Vivien Duffield doesn't bear grudges. "I used to," she says, "but I stopped. It doesn't do you any good. I just think: after they're all gone, I'll still be there, because it couldn't have happened without me." She is talking, of course, about the Royal Opera House - she raised more than £100m for its £214m rebuild - even though new projects have long since taken Covent Garden's place in her plans. The Clore Duffield Foundation, which she runs, sponsors the annual Artworks programme, now in its fifth year. Next weekend, Trafalgar Square will be transformed into an enormous open-air art studio for children; and on Thursday, schools all over the country will be marking Children's Art Day with art-based activities. Artworks also includes the Young Artists of the Year awards and research projects.
Duffield is the individual who dreamt up and pushed through the Clore Leadership Programme, which is intended to train the cultural messiahs of the future. The first batch was unveiled earlier this month, and now Chris Smith, the former Culture Secretary, has taken it on. She is also the co-chairman, with Lord Hollick, of the South Bank Centre's appeals committee; it is her job to raise the final £20m to refurbish the Royal Festival Hall, a much tougher task than raising the £100m for the Royal Opera House. In May, she set the ball rolling with a £5m donation from her foundation. "I'm under no illusions," she says: "why do you think I was asked on to the board?"
The Royal Opera House was clearly her big love, the place where she masterminded great galas and lavish parties for people with wealth-management problems. Her reward for achieving the biggest fundraising goal ever in this country was to be made a dame in 2000. So why did she leave the board in January 2001?
"They kicked me out, because I was too difficult, I suppose," she replies. Duffield isn't referring, she says, to Colin Southgate, who was the chairman at the time, despite their alleged volcanic rows ("I didn't have rows; I argued when I saw things going wrong, such as the thousands wasted on trying to build a temporary theatre by Tower Bridge during the closure"). Nor does she mean Michael Kaiser, then the executive director, who left Covent Garden after only two years to run the Kennedy Centre, in Washington, with whom she remains good friends ("He was very lonely here. London got to him"). Duffield hopes that Kaiser will be appointed to run the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
"It was a political ousting," she says. Duffield was, after all, rich, privileged and belligerent. "I represented everything they didn't want." And "they", she implies, goes right to the top, because she never had a problem with Chris Smith, despite reports to the contrary.
Duffield was on the panel that appointed the present executive director, Tony Hall - "the only logical choice". In his hands, the place is in good shape, but changed: "It's not what it was: there's a lack of a personal touch, a lack of personalities. Remember how John Tooley and Jeremy Isaacs used to prop up the bar every night? Nobody props up the bar now."
It was originally her idea, she also reveals, to merge English National Opera and the Royal Opera and turn the Coliseum into a ballet theatre. "It makes sense, because we couldn't afford to run two opera houses; still can't. But the chance has gone now; we'll never have it again." We are talking in the modest Chelsea basement offices of the Clore Duffield Foundation, the day before she is due to "abscond" for a 10-day cruise with friends. The walls are covered with emblems of the foundation's beneficence, and since most of them relate to children's schemes, there's a lot of colour. She feeds hungrily on a salade niçoise as we talk - "M&S, of course."
Vivien Louise Duffield is the only child and heir of Charles Clore, the East End immigrant who grew up to own Selfridges and to become one of the country's most generous philanthropists; in effect, she was born to charity giving. Her father, who died in 1979, barred his daughter's way into the business career she yearned for after her education at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She married a stockbroker, John Duffield, and had two children, Arabella and George, but they divorced in 1976, and her partner since then has been Sir Jocelyn Stevens, former newspaper executive, former rector of the Royal College of Art and former chairman of English Heritage.
In 2000, she merged her arts charity with Clore's, which was more devoted to Jewish causes, to create the Clore Duffield Foundation, which doles out an estimated £8m a year. Her first major solo project was Eureka!, a children's museum based on one she had seen in Boston, Massachusetts, which opened in Halifax, in 1989, where it still thrives; several more educational centres for museums and galleries followed. The impetus behind it all was a statistic she had read: that 80 per cent of children had never been to a museum.
This year's Artworks Children's Art Day will be the biggest yet, with events in 4,000 schools, as well as the workshop in Trafalgar Square. The highlight will be the Young Artists awards, with some surprisingly sophisticated pieces on the shortlist, including a four-screen digital interpretation of Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode inspired by William de Morgan's ceramics.
But Dame Vivien moves on. She and Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate - who "really believes in it" - have been to see "Miss Morris", as she calls the Arts minister, about handing on the initiative, so this Children's Art Day may be her last. "I would like to get rid of it now - to government; to a partnership between government, us and another big funder, whatever. We start things, and then we should move on to the next thing."
There's always a next thing. Getting the Clore Leadership Programme, which aims to train up a new generation of leaders for the cultural sector, up and running was done in double-quick time: two years, from a standing start. Kaiser gave her the idea with a scheme at the Kennedy Centre, and then there was "all that nonsense about who's going to run the British Museum, who's going to run the National Gallery. Something had to be done." The programme will move on to board members. "I always thought that trustees were badly educated, and one of my dreams has been of a sort of school of governors: if you were asked to go on a board, you'd have to go there for two or three days' preparation. That will be another step in the leadership programme."
Duffield believes that too many board members don't pull their weight - "England's quite rich, but rich people here think everybody wants them for their opinions, not their money" - and reckons we should be more like the Americans: the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which has a development programme comparable to that of Covent Garden, has raised $750m, including $465m from the board members.
Having joined the South Bank board after "constant pestering from ministers", Duffield finds she gets on well with the chairman, Lord Hollick, despite political differences - he is a Labour donor - and has just accepted Michael Howard's invitation to be a trustee of his new foundation. "So I'm fundraising for the Tories, too, always an agreeable thing to do. When Hollick goes on about the Government not giving him enough to run the place, I always say: 'You could always come over to our side, Clive.'"
Fundraising for the South Bank is tough. A condition of her taking the job was that the full development scheme for the Festival Hall be restored, instead of the cut-back version then in place, meaning a quest for £90m, rather than £57m. "My way will be painful, but we'll get there."
Children's Arts Day is on Thursday (0870 241 2762; www.art-works.org.uk)Reuse content