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Will the ROH be next to benefit from the Tate touch?

Alex Beard. Photo: ROH
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Well, it’s not Alan Rusbridger, not Alistair Spalding, not Jude Kelly, not Brian McMaster, not Nick Kenyon, not even Ruth Mackenzie. And why we should be surprised that it is Alex Beard who has been chosen to take over from Tony Hall at the head of the Royal Opera House I’m mystified, but we all got it wrong.

Beard, still under 50, has spent his career in the shadow of Nicholas Serota at Tate. He has been there since 1994 and, as finance director, wrote the business plan for Tate Modern. His reward was promotion to deputy director and the task of expanding the Bankside vision to the £200m+ plan that is now under way. This year he got the CBE, but still remained under the radar.

He is not the only one to have come out of the Tate school of arts management. Julian Bird, the still newish chief executive of the Society of London Theatre who has rescued the Oliviers. Destined for a career in banking, he had ducked out to become chief operating officer at the Tate, the job he was doing when SOLT beckoned. He’d had no experience of the performing arts either, but it doesn’t matter. The particular skills they have learned are interchangable.

[pullquote] Tony Hall was at least as much of a surprise 12 years ago, and if he has taught us anything about these big jobs it is not that they need creatives; they need enablers.[/pullquote]

But Beard is different. He was deeply embedded in the Tate culture, quietly manoeuvring behind the scenes to make things happen, and if anyone other than Serota is responsible for the phenomenal Tate development of the last 20 years, it is Beard. He as much as anyone is responsible for letting people realise they loved contemporary art when they didn’t even know they liked it.

Hall was at least as much of a surprise 12 years ago, and if he has taught us anything about these big jobs it is not that they need creatives; they need enablers, and Hall’s great talent was to know when to allow things to happen and when not. Serota says that Beard will bring “imagination, competence and an understanding of what it means to work with artistic directors” to Covent Garden, well chosen words. It’s what Alan Bishop has quietly done at the Southbank, gently moulding Jude Kelly’s visions.

Beard won’t have a project with the enormity of Bankside to take on in September, but there is still the £24m “Open Up” project for which Stanton Williams have just the won the feasibility study commission, the scheme to make the Opera House more visible and inviting to the passing public.  He will have to raise the money, with a public appeal being launched just about as he starts the job.

The Opera House under Hall and the chairman, Simon Robey, has assembled probably the most talented creative team in Europe at the moment, and in the spirit of “opening out” which Tate started, the Southbank is continuing and Covent Garden is pursuing, he will have to ensure that they can do what they do without too much perturbation from the funding strictures that are going to be continually loaded on the arts – yet another 1% is about to be handed down by the Department for Culture, Media and Spor.

Politicians, he will know, don’t change things and they don’t leave legacies; they often get in the way and make things more difficult, but artists will always make art and what they make has never been better. Beard is one of the generation of managers that has to stand between politicians’ weird accounting and the makers to ensure they are not damagingly disturbed, and that their growing public continues to have something to cheer.

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