the trouble with THE BARBICAN

In the first of a three-part series looking at troubled artistic institutions, Peter Popham explores 'the City's gift to the nation' which is variously described as off-putting on the outside, labyrinthine on the inside and underperforming all-round
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The Independent Culture
John Tusa's new office at the Barbican has an interesting view of the nine golden ladies who adorn the new entrance canopy of the huge arts centre in the City of London: his window is a few feet from their backsides. The canopy and the ladies are the most conspicuous legacy of Tusa's controversial predecessor-but-one, Baroness Detta O'Cathain, whose tenure ended in anger and strife last year. If Mr Tusa is sometimes tempted to reach out of the window and push the Muses off, he is far too much the diplomat to say so.

The Barbican, styled the City's "gift to the nation" when it opened in 1983, is claimed to be the biggest arts centre in Europe. It is certainly the most difficult to find one's way around: the disorientation it induces has become proverbial, and one would not be surprised if doctors were to identify a "Barbican Syndrome" in which little old culture vultures wander round and round in circles bleating "where are we?"

The other trick about the architecture is that, as one frequent visitor puts it, "whichever way you enter you feel you are going in the back." The most direct entrance from the street involves plunging into the building's bowels, in the company (and fumes) of whatever vehicles may be servicing the place at the time. It was to try to improve this that "Detta", as all refer to her, imposed the upswinging streakily painted glass canopy, on the lip of which the golden ladies are poised. It's certainly arresting, though the taste is questionable.

Scattered around within the Barbican's bewildering interior is a stunning array of facilities: the two theatres which have been the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1983; the Hall, which has had a similar function for the London Symphony Orchestra, London's most successful; two art galleries, and two cinemas. Nowhere in London can rival this array of venues under one roof, and more or less under one management. When the Barbican chooses to pull out the stops - perhaps most memorably during the Scandinavian festival three years ago - the combined effect of all these facilities functioning in tandem can be immensely impressive.

No one disputes the potential of the Barbican, nor its good fortune in being the beneficiary of the City's urge to demonstrate, to the tune of some pounds 20m per annum, that it is not exclusively in the service of Mammon. Nor is there any arguing with the Centre's success: two million visitors a year may be confused, but they can't be wrong. Yet given its wealth, its size, its arsenal of facilities, its international fame, the Barbican underperforms. It Could Do Better. Something holds it back.

It could be the unrelenting concrete brutalism of its architecture, which gives one the impression, not of being in Europe's top arts centre but of being marooned in the campus of a provincial university. It could be the confusing impression that its vast, scattergun array of attractions conveys.

It could simply be the legacy of the last-but-one managing director, who was imported in 1989 from running the Milk Marketing Board, a typical Thatcher-period appointee, to bang woolly heads together and introduce sound housekeeping. Five years, numerous redundancies and much embarrassingly public dissent later she departed. The wounds inflicted remain raw: her stand-in successor Bernard Harty, who made way for Tusa last month (going on to become Chamberlain of the Corporation of London), flatly refused to say a word about her.

With its new managing director and a new arts director, Graham Sheffield, fresh from the South Bank, and with a startlingly challenge in the prospective departure of the RSC for the regions for half of each year, beginning in 1997, the Barbican embarks on a new phase in its history. That which was wrong may be put right. That which was weak may be strengthened. What does the new team have in mind - granted that both of them have only just arrived?

"I feel we need to turn the place inside out," says Sheffield, "by using the approaches to the building, and making what goes on inside more visible." He means this not only in the literal sense: the Barbican is hemmed in to the north and east by some of the poorest boroughs in London, and Sheffield is painfully conscious that it is not doing everything it could to draw people from these boroughs in. "I feel the lack of an education and audience development policy," he says. "We need to reach out to audiences in the surrounding boroughs, to animate the Centre."

What such policies might imply for the Barbican's programme of events, Sheffield is unwilling to speculate. The Centre's sense of remoteness from its poor neighbours - its genuinely "barbican", fortified quality - is undeniable; to break that down without charging downmarket will be a challenge and a half. Last summer's Carry On festival, screening all the Carry On films, one per day, is an indication that the task is not impossible.

More pressingly, there is the question of what to do about the RSC. The Stratford-based company has been a pillar of the Barbican since the place opened, imbuing it with status and charisma that would have been hard to obtain by other means. It has not always been an easy fit. Some Stratford productions fall flat on transfer to London because the shape of the space here is so radically different; the Pit, the studio theatre carved out of a props room somewhere in the building's foundations, has never ceased to feel like a props room being asked to do what it can't. Nevertheless, the announcement of their departure for half of the year - even though coming at a time when the company's reputation is at an unusually low ebb - was a shock to the Barbican.

The new team, however, are pleased to look on the RSC's six-monthly absences as a challenge and an opportunity. "The first thing we'll do is refurbish the theatre in the six months after the RSC goes, in March 1997," says Sheffield. "It's important that the RSC will be involved in this because, of course, the theatre will remain their home for half the year." What will replace them while they're away? The word "hodge-podge" looms into view, though it's premature to employ it. "We're in the process of appointing a theatre and dance adviser," Sheffield goes on. "When we looked at the theatre we discovered under the front row of the stalls an orchestra pit that has never been used - it's still got the carpenters' shavings lying around."

The focus will still be on drama, but also with elements of music and dance: chamber opera, for example. "I'd like to see it become London's international festival theatre, providing a regular London home for the best of foreign theatre," says Sheffield. "I'd also like to stimulate new work from the best regional theatre companies. We won't create productions on site, but help to stimulate new activities and partnerships."

The regular absence of one of the pillars of the Barbican means the variety of its offerings - and arguably as a result, the fuzziness of its image - can only increase. John Tusa, the 59-year-old Czech-born journalist whose last prominent post was managing director of the BBC's External Services (re-christened by him the World Service) is not worried by this prospect. "It fits the mood of the late 1990s," he says. "A variegated, even fragmented programme, moving out of uniformity. But there is a difference between being inclusive, broad-based and eclectic - all of which I approve - and being merely opportunistic. We should not be just a receiving house. What we do should reflect thought and conscious decision; whatever happens here must come from a good idea."

If the peripherality of the Barbican to the West End was ever a problem, Tusa believes it has ceased to be one. "There is a growing tendency to move out of the centre," he says. He cites the establishment of the Tate's new museum at Bankside, and the huge lottery grant secured by Sadler's Wells, up the road from the Barbican in Islington. "The arts are being used as nodes for the rehabilitation of parts of London. With the new activity at Sadler's Wells, what is coming into being is a north-east London arts and entertainment corridor."

The Barbican's new team has been shrewdly picked: 43-year-old Sheffield crowned a long musical career at the BBC with his appointment in 1990 as musical projects director at the South Bank, the Barbican's great musical rival. John Tusa brings both tested managerial skills and the sort of intellectual and artistic credibility that has in recent years been sorely missed.

How long the golden ladies, the paint-flecked canopy, the forest of glinting silver discs below them, the golden handrails and swirly decoration that were Baroness Detta's handiwork are going to survive Tusa's attentions might be worth a punt. But he has no illusions about the difficulty of transforming the place's architectural character. "It's rare to find a building as firm in its convictions as this one," he says with a wry smile.

Next week, Peter Popham assesses the trouble with the British Library

and what's more...

ATV viewers watching the Channel 4 live coverage of the Turner Prize who had the misfortune to lose Damien Hirst's acceptance speech due to a technical error can see the speech in full tonight following Without Walls: The Enthusiastic Death of Timothy O'Leary (9-10pm C4). Meanwhile, fans should head for the Business Design Centre in London on 17 January for the start of Art '96, the Contemporary Art Fair at which work from 80 leading galleries will be on sale including that of Mr Hirst...

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