OBITUARY: PETER BRINSON

I phoned Peter Brinson a few weeks ago in a state of gloom, writes Naseem Khan. I had been trying to find funding for a dance project that seemed to fall between every sort of stool. Was I being foolish? "No, I don't think so," said Brinson in his judicious and careful voice, "We ought to meet."

When we met, it took just a few minutes for him to ease himself into my enthusiasms. "Now," he said happily, slipping naturally into the comradely first-person plural, "I think we should go about it like this . . ."

There were few things that Brinson liked better than an uncluttered canvas, the sense of creative possibilities implicit in new directions and the idea of releasing energies that had been trapped in dusty constraints of habit, old thinking and prejudice. The idea of a network for Indian dancers - encompassing other diaspora dancers - excited him. I knew it would.

Twenty-one years before, when he was Director of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Brinson had made it plain that his cultural sympathies were generous ones. In 1974, his foundation (together with the Arts Council and the Community Relations Commission) had decided to commission the first report into the arts of ethnic minority communities. The report (which I researched and wrote) had the effect of opening doors and minds. Published in 1976 as The Arts Britain Ignores, it started the process in which the principle of a culturally diverse Britain came gradually to acquire respectability. In 1993, when the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company (partly through Brinson's vote) won the prestigious Prudential Award, no voices were raised to say that work inspired by Indian dance was not really British. Without Brinson's seeding strength, that would have been less certain. His support of "ethnic arts" was not a phase or a fashion. Brinson and the foundation stuck with it; they funded the energetic national conferences that followed The Arts Britain Ignores and then the national organisation, MAAS, that those conferences had endorsed.

The principle beneath it all was self-evident to Brinson: that creativity is democratic; that excellence is to be found everywhere; and that the state of Britain makes all sorts of cultural cross-overs possible. His own instincts were for breadth and fresh thinking, and for the conversations that co-existing cultures make possible. He gave an arena for them, generously, wherever he could.

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