Friday, March 10, 2006


Brushes with celebrities

I was brushing my teeth the other night when into my head popped a memory of first one, and then another experience, when I was at the V&A. Both involved famous people, Sean Connery and the Beckhams, or more precisely their agents.

When we were developing the exhibition "A Grand Design" which toured North America there was a discussion about who would do the audio guide commentary. Baltimore Museum of Art, who were partners in this venture, had recently used Meryl Streep (I believe) for an audio guide and had got rave reviews. So we wondered who might do this show, and I suggested Sean Connery - an unmistakable voice, very much a man of the people, famous all over the world - he would be marvellous. As is the way, I was given the job of finding out if he would be interested. So I faxed his agent in America explaining what we had in mind - exhibition of major works of art, touring to major venues, seen by millions, etc.

Time went by with no reply so I telephoned. "Yes, we received your fax." "And is Mr Connery (or I may have called him Sir Sean) interested?" "Can you tell us more about the Victoria and Albert Museum, please?" So I explained that it was the UK's foremost museum of decorative arts, housed over a million works of art and design, was internationally renowned and so on. "And does it contain objects from Scotland in its collections?" "Yes, indeed, many works by Scottish artists, some pieces from Scottish houses, there will be a nice Robert Adam piece in the exhibition." "And the Victoria and Albert Museum is in London England?" "Yes indeed." "Well, you will be aware that Mr Connery (or she may have said Sir Sean) is Scottish." "Yes" "And he believes in Scotland's independence from England." "Yes." "So it is unlikely that he will support an English museum which holds works of art and design taken from Scotland and which should properly be returned there." "So he won't do it?" "No." "I see."

What I suspected of course was that Sean Connery hadn't even had this request put in front of him. His agent, acting I'm sure from the best of protective motives but with apparently complete lack of understanding of how art moves across borders, was using one of his passions as an excuse to get rid of this unprofitable nuisance, me. A pretty feeble excuse, in fact, and one which quite unreasonably made me feel less warmly towards the great man himself.

Then there was the time when the V&A tried to persuade the Beckhams, very soon after their high-profile wedding, that they should lend their wedding outfits to the V&A for a display. There had been huge interest in the wedding and what Victoria and David had worn, particularly in her dress, and one of the fashion curators was determined to capture this public fascination. I can't remember how I got lumbered with trying to negotiate this one (I think it was because the Daily Mirror was involved somehow), but I found myself dealing with the Beckham's agents, in telephone conversations which seemd to drag on for weeks.

"What will you pay?" "Well, we're a poor museum and we don't have any budget for this. We'd give it a nice display though, and maybe a party." "But if we lent you these wedding outfits, you'd be able to charge to see them, you'd be raking in the money." "Actually we planned to put them on display in the public galleries, not to charge for entry." "But what's in it for us?" "There's a lot of public interest in the outfits, and the Beckhams would be showing that they respond to public interest." "No, but what will we get?" And so it went on, the agents unable to see that a presence in the V&A could give their clients a different form of credibility, that generosity made a statement, that there could be any sort of benefit other than financial, that this was a deal in any way different from the deals they were no doubt striking daily with sportswear manufacturers and fashion houses. Nothing came of it of course, except that I met various charming people who had likewise been ticked off by the Beckhams in one way or another.

In fact I don't dislike the Beckhams at all, and I admire David. But in both these cases I wonder if the agents really were doing the best job for their clients. I have no doubt that the famous get inundated by calls for their generosity, and that somehow judgements have to be made on what to support and what not. In the case of the Beckhams, though, I found their agents closed to any but the most obvious opportunities. Their clients were being routinely portrayed in the media as thick and common, an unpleasant profile to have. Properly handled, this could have been an opportunity to offset that image, put across a different personality, perhaps to help focus on Victoria's charity, or at least to mingle in a different world from pop and football. If I had an agent I'd want them to be able to see a bigger picture than just the money, and the image of the Beckhams since then convinces me that they still haven't got that sort of advice.

Naively, I thought both times that if I'd just been able to speak directly to the person concerned we could have done a deal in a few minutes. I'd have flown to LA and had a round of golf with Sean Connery, if that would have clinched it. Of course I would.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Programme stories

We've just finished activities in the south of the country in Dar'a and Sueida, both very popular. We're averaging 975 children per week of activity, very close to our optimum capacity of around 1000, that's 12,676 children in total now. I'm feeling very pleased with that, but I'm just as pleased with the reactions of people, and the little stories which the team bring back with them. In Sueida one teacher burst into floods of tears, because she had been longing for 20 years for something like this to be available for her pupils. Zuhair had to call one of the green team to look after her because he was about to start crying too.

Dina asked one teenager in Dar'a what she liked best about the debate activity. "Expressing myself" was the reply. But, Dina asked, was there something specific, like making the video clips or designing a newspaper front page, that excited you a lot. "Just expressing myself and exchanging views was best" came the reply. And that says a lot about how much this programme offers young people chances to think, exchange views, have an opinion and be listened to, that they just don't get in their normal lives. One teenager from the north said he wished his parents could have been with him so that they could see and hear him in the debate, and realise that he has his own point of view about the world.

We get a few parents uneasy about the start of the show, where children are encouraged to shout and wave their arms about. We have to explain that this is very deliberate - by working off some of the children's physical energy at the beginning of the programme, we reduce the likelihood that they'll get disruptive later on. And everyone, teachers especially, comments on how much control the green team have over the children, all done with a few very effective techniques which still allow lots of freedom and spontaneity. Lots of adults ask where we found these "professionals" and are amazed when we explain that the green team were recruited by advertisement, and had three weeks' training to do what they're doing now.

Next week we start to tackle the north and east of the country - much more rural areas by and large, so I'm expecting still more different responses.



The site - not so simple

I'm not very regular with this blog, to say the least. Sometimes when I'm here in Syria life just seems to be spent in front of the PC churning out papers, think pieces, reports, spreadsheets, purchase orders, emails in and out, presentations, progress charts and the like, and it's great to be able to just close down the PC at the end of the day and take myself off for the evening. Sometimes I get so immersed in the project that I just don't introspect, if that's a verb, and the blog doesn't get considered. And I suppose sometimes it's just a fact that Syria is now more normal to me, so the things that struck me as strange when I first arrived, now I just take for granted.

So, where are we now? Well, having thought that we had all the issues to do with the site for the discovery centre sorted out, we now have had the full Syria treatment. Damascus has a new Governor, after the previous one left at short notice, and he has been quite properly getting himself up to speed on matters to do with the project (which he fully supports) and the site, aka turning over stones. Under which he has found the most interesting number of wriggling lifeforms, which his staff should have known about, but either didn't or chose not to tell him.

First, the site's ownership is unclear. It seems it might belong to a body which administers charitable religious donations. Or it might belong to a body which cares for sick animals. Or a bit of both. No papers appear to exist to determine this one way or the other. As this question determines just who may have a say in what happens on the site, it is one which the planning department - you might have thought - would have cleared away some three years ago. But no. This makes it unclear what powers the Governorate itself has to approve or commission any work on the site.

So the first piece of work to take place, an underground car park (gift of the city of Vienna) which has to start soon if the rest of the work on-site is to run to schedule, has been put on hold.

Next, the broad plan for the site involved clearing a restaurant from the north-west corner. It now appears that the restaurant's owners have negotiated an extended lease until 2010 with .... the International Fair management group, who have been running trade shows on a new site for some three years now, and effectively have no further role in the administration of this old site. Except that apparently no-one has terminated their management responsibilities, so they are still entitled to act as a contracting party.

Then, we were told that the electricity company have been given permission by the Governorate to erect a 20 by 25 metre concrete electrical sub-station on the site. In the middle of what is supposed to be a new, beautiful, green public park. It appears that one of the Governorate planning team, without reference to us, visited the site with the electricity company and agreed a position for this monstrosity.

I have suggested a draconian compulsory purchase order for the whole site, and an order to render all contracts relating to any part of it terminated. I don't know if that will happen, but something fairly prescriptive is needed quick. This site has enough complications without all this stuff stopping progress. As an example of why things go wrong in Syria, it's fairly untypical, but it shows you can't let any assumption go unchecked. Lesson learned.

I reported as follows: 

A number of issues have arisen to do with the planning of the OIF site, apparently as a result of the Governor’s recent enquiries.  In brief, these are as follows:

The formal/legal ownership of the site is unclear.  It appears it may belong to a body responsible for religious endowments, or one responsible for animal welfare.
As a result of this, it is unclear what actual powers the Governor has over the site, and whether the Governorate can decide and act independently, or simply be a facilitator of planning and works on the site accountable to the actual owner.
While this issue is unresolved, progress on the underground car park by Vimpex has been halted.
It seems likely that there has been no formal hand-back of powers vested in the International Fair’s managing body in respect of the OIF site, and that they consider themselves still part of the OIF management process.  Although they have a new site, they have apparently just signed an extension of the contract with the Nobles Palace restaurant to 2010 on the old site.
The previous Governor had apparently invited proposals from Gulf development companies for wholesale redevelopment of the OIF site, and these are now starting to arrive. 
The electricity company is proposing to put an electrical sub-station onto the site, of around 25 x 20 x 6 metres in size.  This is news to us but apparently has been discussed and agreed by Mr Nwelati.
The sports centre development is already in trouble.  Work has been rushed, and changes are already having to be made to foundation works.

In addition:

We still await drawings showing the revisions to the University library building
Nothing has been received from Dr Diab who is collating the terms of reference for the competition.

Good though it is that these issues are surfacing, they should have been resolved more than a year ago.  The situation now is a shambles, and looks to require some diplomatic but uncompromising treatment to resolve it.  If it is not resolved the prospect of a second Omayyad Square fiasco looms, and completion dates will slip.

Immediately, we have proposed to the Governor that all works of any sort of the site stop until we have sorted the situation out.  He agrees, and will instruct his people.  He is making enquiries to establish the legal ownership of the site and the status of the Governorate.  He is also clarifying the Nobles Palace contract matter.

I have briefed CI, and unless we can get a quick resolution, will ask them to stand down their upcoming engineering inspection of the site.

For speed and clarity I would recommend some major steps, that could quickly remove the variables which are causing the problems:
The site (from Dar Al-Assad theatre to Handicraft Soukh is declared a national treasure and acquired (preferably by gift) for the nation
It is formally and legally vested in a dedicated trust, accountable to the President’s Office
The Governor is commissioned to redevelop it
The Children’s Project is commissioned to Masterplan and manage the redevelopment
All prior claims or initiatives (IF management status, Gulf developers, etc) are declared null and void


Thursday, March 02, 2006


Any the wiser?

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