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.

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