Interview: Sir John Tusa

Sir John Tusa, distinguished broad-caster and arts champion, has just handed over management of the Barbican after 12 years and will now become chairman of the University of the Arts (which brings together the top six art colleges in London). Serious and practical in manner, Sir John believes that the Barbican, celebrating 25 years since it was opened, is in good heart. ‘There’s nothing like it:all the arts under one coherent artistic directorship. It has been a wonderful experience. I’ve always been learning something new.’

The Barbican in its 1960s Brutalist, campus-like headquarters in an area redeveloped after wartime bombing is like a cultural city within a city. Sir John concedes it was long in the gestation, first discussed in 1955, but in the end, ‘on the advice of Anthony Besch, the Corp-oration of London upscaled from a local arts centre to one of international potential. Thank goodness, they did’.

Sir John was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, his parents coming to England in 1939 his father was the managing director of the Bata shoe factory at Tilbury in Essex. Was he conscious of being from another country in his youth? ‘For the first few years, my parents spoke Czech at home, until I think I asked them not to. Little things made me feel different. I recall that at boarding school, my friends all had fruit cake, but I was sent off with chocolate eclairs, which didn’t last so long and felt foreign.

‘I feel very British and very European. I always say the one thing that I can’t be is English. I am never frightened by foreignness in the way the English often are.’ At school, at Gresham’s in Norfolk, he enjoyed the arts and was in all the 1st teams for cricket, rugby and football: ‘We were encouraged to do everything.’ His parents were keen theatre-goers, driving down to the West End every Saturday. At Cambridge, he studied history, where he had inspirational teachers, including Peter Laslett and Walter Ullman. ‘I can remember Ullman teaching me to read papal documents carefully to understand subtle shifts in papal policy. This came in useful for reading Communist policy documents when I became a news journalist. I also had a great history teacher at my prep school, John Mackintosh, who was just brilliant on battles.’

His decision to go into journalism, felt, he says, a natural extension of his training as a historian: ‘I was either going to do research or journalism. In 1960, it was impossible not to be aware of international politics, with the Cold War and decolonisation going on.’What did his experience in current affairs bring to his role at the Barbican? ‘I think that what I have brought to both the World Service and the Barbican is this: that in order to understand itself, an institution must learn about its own history, and try to understand and learn about itself. If you understand your history, you are in a better position to define what it does now.’

How does he escape from the business of the arts? ‘My wife and I do church crawls in East Anglia, most recently to Marks Tey. We visited many fine churches we hadn’t seen before absolute magic. Historic churches are so varied and so beautiful, and have such a sense of place in their communities.’ Sir John and his wife, a historian and author, also travel in the Middle East: ‘We have been to Iraq and Afghanistan looking at wonderful Islamic art and architecture, and to Libya to look at Classical remains.’

On State funding of the arts, he is forthright. ‘If State funding is not kept at the present levels in real terms, everything that has been achieved over the past seven to eight years will be lost. We have a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 balance it’s very British own income, State subsidy, corporate sponsorship. We have

a very alert, very competitive arts sector, which receives much less subsidy than in many other countries. But it doesn’t cost much in the national budget, so don’t upset this balance.’