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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why they're all losing their heads

By Norman Lebrecht / May 2, 2002

The key question arising from Adrian Noble's snap resignation last week is whether the job is worth having. Not just the Royal Shakespeare Company job, a peripatetic post that successive chiefs have sweetened for themselves with million-making West End sideshows, but whether any of our national companies are practically manageable under present social and political conditions.

Count the vacancies - you may need both hands. London's South Bank Centre is headless for the second time in three years. A chief executive was due to be picked last night from a short list of five. The appointment will have to be approved by (a) the chairman, Lord Hollick, (b) a board of 15 public figures, (c) the Arts Council of England and (d) the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, before personal terms can be negotiated.

The new broom will then be given three months to survey the sink estate and come up with a redemption plan, the fourth in a decade. Having won support from (a) to (d), he will have to go around (e) the neighbours, (f) Lambeth Council and (g) the Mayor of London - who loves nothing better than meddling in matters beyond his jurisdiction - before visiting (h) the Heritage Lottery Fund and (i) the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, to secure top-up funding. Is it any wonder that the South Bank is physically and artistically stagnant, a mark of shame on the nation's prime waterfront location?

It is a matter of some amazement that anyone should want the job. In the version of musical chairs we play with the arts, the rules are reversed: there are more empty seats than players to fill them and the winner is the last one to resign.

The Royal Opera House, notoriously, lost five chief executives in as many years. English National Opera is on its third in a decade. Scottish Opera and Ballet lop heads every other season. Trevor Nunn is leaving the Royal National Theatre after less than five years, scarcely long enough to bruise the leather on his desk. Surprising as it might seem, Adrian Noble was, with 11 years under his belt, the longest-serving boss of any of our national arts companies.

The turnover at the top is viewed with stupefaction in Europe and America, where a manager, whether of a soccer team or repertory theatre, is given a decent chance to produce results, and even the most turbulent bosses enjoy settled careers. Gerard Mortier ran the Monnaie Theatre in Brussels through the 1980s and the Salzburg Festival in the 1990s; he is now, at 58, heading off to the Paris Opera where he can confidently expect to retire with a Légion d'honneur, all tantrums forgiven.

In New York, it so happens that both the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall lost their heads last year. Both were illjudged appointments. You can bet a tenor's ransom that the new guys in charge will be trusted by their boards to see through massive rebuilding programmes without a murmur of further disruption.

So why do we get it wrong? Adrian Noble is not the first to walk away blaming "hurtful" criticism for sap-ping his resolve. Noble is a bold man who, sensing a need for renewal, removed the RSC from its Barbican home, aimed to demolish its Stratford theatre and offered to alter the rules of engagement by allowing movie stars occasional roles. His reforms came under fire from a predictable array of old codgers and press snipers.

There is a yah-boo-sucks culture in Britain that allows has-beens and have-nots who have never run anything bigger than a village fête candy-floss stall to take potshots at the boss of a £20 million enterprise. It is all in the fun of the fair. People can get hurt, but a man like Noble would hardly choose to spend his life in the theatre if he were allergic to criticism.

The flaw in our system is not excessive freedom of speech but the growing exercise of thought control. Money is the prize for which managers have to jump through hoops in order to persuade public bodies of their social worthiness. "What makes the job in England so differ-ent," says Michael Kaiser, who put Covent Garden on an even keel before quitting after 19 months, "is that the rules are so unclear. If you ask for more public money, you are greedy. If you raise it privately, you are elitist. If you increase seat prices, you are evil. I was actually criticised for raising too much money." Kaiser is now happily in charge of Washington's Kennedy Center, where he is staging the first Stephen Sondheim cycle, a project he could never have mounted under English rules.

Every manager must confront a wall of bureaucracies and quangos, each exercising a right of veto. It is impossible to imagine that Ninette de Valois could ever have founded the Royal Ballet or Peter Hall the RSC if they had been required to fight their way through the flummery and form-fillings ("What proportion of your staff are native English-speakers?") that litter the path of any noble soul who tries to realise a vision.

What would Sir Thomas Beecham, when founding two orchestras, have written on a Greater London Arts questionnaire demanding to know how many in his audience were on income support?

This proliferation of busybodies has undermined the right to manage in the performing arts. The visual arts have so far been spared - to obvious effect. Curators of museums and galleries have longer lifespans. Norman Rosenthal has run the Royal Academy for 25 years, Neil Macgregor the National Gallery for 15 and Nicholas Serota the Tate for 14. The missing factor in their productive working lives is the control-freak Arts Council and the pc-police.

If the South Bank is to be saved and the Shakespeare renewed, Mayor Ken must be told to go hang. Lambeth can take a walk. The Culture Secretary must sack the Arts Council from interfering with national companies and allow creative management to flourish once again.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001