Former BBC World Service chief to head Barbican Centre

John Tusa to run Europe's largest arts complex. Marianne Macdonald reports
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John Tusa, former controller of the BBC World Service, was yesterday appointed managing director of the Barbican Centre, in the City of London. He will take up the pounds 92,000-a-year post in January on a three-year contract, succeeding Bernard Harty, Chamberlain of London, who stepped in after the effective sacking of Baroness O'Cathain in November.

Mr Tusa's first move was to deny criticism that he was as little qualified to run the Barbican - Europe's largest arts and conference centre - as Lady O'Cathain, who had previously headed the Milk Marketing Board. "In the six years that I ran the World Service I had a budget of over pounds 100m and a staff of 2,500 people. This makes it similar to being involved in the Barbican," he said.

"I also had experience of the practical side of running the World Service which involved everything from catering to plumbing. So although everybody thought the job was wonderfully high-minded it was at least as complex as running a centre like the Barbican."

Mr Tusa, 59, who started his career as a BBC trainee in 1960, emphasised his increasing involvement in the arts.

He has been a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery since 1988, joined the board of the English National Opera last year and chairs the Advisory Committee on the Government Art Collection. But the Czechoslovakian-born journalist, who presents BBC Television's One O'Clock News, faces huge challenges at the Barbican, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as three cinemas, two theatres and two art galleries.

The complex underwent years of trauma under Lady O'Cathain, who sacked about 50 staff and undermined morale during her three-year tenure. Last month the RSC announced that from 1997 it would spend only half the year at the Barbican, leaving its managers with the headache of finding alternative productions to fill the summer months.

Mr Tusa denied yesterday, however, that he views the RSC's proposed defection to the provinces as a problem. "If tomorrow morning a letter arrived on the Chamberlain's desk saying, 'Dear Bernard, We've had second thoughts, we'd love to stay,' I think we'd all be a bit dismayed," he said.

"I'm not saying we would slam the door in their faces, I'm just giving you an idea of how attitudes change."

Mr Tusa studied history at Cambridge University before joining the BBC and rapidly becoming a producer. He went on to present The World Tonight on Radio 4 and 24 Hours on the World Service. In 1979 he began a seven- year stint on BBC2's Newsnight before becoming controller of the World Service in 1986. Since stepping down three years ago, he is understood to have been looking for a new role and hoped to become director general at the BBC, which went to John Birt.

Although he refused to disclose his plans for the Barbican, he will be expected to work closely with its new arts director, Graham Sheffield, formerly director of music at the South Bank Centre.

Mr Sheffield, who starts in September, said yesterday that the partial departure of the RSC would open up opportunities for more small-scale experimental work.

He added: "The RSC's decision makes my job much more interesting. We already have people queuing at the door to use the theatre."