Board. Managing Director of BBC World Service. Managing director of the Barbican Arts Centre. President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Chair of the Wigmore Hall. Chair of the University of the Arts London. Member of the governing Council of Imperial College London. Chair of the Clore Leadership Programme.

The experience of these roles flow into Tusa's ninth book. They are the insights of an insider with a career of fifty-four years since joining the BBC as a trainee.

But, as the title indicates, it is a book of sparky unpatrician personality. First and foremost it is a sustained defence of, and argument for, the arts. Tusa has been a participant at the highest levels. As a writer he is a combatant.

He cares little for the culture policy of New Labour. In the cold month of January 2009 he hears a Culture Minister say: “Some people may not like it but the arts [sic] has to live in the real world.”

The memoirs of theatre directors tell of faithless landlords, hostile local authorities, building and engineering problems, simmering industrial relations strife. Tusa adds of Andy Burnham: “the thought that the arts did not live in a real world of artistic and commercial risk seemed not to occur to him.”

Tusa is frank on his third page. It takes bravery to stand up to power. “Doing so involves personal as well as institutional courage.” Jeremy Hunt has ejected Liz Forgan from the Chair of the Arts Council of England. A quiet timidity, in the Tusa view, misreads the nature of the game.

“The real lesson from Whitehall is that bureaucrats and policy makers only respect those who resist and fight back…the weak and frightened are pursued and mauled; the strong are respected and accommodated. Ask any retired Whitehall veteran and they confirm that this is the prevailing mindset.”

Tusa cites artists themselves. Mark Ravenhill: “the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored. It doesn't educate or inform or make you a better citizen. We belittle art when we make it into information or luxury. Wisdom can hurt, but human beings will seek it out.”

“The arts are about the way a society feels about itself”, says Tusa. Nicholas Serota says “culture is ever more important than ever in helping us to understand our place in the world.” The managers in Wales like a slackness of language. Art transforms. Jeanette Winterson has an authority of decades of making: “art can't change your life; it is not a diet programme or the latest guru- it offers no quick fixes...it can awaken us to truths about ourselves and our lives.”

Tusa has a chapter headed “the War of the Words: Language Matters”. He notices the removal of specific categories like “listener”, “viewer”, “traveller”, “patient”. Their replacement by “the one size fits all, dehumanising “customer” is harbinger of downward spiral “to the point where it produced inferior service.” His list of “some abominable words” includes accessible, sustainable, transformational. His repeated recipe for language: “speak English- cut the clichés, purge the verbosity.”

His central point on organisations is clear: “without independence based on responsibility, any organisation becomes an instrument of others.” The arts are pulled by other interests to serve purposes that are not theirs. Tusa does not like the clause in the job description for Chair of Arts Council England “to pay due attention to guidance from the Secretary of State.”

“Raising awareness” is far from the aspiration to seize and hold the viewer’s imaginative sensibilities. It is not an artistic goal. “No arts body will be funded”, he says in a policy list for an ideal world, “if it declares its aims and purposes to be primarily instrumental.”

He does not make mention of the beneficiary doctrine of organisations but he has a view on the stakeholder doctrine. “The notion of “stakeholders” is a gold-plated piece of managerial cant. The fundamental issue is of “who's the boss here?” or “who really calls the shots?” If the answer is “the government calls the shots” because the paymaster will also be the key stakeholder then the game would seem to be up.”

He calls for “a recognition that the best results came when the arts were left to do their professional and creative best, within the framework of practice and values that reflected the world of the arts themselves.”

By way of the opposite “Major institutions have lost their sense of purpose and their value system- ultimately their soul- by bending the knee.” He does not cite an example where “the posture confuses the “stakeholder” with the “dictator”.

By contrast he cites his own experience of the BBC World Service. “The Foreign Office paid but it was never the principal stakeholder- that was the World Service's worldwide audience.”

Public and private, Tusa reinforces emphatically, are symbiotic. Eighty-seven percent of those in commercial theatre learnt a part of their craft in a subsidised setting. As former CEO of a venue of great complexity Tusa does not shy away from the rigour of management.

He has five pages headed “the nine functions of management.” They are as good as any. His first requirement for management in the arts: “enjoy and appreciate.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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