TAITMAIL Tusa and the Big Idea
No one has been more of a breath of fresh air in the arts than John Tusa in his long and kaleidoscopic career, and he should be a case study in his own new book, Bright Sparks.
The subtitle of the latest of Tusa’s many offerings, “How Creativity and Innovation Can Ignite Business Success”, does not set the heart aflutter, but he has picked out a handful of narratives to lavishly illustrate his point. “Who are the people who have both Big Ideas and possess the determination, the skills, the vision to turn them into reality?”
Tusa’s Wikipedia entry is modest to the point of negligence, but if he needs any introduction he was born in Czechoslovakia the son of the boss of the British branch of the Czech-originated Bata Shoes, who brought his family to England in 1939. After Cambridge young Tusa joined the BBC as a trainee journalist and went on to present Newsnight from its inception in 1979. Seven years later he moved into management to run the BBC World Service and had to fight for almost all of his seven years there for the funding to keep open the lines to parts of the world no other news channel could speak the truth to in the same unbiased way. In 1987 he was touted for the director-general spot but never applied.
Tusa left the World Service at the end of a six year contract and for a while read the mid-day BBC TV news before being the surprise appointment in 1995 as managing director of the Barbican Centre. It was a basket case, it’s administration at odds with its artistic residents, its audiences down, its funding dependent on the City of London corporation, its geographical position awkward to get to and its architecture a nightmare to navigate. Tusa changed all that, drawing in the residents like the LSO, re-establishing a working relationship with the RSC, making a proper working partnership with the corporation and the hinterland communities, getting a funding agreement out of the Arts Council, and recasting the interior that opened it out and unveiled for the public the mysteries of where everything is. And he gathered individuals about him that he knew he could trust and who had innovative contributions of their own to make. After leaving the Barbican in 2007 he found himself chairing a plethora of arts boards, from Wigmore Hall to the University of the Arts to the Clore Leadership Programme. He continues to write books and journalism.
His thesis in Bright Sparks is that most of us have a brilliant idea, most of us fail to realise it. Some bring it off, and a sparkling cohort have done it in the cultural milieu, such as the European Union Youth Orchestra, Turquoise Mountain that revives historic buildings and crafts around the world, and the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre.
He has picked two individuals to profile together who both toiled in the same BBC Music vineyard at some point in their otherwise very different careers: John Drummond and Graham Sheffield, the former who died in 2006, the latter still very much alive. They could not be more contrasting personalities, Drummond a large man at 6ft 4ins with an uncompromising attitude to match with large gestures and ambitions, Sheffield preferring to lurk in backrooms to bring his originations to light. But you could say both redefined the word “festival”.
Drummond started as a BBC general trainee – and, a fluent French and Russian speaker, was actually a foreign correspondent for a while – became a TV producer making music documentaries, presenting some of them. He got to be assistant head of music.
Then suddenly in 1977 he became director of the Edinburgh Festival which he opened out to innovative, little known work, where Tusa dwells for his purpose of revealing bright sparks. Drummond ran the festival for seven years, then went back to the BBC to be controller of Radio 3 and the Proms. Knighted in 1995 he left two years later having fallen out with the BBC management.
Sheffield studied music at Edinburgh and joined the BBC as a music producer at about the time Drummond was taking over the festival, and won awards for his programmes. In 1990 he moved to the Southbank Centre as music projects director, to which Tusa will have us return. In 1995 Sheffield went to the Barbican as artistic director, just preceding Tusa’s arrival, revolutionising the programme across the art forms. Then he went to do the same to the British Council’s global arts operation before retiring to concentrate on honing his technique as a gifted pianist.
Tusa looks at two particular projects by the two men: Drummond and his Vienna theme for the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, Sheffield with Meltdown at the Southbank Centre from ten years later.
Drummond’s modus operandi was to find threads, ways of breaking down “art form barriers and conventions [with] a series of unconnected concerts, dramas and exhibitions” and he had developed a breadth of knowledge and a remarkable memory. He worked up themes to take in the art forms he wanted to show – “Themes are poor masters but good servants”. He gathered a team who could fall in behind where his vision led. Five years into his directorship they put together Vienna 1900. “The great figures of turn-of-the-century Vienna wrote as well as painted, painted as well as composed, described as well as designed, thought as well as did, and argued endlessly with each other” Drummond wrote. As a result of Vienna 1900 not only Schiele, Kokoschka and Klimt became better universally known, so did Shoenberg, Mahler and Webern. He drew the spirit of an age, freezing a mid-European zeitgeist for three weeks in 20th century Edinburgh.
Sheffield was more systematic, though never formulaic, with a panoramic view of new talent and new ways of expression. “He understood the necessity of creation and creativity even in, or especially in, what might seem the routine of arts programme planning” Tusa writes. Sheffield’s mission was to stop emptying the Festival Hall with difficult new classical music and he and the team he built saw the way: “You’re in a multi-form institution and you see the artforms not working together” he told Tusa. “The venue itself had to have some kind of artistic vision.
“I thought also that the resources of the Southbank were not being used holistically, to create something which embraced the totality of what the Southbank had to offer”, and he did something rashly bold: he put his trust in artists.
The result was Meltdown in 1993. An artist – the first was George Benjamin - was given carte blanche, with a commissioning budget and the Southbank team’s backing, to programme an event that started in his case from a contemporary classical point and moved into a whole range of genres. It was a huge risk that came off, and the format has remained, through Elvis Costello, Yoko Ono, David Bowie and this year Christine and the Queens.
Now? There are the bright sparks for our time, I can name several. The question, will they be given the space to let their sparks catch light.
Tusa’s economical summing up of what these two outrageous bright sparks achieved? “Audiences benefited”.
Bright Sparks by Sir John Tusa is published by Bloomsbury, £20