I Work For...: My stage in the City

Joanna Fyvie is PA to John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre in London
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Having graduated in French and music, I was torn between the two subjects, but my first job made the decision for me when I was made junior secretary to Jeremy Isaacs at the Royal Opera House.

It was an amazing introduction. I learnt how to be a sounding-board and I realised the importance of allowing bosses to do their job by giving them an environment in which they can be themselves, vent their frustration and express their enthusiasm. Jeremy was demanding, especially since he always needed everything done immediately, but I respected his energy, drive, directness of thought and broad range of interests - an aspect that John shares. I certainly got a taste for working with VIPs.

My next job was a two-year stint with the managing director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The temperament of an orchestra is quite different from that of an opera house, particularly when it is nomadic. I had to deal with 150 people, which made it hard to make attachments. It was also sometimes difficult to communicate financial or strategic issues to the players.

I moved to the Barbican just after John had been brought in to rebuild the centre in terms of both confidence and artistic structure. I knew there would be high expectations and I was almost overwhelmed by the vastness of the centre; but I was attracted by the amount of artistic achievement it offers, both visually and musically. I was surprised that John was present at my first interview, because I hadn't expected to meet him at all at that stage. He struck me as being genuinely interested in me as a person rather than just a recruit.

There's always an opportunity to learn with John, partly because he has such a broad range of interests. He communicates well with me, whether it's when he's briefing me or sharing ideas. As we've built up our working relationship, he has started to include me in his thought processes. Three years on, I think he has realised my potential.

Feeling able to give my opinion when it's appropriate has enriched my work and I have realised that, as a PA at this level, I have a duty to ask why some things are deemed to be so important. Questioning is crucial when working with a VIP because once you can understand the way someone thinks, you begin to know how to work autonomously. There's a lot I am now able to do on my own, including drafting responses. John gave me an appraisal the other day and I realised how much I genuinely love being a PA and the sense of fitting in to this environment. Even answering the post gives me a broad range of people to speak to, from arts world people to City executives.

The phone is a constant, particularly now that the Shadow Arts Council has just been announced with Sir Peter Hall as chair and John as one of two vice-chairmen. I was aware of the idea evolving and had a sense of people saying something important about diversity and freedom of opinion in the arts. There's been loads of interest in the new organisation, particularly as it represents a group of people who came together informally when they felt that the arts were not being adequately reflected in the public arena or relevant institutions. The support panel includes Jeremy Isaacs, which is lovely because it means that we stay in touch.

Last week we also launched "Cityside", a new name to describe the area the Barbican is in. This concept was the result of a meeting between John and the heads of Sadler's Wells and City University during which they complained that while we have terms such as "West End" and "South Bank" there has never been a title for this general area, despite the fact that it is full of art and culture. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, gave his approval by coming to the launch, and we already have widespread support and enthusiasm from people in the area.

For the last two years I have been involved in John's soon-to-be-published book called Art Matters, in which he deals with a whole range of art-related subjects including funding, and where culture fits into life. I've followed the book's progress both by typing out some of the manuscripts and by attending some of the lectures from which the essays have been taken.

John and I share a sense of humour, which I delight in. I feel that there is a high that comes from our working relationship and rapport as well as from organising things such as receptions for important people in the arts world. I got married last year and although I see family and work as quite separate, it was natural to me that I should invite him and Paul Findlay - my former boss from the Royal Philharmonic - to the wedding. They both came, and I was glad that they were there.

When we were looking for an administration assistant, John told me he had a dream that I walked into the office with the new assistant, who turned out to be my double. I must be doing something right.

Interviewed by

Katie Sampson