Who really runs the arts in this country today? The Government and the Arts Council, or a more shadowy collection of immensely wealthy patrons and king-makers?
Click to follow
SIR ROY STRONG'S London drawing-room is surprisingly dark, despite the two tall windows that give on to the street and the lemony light outside that is so bright it sets your teeth on edge. The darkness comes from the thick curtains and the antique furniture of burnished wood, and it lends the room an air of intrigue. This is quite fitting, for Strong is telling me about the nature of power and influence at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where he was director from 1974 to 1987; and, in particular, about one of its supreme exponents, his predecessor, John Pope-Hennessy, who was 35 years in the job, and who considered himself so important that his staff called him "The Pope".

"John had his way of doing things," says Strong. "He addressed meetings as though he were announcing an encyclical. He never spoke to anybody; he just spoke through them. There were no direct telephones in his office, and on the first day I was there, Mrs Oldham, his secretary, announced that she couldn't do shorthand. It was primaeval." As he speaks, Strong flicks back his hair and I can't help noticing that his fingers are manicured, ringed and quite, quite white, like a cardinal's.

"I was head of the National Portrait Gallery when he decided to give up the V&A. I guessed there would be some sort of message; that's how things were done then, and I was right. Pamela, Lady Hartwell, asked me to lunch a deux at her house in Cowley Street. And during lunch she said, `John says he's expecting you to put in for his job'. So I did.

"John did things that way. He belonged to the mandarin era," Strong explains. "The era of aesthetic mandarin monsters. They had a terrific eye, enormous energy, utter ruthlessness, complete insensitivity and a mania for power."

Strong begins to pick out others like him. Men like Michael Jaffe, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge from 1973-1990, David Eccles, sometime Arts minister and trustee of the British Museum, the Duke of Grafton - an aristocratic fixer if ever there was one - and the late Lord Rosse, the Irish earl who died in 1979. "Rosse had no political or social power," says Strong. "But he was one of those aristocrats whose power comes from sitting on boards. Rosse sat on every board you can think of, from the National Trust to the Georgian Society. He was Lord Art."

Strong looks down at his moon-white fingers. Then, looking up, he adds: "You know, though, they wouldn't belong in the new meritocratic society. They belong to a way that's gone."

NOT EVERYONE would agree. This month's memorial service for Pope-Hennessy, who died last November, may have brought down the curtain on Strong's Age of the Mandarin, but the tradition of cultural string-pulling dies hard. In the world of the arts, the rich are always with us, exerting patronage, and brokering power.

The old cycle - "go to war, make a fortune, become a patron of the arts'' - hasn't changed much. Over the past decade, a new generation of power brokers have come to the fore; men (and a few women) who by virtue of their wealth, position or personality wield enormous influence at the crossroads where money and the arts meet central government. Why do they turn to the arts in the first place? For Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Serpentine Gallery and before that the Arts Council, there are many reasons: "It goes back into the mists of time. Respectability, peer group acceptance, a feeling that having made money something should be given back to society." But one reason stands out above all others. "Of course, the act of patronage itself can be very satisfactory."

Many of these patrons will have known each other all their lives, and even gone through school or university together. But the cosy coterie of Evelyn Waugh's Britain is no longer obvious. "A few chaps meeting in clubs, deciding policy over cigars and a brandy - in my experience that doesn't happen any more," insists Lord Gowrie, the current chairman of the Arts Council of England, former chairman of Sotheby's and before that Mrs Thatcher's favourite Arts minister. "And it's very important that people should know that." But as Sir Angus Stirling, director-general of the National Trust and chairman of the Royal Opera House so delicately puts it: "The providers of money still have an enormously influential voice."

Even, indeed, when it is a quiet voice. Jacob Rothschild, for instance, is a diffident man, but he is also rich and powerful; you can almost bet money that every time you ask an insider for their list of the most powerful patrons in British arts, Lord Rothschild will appear close to the top. "Jacob Rothschild," says Lord Palumbo. "Now there's a name to conjure with."

Indeed, since 1992, the 59-year-old baron (who inherited pounds 93 million and the magnificent Waddesden and Eythrope estates from his cousin, Dollie, in 1988) has been chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund - and therefore responsible not only for the pounds 13.25 million spent on the Churchill papers but also for, potentially, colossal disbursements to such causes as the purchase of the vast Mar Lodge estate in Scotland and the restoration of nineteenth century Highcliffe Castle in Dorset. From 1985-1991, Rothschild was a formidably effective chairman of trustees at the National Gallery. He steered money the gallery's way and almost single-handedly plucked Neil MacGregor from his job as editor of Burlington magazine to become director in 1987.

Another arts magazine editor recalls the National Gallery press conference the day the pounds 25 million Sainsbury gift was announced. "There was a long table, and Neil sat way down one end of it. Jacob was right in the middle, centre-stage, totally in control." Over the years, Rothschild, who is chairman of the St James's Place Capital investment group, has come slowly to relinquish his central role, trusting MacGregor to take on more and more. And so he should, for it was an inspired appointment.

Ask Rothschild's enemies, as well as his friends, how he exercises his influence, and they invariably reply that he is "a good operator", "a man with an iron fist". One gallery director who remains slightly in awe of him, says: "He is a man who can whip off his velvet glove at a second's notice in order to get what he wants." Rothschild rarely speaks of his own position among the movers and shakers of the arts world, preferring to stare down at his beautifully polished shoes. The boastful manipulativeness of a Lord Goodman - to pick a power broker of an earlier age - is not Rothschild's way. If you ask him about other influential figures, likely as anything he'll come out with the French word ``animateur'', which means mover, shaker and puppet-master all rolled into one. It is a word that he uses often, and one that could easily be applied to himself.

But ask him about his power as a king-maker, as a man who can determine who takes the prize jobs of the arts world, and he turns coy. "Candidates might think that I have some influence, and it is true to say that the odd approach for support has been made. But I think I would have almost no influence on the outcome." As Sir Angus Stirling sees it, this vagueness obscures the real picture. "Jacob Rothschild is someone who does not like self-publicity. But he has great authority and his views certainly carry weight. He is someone to whom everybody would turn for advice. But he would never force his views on anyone." In short, Jacob Rothschild does not come over as an eminence grise, but clearly he has all the makings of one.

How was it then that his views were not taken into account at the V&A, when Elisabeth Esteve-Coll suddenly resigned as director? Only four weeks ago, the board of trustees at the museum, led by the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Armstrong, decided to ignore the advice they had been offered by some of the most influential figures in the arts, and appoint Dr Alan Borg to the job. Borg has been director of the Imperial War Museum for 13 years. He is well-respected as an administrator, and has made something of a speciality out of the study of medieval swords. "Alan Borg," said Lord Armstrong with less than total enthusiasm, "had the right mix of attributes for what the museum needs at the moment. It was horses for courses." He is, in other words, a perfectly respectable choice.

But competing against Borg was Timothy Clifford, the director of the National Galleries of Scotland. Clifford, who was once assistant keeper of ceramics at the V&A, is a colourful and controversial figure. His enemies deride him as a social climber. Yet they would admit he is gifted. "Tim has the most developed feel for the decorative arts of any museum director in Britain," says one rival. "He has a very big range, not just of antiquarian interest, but a deep sense of theatre and display." "Alan Borg," says Lord Gowrie, "is one of the very best museum directors. But I would be less than honest if I did not say that Tim, quite simply, is among the two or three greatest men in the whole decorative arts world."

It became something of a game in the weeks leading up to the announcement to ask those who might be considered the mandarins - or animateurs - of the moment to pick the likely winner from the four names that were believed to be on the V&A shortlist.

Time and again, Clifford was ranked the best candidate. Lord Gowrie named him, and was one of the first to be consulted by N B Selection, the headhunters charged with drawing up an initial list of candidates. So did Lord Sainsbury, former chairman of the Royal Opera House; so did Christopher Gibbs, the West End antiques dealer who is another of the more influential people in the arts world; and so did Anna Somers Cox of Art Newspaper and Robin Simon, the editor of Apollo.

But the most important of Clifford's supporters was Lord Rothschild who, although he never declared his hand in public, explained quietly to friends that he was by nature a gambler and would, therefore, take a gamble on Clifford. It was Rothschild, finding himself in conversation one day with Lord Armstrong, who suggested that the V&A chairman should perhaps visit Edinburgh and see for himself what Clifford had achieved with the National Galleries of Scotland. Armstrong did.

For all this show of hands, though, Rothschild and Clifford's other supporters proved to be quite helpless. "For better or worse," says a former government minister who kept a close watch while the appointment was being considered, "the matter was very much dealt with by Robert Armstrong." A little after 6pm on 18 May, Armstrong telephoned Borg who was travelling in the US. Even at that moment, the former head of the civil service found that a lifetime of government warnings about the dangers of insecure telephone lines was too powerful to forget. "All I said," Armstrong told me, "was, `You'll be pleased to hear that you have won the national lottery'. "

Clifford, his wife said, was "gutted". No doubt he was; but perhaps he should not have been entirely surprised. Like Pope-Hennessy before him, Clifford has also been given a nickname by his staff, "Teflon Tim'', a tribute to the manner in which he had managed over the years to avoid reaping the harvest of his many faux pas and indiscretions. Until now, at least. One of the worst of these was last year's furore over the pounds 1 million donation from J Paul Getty Jr that helped prevent Canova's statue of The Three Graces being sold to the J Paul Getty Museum in California. Clifford had been instrumental in securing the marble for the nation - he led the National Galleries of Scotland to commit its entire purchase grant for two years and, crucially, he persuaded Baron Heini Thyssen, who owns one of the world's greatest private art collections in Switzerland, to give another pounds 800,000 towards the price of the statue. Perhaps excitement overwhelmed him. But, interviewed about the purchase, Clifford casually remarked that Getty had given the money out of hatred for his father, the oil billionaire who founded the Californian museum. Getty was furious and threatened to cancel the donation; Clifford was forced to extend a profuse apology. "He really had to bend over and eat dirt," said one V&A trustee.

AND SO it was that when the V&A job became available this year, Alan Borg took tea with Paul Getty. And when the V&A's headhunters first met Timothy Clifford, they lost no time in informing him that Alan Borg had a reference from the cricket-loving philanthropist. "I guess that it was more a friendly letter than a reference," says Christopher Gibbs, who is one of Getty's oldest friends and a trustee of Getty's Wormsley Foundation. Yet it was enough. The headhunters said nothing openly about Clifford's difficult relationship with Getty, but, Clifford believes, that little nugget was dropped into the conversation either "to test how I'd react or to remind me they hadn't forgot- ten what had happened. The black mark was still there."

No one would suggest that Getty dictated Borg's appointment, but his voice commands attention. Indeed, his wealth makes him a powerful and courted figure whom others are frightened of offending. It was in 1984 that Getty made his first contribution to the arts when Clifford, supported by Gibbs (again, those names), persuaded him to give pounds 400,000 to the Manchester City Art Gallery to buy Duccio's Crucifixion and prevent it being exported to his father's museum in California.

By 1985, Getty was looking to provide something much more substantial. In the end it was Rothschild, along with the then Arts minister, Lord Gowrie, and the ever-present Christopher Gibbs, who persuaded him to make one huge donation to a single institution. At the time, Getty was still recovering from the effects of his heroin addiction, alcoholism and depression, and was often in the London Clinic. Lord Gowrie brought along Mrs Thatcher to the hospital; she wanted to thank him personally. "He was quite nervous at meeting her," Gowrie recalls. "But I said, `I know Mrs Thatcher well.' And I was right. She sat down on the bed and said, `Now Mr Getty. What is the matter? We really must get you out of here.' " Getty soon recovered. His most important arts donation - a pounds 50 million gift to the National Gallery to provide income for purchases and to boost its educational programme - was duly announced, the Queen gave him a knighthood, and Getty went to the Palace the same day as Bob Geldof to collect the honour. Kudos, as well as power, attaches itself to those who apply their talents, and their riches, to the service of the arts.

He who pays the piper can certainly influence the tune. And those who court the payers are nothing if not assiduous. The same names keep reappearing. When Hannah, Lord Rothschild's daughter, got married last year, Getty, Gibbs, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were all there. Christopher Gibbs finds antiques for Hall, Getty and Rothschild. Jerry Hall fundraises for the Tate Gallery, which is looking for money to build the new Museum of Modern Art in London's old Bankside power station. And Dennis Stevenson, the chairman of the Tate's trustees, goes around with a list of the world's 200 wealthiest families in his briefcase.

Just how extensive their power is will soon be tested at Covent Garden, where Sir Jeremy Isaacs is due to leave his job as general director just as reconstruction of the Royal Opera House begins in September 1997.

There, two patrons just as wealthy, and even more active, than Getty are marking out their territory: Lord Sainsbury, former chairman of the Royal Opera; and Vivien Duffield, the wealthy daughter of Charles Clore, the property tycoon, and an expert on giving money away, having done it all her life. Together, Duffield and Sainsbury may be about to become the most important pair of power brokers of the next decade. Next month, the Royal Opera House will announce detailed plans for its massive redevelopment programme - to be partly financed by the National Lottery. The knock-on is likely to affect every aspect of opera and dance around Britain. Duffield will be chairman of the Royal Opera Appeal, which aims to raise enough funds to match whatever the Lottery provides, and a further pounds 100 million for a private endowment fund to underpin future artistic work and allow Covent Garden to lower its seat prices. Enthusiasm for the endowment fund is already running high. "The Royal Opera House," says David Mellor, the former National Heritage secretary, "likes to run itself like an establishment dinner party."

They couldn't be more different, these two wealthy patrons. Sainsbury is a captain of industry, smooth and urbane, and so accustomed to getting his own way that people have started calling him a bully. "He treats everyone as if they were the under-manager of his superstore at Penge," says one former government minister. Duffield, plump, plain-spoken and the partner of another notorious animateur, Jocelyn Stevens, former rector of the Royal College of Art and now chairman of English Heritage, can also be bullying. But she has far more of the common touch, and her bullying is always in a good cause. "Vivien is a very good sport," says one who knows her well; she is probably the only patron of the opera house to be part of a regular syndicate that buys lottery tickets. "Vivien is amazing," says one senior member of the opera house staff who has watched her at work. "She gets on the telephone, and organises her ladies - Gail Ronson [who is married to Gerald Ronson, chairman of Heron Corporation, and a well-known opera house patron] and all the rest - and it's pounds 1,000 here and pounds 1,000 there. No-one's allowed to get away without giving something."

Brazen, Vivien Duffield may be, but delicacy still cloaks the hard-nosed face of fund-raising at the opera house. Ever mindful of its patrons' sensibilities, Covent Garden has recently taken to calling the wealthiest of them its "senior volunteers'', and has rechristened its fund-raising drive a "ladder of giving''.

Two years ago, Sainsbury began seriously lobbying the Prime Minister, and pledged that the Royal Opera House would raise pounds 45m if the National Lottery would match that figure. Duffield and Sainsbury have already pledged a large portion out of their own private funds. "It is unlikely that the full extent of their donations will ever be known," says Keith Cooper, head of corporate affairs at the Royal Opera House. "But together with other private donors, we are well on the way to reaching our matching target."

"It is the result," Stirling asserts, "of a sustained and persistent effort. We have been absolutely determined that this redevelopment will happen." One thing is certain; as far as "senior volunteers'' go, Duffield and Sainsbury are up there with the gods. And to see them go about their business is an education into where power lies, and how it works, in Britain, even today. As David Mellor recalls, "I never believed the British establishment existed until I became a minister and started going to dinner parties where I'd be lobbied about the Royal Opera House."

But even the immense wealth and influence of Sainsbury and Duffield is no guarantee that, when Isaacs goes, they will get the replacement they want. "There is a tendency towards committee government," Stirling says. "It is important to be seen to be taking all sorts of people, including minorities, into account. To be seen to be more democratic. We have changed our way of doing things at the Royal Opera House. I'm obliged now formally to seek the views of the chairman of the Arts Council and the Secretary of State [for National Heritage,] on a number of things.''

Which is meritocratic, un-mandarin, and, just conceivably, not necessarily a good thing. As Angus Stirling ruefully remarks: "What it means in the end is that there is a sentiment in this country that prefers the compromise of committee deliberation to the bold confident decision of the individual, which involves a degree of risk. But it is the latter that has generally achieved great things."

This can hardly be to the liking of the patrons and puppet-masters who infest the world of high art. These are people who like to get their way; people who like their voices to be heard; people whose calls no-one forgets to return. Peerages and the plaudits of polite society are all very well; seeing your man in power is more satisfying by far. And if the V&A appointment was a slap in the face for the grandees, a further round of arts job-filling is about to start. Two more senior jobs are about to become vacant, in addition to Isaacs' chair at the Royal Opera House. The Barbican Arts Centre has had no managing director following the sudden departure of Baroness O'Cathain last year, and the directorship of the National Theatre falls vacant when Richard Eyre quits in 1996.

The jockeying for positions has already begun. Who will have the greatest say in the search for the new generation of arts directors, those men and women entrusted with millions of pounds of public money to shape our culture? How will those immediately beyond the frontline of the trustees make their influence felt? Will the winners be people like Lord Armstrong, or Lord Carrington before him - both of them totems of government? Or is there a place for rich patrons and influence-peddlers?

The power brokers are out there still, taking an elbow, whispering in an ear, quietly changing the face of the arts - even if they never quite recover the quasi-papal authority that once led John Pope-Hennessy to say of a troublesome V&A curator: "That'll be the end of him. I'm seeing little Peter Carrington next week in New York. I'll talk to him. Leave it to me." !