David Lister: The Week in Arts

Long live the reign of the artistic dictator
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The Independent Online

One of the country's well-known arts institutions has announced its visions for the future, or next season's programmes as we used to say in less apocalyptic times. The South Bank Centre under the estimable Jude Kelly has come up with a programme which is notable for using artists as curators. They will have a big say in choosing some of the performances to be staged at the Royal Festival Hall when it reopens next year after its refurbishment.

The South Bank Centre is using members of the band Saint Etienne, the musician Nitin Sawhney, Kylie Minogue's choreographer Rafael Bonachela, the Turner Prize-nominated Jane and Louise Wilson, and the opera singer Willard White as part of its creative team. The approach of having artists to commission friends, heroes and acts they are partial to, continues a tradition that the centre started with its annual Meltdown Festival. Who could know more about the arts and what makes a good evening out than a performing artist?

Actually, quite a lot of people. Artistic directors, for a start. Programming is their job, isn't it? And what about audiences? Why doesn't the South Bank or any other arts venue pick a random regular attender and put them on the programming panel?

One can become a little too excited and, dare I say, starstruck about the concept of artists being involved in programming. The Meltdown Festival has had its highs; but it has also sometimes showed that artists can be too incestuous or simply don't fully understand what makes a good show from an audience's point of view. When Morrissey was in charge of Meltdown a couple of years back, he invited the smashing Seventies band Sparks to perform, and in so doing sparked a revival for the group.

I, for one, am grateful to him for that; but I have discovered that the show was not what he intended. Morrissey wanted the band just to perform its debut album from the Seventies as it had a big influence on the young Morrissey. But Sparks' canny manager Sue Harris was having none of it, and insisted Sparks perform their new album as well.

That episode encapsulates the strength and weakness of artist-led programming. The artist certainly has the contacts and pulling power, and can occasionally make inspired choices, but doesn't always get what makes a rounded evening's entertainment for an audience. Few high-profile artists actually spend much time in an audience. I rather like my artistic directors to be artistic dictators. They need to have the courage of their convictions, imprint their personality on their institution and give it a distinctive character. Nicholas Hytner does exactly that at the National Theatre. People like Graham Sheffield at the Barbican and Brian McMaster at the Edinburgh Festival, who are certainly not performers, have also achieved much without enlisting high-profile artists to help with the commissioning.

Arts institutions are a bit like newspapers. It's best not to run them by committee. That's not an easy philosophy to embrace in the arts, where involvement, teamwork and consultation count for more than they do in most workforces. But the most successful institutions, from Sir Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company to the Donmar Warehouse theatres of both Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage to the Glastonbury Festival of Michael Eavis, will usually reflect the vision of one dominant personality. The artistic director must take the tough decisions backstage. The artists should be on the stage.

A lyrical mystery

The new Bob Dylan album, to be released next month, has a track with the line: "I got a brand new suit and brand new wife." Previewing the album, The Observer said this "will have the gossips' tongues wagging in the light of Dylan's uncertain matrimonial status".

In the first volume of his autobiography published last year, Dylan again referred a couple of times to "my wife", which left reviewers equally perplexed and, presumably, the tongues of those gossips wagging once more.

At a time when newspapers, TV, chat shows, books and wagging tongues manage to dissect every aspect of a celebrity's private life, this is rather wonderful. Here is one of the most written about music stars on the planet; yet no one has a clue whether he is married or not.

Biographers and investigative reporters are clearly not what they used to be. But please, let's keep it that way. It's refreshing to have to search song lyrics for such information rather than read about it in a glossy magazine.

* The death of Freddie Trueman brings to mind the one time he was faced with a gaggle of showbiz and arts journalists. I was one of those more than 10 years ago who reported on the wedding of his daughter to the son of Hollywood star Raquel Welch. If that sounds an unlikely liaison, the day itself proved quite surreal. Some of the country's best-known showbiz reporters masqueraded as guests and smiled benevolently at each other as they took their pews in the church. An impossibly glamorous middle-aged Raquel Welch arrived, upstaging any bride, even a Trueman. After chatting briefly about movies with Fred, I asked him whether he would involve his new son-in-law in Yorkshire cricket. He certainly would, he said. But, I pointed out, the bridegroom has never played and knows nothing about the game. "That's all right," said Fred, "we'll put him on the committee."

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