Crisis-hit arts world turns on itself

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The management of Britain's leading arts institutions is in "a dreadful mess", according to a senior museum director.

The management of Britain's leading arts institutions is in "a dreadful mess", according to a senior museum director.

In a withering attack on his colleagues in the arts world, the new director of the National Maritime Museum, Roy Clare, has told the Independent on Sunday that the arts must now call in more businessmen and women to show them how to run their venues.

He said that "the museum world is in a dreadful mess" and that many leading arts institutions fail to train their staff and are suffering a crisis in leadership.

The attack by Mr Clare shows the traditional solidarity in the arts being broken. It used to be unknown for subsidised institutions to condemn each other. But the devastating comments by Mr Clare follow similar complaints earlier this month by Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican, who said he was embarrassed by the lack of accountability and ill-conceived decisions of leading arts institutions.

Their two-pronged attack radically alters the focus of debate in the arts world, which for years has centred on lack of funding. Now, after a few years of relative generosity by the Labour government, that is no longer the central issue. The focus of attention is the style of management and the quality being provided for the public, be it from museums, theatres or opera houses.

With the attacks now coming from within, the pressure will be on the notoriously non-interventionist Culture Secretary Chris Smith to take a closer interest in the performance of national institutions.

Speaking to the IoS last week, Roy Clare, who left a senior job with Nato to head the National Maritime Museum two months ago, said: "The museum sector put itself in that mess by failing to manage over a long period. It doesn't train its people. It has got to get its world in gear, otherwise it will be 'suffering' - if that is the word - from implants who are parachuted in to run their business."

With a number of key organisations facing real or alleged crises in management, including the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and Glyndebourne, Mr Clare said recent arts appointments were already supporting his contention. Suzanna Taverne was director of strategy at the Pearson media group before she was appointed managing director at the British Museum last year. And Dr Lindsay Sharp won his current job as director of the Science Museum after running the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.

Mr Clare defeated 38 other applicants for his post. "I didn't arrive here with some silver spoon, but I was able to offer a blend of background experience," he said. With a naval career spanning 30 years including strategic planning at the Ministry of Defence and Nato headquarters and captaining the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, Mr Clare has a strong maritime background for his new job. He feels his previous career prepared him to take control of one of Britain's most important museums - yet he is no curator.

"I alternated between driving ships most of my life, which is about people, and strategic planning, which was finance, at the MoD. The translation [to the museum] has been easy - it's also about dealing with people and dealing with money. What's new is the product."

While sympathetic to curatorial needs, one of his strategic goals is now to bolster management skills among his staff by seconding them to business or sending them on management courses. "We don't want to train a curator of artefacts more deeply in artefacts, but if they have broader potential in management, we need to capture that," he said.

Graham Sheffield has been even more wide-ranging in his criticisms. The Barbican artistic director said of the Apocalypse exhibition at the (unsubsidised) Royal Academy: "I would not dream of putting it on at the Barbican. As a concept it didn't add up. It was lazy and it wasn't apocalyptic." He also accused London's South Bank Centre of building a new concert hall when it couldn't even fill its present ones.

Even the Royal Shakespeare Company was not spared. Mr Sheffield said: "I would like to see a much clearer focus from the RSC of its role artistically in the UK, of concentrating on quality not quantity. I would like to see an artistic policy developed there of doing Shakespeare in contemporary ways more than they do."

And he said the National Theatre was not taking sufficient risks in its choice of plays. He said: "The job of subsidy is to do something quantifiably different. And there's the question of accountability. There's a lot of credibility to be regained with some of the big institutions."