Tessa Ross’ NT appointment shows theatre means business

London's National Theatre. Photo: David Samuels
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
by -

Britain’s arts, with theatre to the fore, could be in for a new golden age of prosperity – with nothing to do with government. This is business.

Carolyn Dailey was a senior executive at the glossy end of the media. As chief executive for Time-Warner in London she had control of the operations here of CNN, Warner Brothers, Time Inc, moving all of its film, television and magazine content to digital space, until 2012 when she set up on her own as Carolyn Dailey Partners. Now, she has become a broker for culture and the “partners” are the corporates and the creatives that she brings together.

She likes to play a game with the business people she talks to all the time: where does the UK lie, she asks, in the pantheon of global operators in the creative industries? Most people think about it for a bit, weigh up our gaming industry and our expertise in sci-fi FX for movies, and say about seventh. Wrong. There are only two economies that have a global presence in the sector, the UK and US, and guess again which is by far the most powerful. It isn’t the US.

Her point is, not even the creative industries are aware of the influence we have in the world. She is “discreet”, in business parlance, meaning she won’t reveal who her clients are, but she is supremely well connected: she is a life member of BAFTA, she was named recently by the Evening Standard as one of the most powerful women in London, Wired Magazine called her “one of the Top 10 Women Digital Powerbrokers”, and her close friends are the likes of Annie Lennox, Lidia Firth, Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam Gonzales and the woman of the week Tessa Ross CBE. This wired lady is particularly concerned with visual art, architecture, film, TV, fashion, design, digital entertainment and publishing, but like Ross she is turning her attention to theatre, the workshop, as she sees it, of much of the above. She works creative sectors, communications, marketing, branding and business development, creativity, media, business and academia, and she has the ear of politicians ion this country and elsewhere. Her point is that our creative industries, worth £70 billion and employing nearly three million people are ripe for investment but that the businesses that could benefit are not even aware of it.

A large part of the reason is that the arts are not entrepreneurial enough, not aware of the importance of their own brand; they need business discipline to make the best of the market that is hungry for what the UK has to offer.

That is not to say that the subsidised sector is out of the reckoning. On the contrary. Arts Council England is aware of the possibilities there are for our best theatre, music, dance and visual art and has been feeling for a way to give our art makers an introduction to the overseas markets, while the cost of touring continues to be forbidding. That is about to change. ACE is about to get a windfall in a return of money lost to the 2012 Olympics, and something in the region of £20 million is coming back to be invested – a word the arts council prefers to “funded” – taking our best offerings abroad where their earning can multiply, probably in consultation with the British Council. This is an initiative close to the hearts of both ACE chair Pater Bazalgette and the chief executive Alan Davey.

And the third element of the mix suggesting a brighter earning future for the arts is that pal of Dailey’s, Tessa Ross, the head of Film4 and the godmother of the British film industry, having seen the potential and backed the unlikely Oscar winners Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave. Much to everyone’s surprise she is switching her sights to the theatre, as the new (and first) chief executive of the National Theatre, working with the next artistic director Rufus Norris. No-one, says Carolyn Dailey, has a better grasp on the global market for our cultural creativity than Ross. She starts in a year's time, and signals a change in attitude that could not only see National Theatre productions earning on foreign stages, but in the co-productions with regional play-makers that Norris is keen to forge.