Arts: All in good time

Next month the Barbican celebrates its 15th birthday. But for John Tusa, its new managing director, this is Year Zero and he's starting from scratch. By Michael Church
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Nazis started it, helpfully clearing a nice big space in the centre of town. Ten years later, a Conservative government persuaded the City fathers to put people before profits: thus was the Barbican born. Architects designed housing and buildings to house the arts; as the place was a pedestrian precinct - private cars, they imagined, would soon be outlawed from London - 55 parking spaces were deemed sufficient. As the years went by, the arts complex grew: it would house the Guildhall School, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The budget grew too: this didn't please the City fathers, who insisted that it earn its keep by hosting conferences.

It became a national talking-point. Supporters said it would humanise the Square Mile, and likened it to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Detractors pointed to its spiralling costs, and likened it to Concorde; its brutalist architecture was mocked before it was out of the wraps. Lord Mayors protested that it wasn't their job to provide culture for the nation. A hardworking Canadian called Henry Wrong shepherded its development through 10 years of crises. When, on 3 March 1982, the trumpets finally sounded, and the Queen cut the tape, the papers proclaimed that Mr Wrong had Got It Right.

Well, up to a point. People couldn't park; and, once inside the building, they got lost. The fan-shaped auditorium over which critics had initially enthused - so intimate! - was an acoustic disaster, made worse by thousands of glass balls hanging tastefully from the roof. It took a protest from the pianist Maurizio Pollini to get the balls removed; the acoustic was one of the things that drove the conductor Claudio Abbado to resign as music director of the LSO (he now basks in the warmth of the Berlin Philharmonie). After a brilliant start - fuelled by the novelty factor - the LSO itself steered straight for the financial rocks, with relentlessly specialist programmes to which nobody came. And there were pranks: goldfish in the Barbican's lake - curiously reminiscent of a sewage farm - were devoured in their thousands by surreptitiously inserted pike.

"Is Wrong Right?" asked a typical headline on the centre's fifth anniversary. "I've come close to suicide once or twice," conceded the harassed administrator. The public's reluctance to take the building to their hearts was, he said, understandable; it was "a huge pile of cold, soulless concrete". With the LSO in temporary eclipse, he had had to turn to concert promoter Raymond Gubbay - the man behind the current Albert Hall Carmen and, in Wrong's words, "the only impresario who had faith in the Barbican at a time when everyone - particularly the South Bank - was hoping we would fail".

"From Mr Wrong to Miss Right" quipped the headlines when Detta O'Cathain jumped into the saddle from her previous post at the Milk Marketing Board. "I thrive on criticism," she proclaimed. "I hate being surrounded by yes- men. I am by nature a fairly high-profile woman." Her peerage, she opined, would bring "reflected glory for the Barbican".

Six weeks into her job, however, her major tenants announced a walk-out: the RSC were in the red, and their theatres would go dark for four months. They labelled her ignorant and bossy; she wrote them off as pampered and petulant. But she gave them the new backstage facilities they wanted, as well as getting the City to increase its grant, and upgrading the concert hall's acoustics. By the Barbican's 10-year anniversary, things seemed to be looking up.

"But I do wish we were not here," Baroness O'Cathain admitted. "Anywhere with a chance to create a real living environment, but not here." She decreed a modest (but expensive) make-over. The consequences of this laudable impulse were: nine gilt muses prancing on the edge of a glass awning that was clumsily streaked with paint; a forest of silver discs blowing in the breeze over the goods entrance; and a sickly rash of pointillist dots on the foyer walls. "Each dot must be as exact as a single note in a Bach solo cello sonata," intoned the pointillist-in-chief. Only in Britain...

But Miss Right was meanwhile emerging as the Bad Baroness. Rising to her jibes about "arty-farty types", the RSC attacked her "macho-managerism". She claimed - with justification - that they didn't give a toss about balance sheets; they claimed that balance sheets were all she cared about. And she began to sack her managers at an alarming rate: so much for thriving on criticism. After the 50th departure, there was a putsch (instigated by the leaders of the LSO and RSC), and out she went.

Next month sees the Barbican's 15th anniversary, so it's time for some more jolly headlines. BBC veteran John Tusa is now in the hot seat: "Welcome to the poisoned chalice," bellowed Humphrey Burton - a former Barbican artistic adviser - in a magazine article heralding his appointment. One year on, in company with his artistic director Graham Sheffield, Tusa is getting to enjoy the drink in that chalice.

"This is Year Zero," he says, "and we should be seen as starting from scratch. So far I've concentrated on getting the right team together, and on trying to reduce..." - he fishes for the right phrase - "an atmosphere of crisis." He's been trying to rebuild relations: with his paymasters, the Corporation of London; with the commercial companies occupying the neighbouring buildings; with potential sponsors (astonishingly, his predecessor had closed the sponsorship department); and with his artistic partners - "not tenants" - the LSO and RSC.

Physical improvements are high on his list: a merging of the car-parks, a symbolic removal of the muses, and a re-signposting - but, then, they all say that! "OK," concedes Tusa, "this will never be an easy building to read. We're going to have our staff standing around with labels saying 'Can I help you?' " That presupposes the existence of visitors needing help; what's depressing, even now, is that there are so few visitors to be seen.

Tusa is still mystified by the RSC's sudden decision to abandon their permanent Barbican base. "The sums of money they got from the Corporation were very generous, and rising! You'd have thought that would have given anyone pause for thought." But that's their funeral: if they foul up in the provinces, no prodigal-son welcome will await them back home. Tusa and Sheffield - who were both attracted by the impending theatrical vacuum - see this as a unique chance to forge a new artistic unity: raising the profile of the cinema and art gallery, introducing an international theatre programme, and boosting the musical diet with a complementary programme of opera and dance.

When the RSC depart next month, the theatre will close for a brisk transformation (including the expansion of a hitherto unused orchestra pit). It will reopen in September with a brand-new Royal Opera House production of Rameau's Platee (choreography by Mark Morris), followed by stagings of Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Handel's Giulio Cesare; then comes a new Ninagawa show. With their new theatre production team, Tusa and Sheffield aim to change London's cultural map.

Like their South Bank colleagues, they are seeking to hang on to their classical audience through themed series, world music, and classical "events", rather than routine evenings by run-of-the-mill orchestras. Tusa also promises surprises in presentation, though he won't be drawn on exactly what. The vexed question of whether the classical audience is in permanent decline puts him on the offensive.

"If you start scaling down the number of concerts you do, people start saying, 'Ah, so classical music really is on the way out!' You can't talk up a sector in the absence of quality activity, but you can talk it down. Classical music is nowhere near in such difficulties as the prophets of doom imply." But what about over-production, and chasing the same punters as the South Bank? "Are the Cork Street galleries in competition? And, if so, why are they so close? If one does well, they all do well. That's how it should be with us and the South Bank." Niche-marketing cannot drive an arts policy. "Look at the success of the Proms; going for a total audience, not groups fragmented by marketing men."

But he's less sanguine about the longer term. "I'm worried by what's happened to the younger audience. Their cultural terms of reference go back 50 years and no more. What they have is a culture of now, in which a memory, or knowledge, of a culture of then is not only absent, but not seen to be necessary. What they now have provides all solutions, all satisfactions. It's a huge national problem, because I don't think any civilised society can just say cheerio to history. In comparison with that, the fate of concert halls will seem very insignificant"n