Wednesday, February 28, 2007

 

A busy week

A week of diverse personalities, ranging from a group of young Syrian physicists to the new British Ambassador. In between I met someone who has developed a concept for a robot them park; robots can be controlled remotely by people dialling up via the web, and then can interact with people visiting the park. Not as good as it sounds, sadly, as the range of robot movement is limited to a sort of skating progress in a limited area, whilst flapping arms and opening mouths. And it would be interesting to know what happens if someone remotely controlling a robot chose to make it take a swipe at a visitor to the park, or ran over a toddler... Still, useful to meet someone with some electro-mechanical knowledge, which we will need.

Then a visit from someone advocating pranic healing. This is a spiritual process, involving a series of squats while holding the earlobes and facing north, to channel energy to the brain. Lots of pseudo-science to back it up, all written by people with the letters MPH after their names, which seems to stand for Master of Pranic Healing, so as Christine Keeler said: they would say that, wouldn't they? Still, I'm trying the exercises, as my poor old brain needs all the help it can get.

Next lunch with the manager of the Four Seasons hotel to keep him updated on our development of the Old International Fairground site, which is just opposite his hotel. Spent time talking about maintaining levels of customer service, which I think they are very good at, sourcing high quality local suppliers, staff training, car park provision and project management. All good stuff, and he is very supportive. He suggested his investor might be interested in commercial opportunities on the site, and perhaps supporting the project financially. Will be good if so.

New ambassador seems like a good change from the old, if only because he is a more engaging character, with what seems to be quite a wicked sense of humour. I spent an hour with him and a few embassy staff before a dinner he was hosting, and then afterwards downed a few of Scotland's finest before heading off to bed. Interesting to get the official UK perspective on Syria.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

 

Ways of Seeing and Kitaj

I re-read John Berger's book Ways of Seeing on the plane back from London recently. It lacked the extraordinary power I remember from the original television series, and as a book felt rather small and cheaply produced. Most photos are in black and white and on fairly ordinary paper. However, I enjoyed once more his thesis that the Leonardo Cartoon in the National Gallery took on a whole different meaning once an American collector had tried to buy it for a record price. It became famous for its price tag and, Berger argues, looked at and treated in a new way. On a different scale, something similar happened at the V&A while I was there. In those days London Underground published a series of destination posters, promoting places to visit by Tube. To the consternation of the V&A's sculpture department, one of these posters appeared featuring a Young Slave by Michelangelo at the V&A. The image was a charcoal sketch of the work by - I think - artist RB Kitaj, and focussed on a detail of the figure's torso. It looked marvellous, significant and bigger than life-size, and it was also delightful that London Underground were promoting the V&A.

The only problem, hence the consternation, was that visitors were turning up to see this great statue, couldn't find it, and noone at the information desk knew anything about it. In fact the work was not, as it appeared from the poster, a huge prominent statue but a small blackened wax model, perhaps 15 cm high, and it was displayed in a badly-lit case with dozens of other wax models, all looking a bit like an Anthony Gormley assemblage. Kitaj had not chosen one of the museum's featured pieces but had plucked one from all-but obscurity and made it a star. He had danced with the wallflower. Somehow the V&A had now to give it the treatment. There was a hurried discussion, and the wax Slave was quickly given a case of its own, still badly lit, but at least easier to find and look at. In its new case it then took on the attributes of a signature object, one worthy of special attention. Later, it was one of the works included in an exhibition of pieces from the V&A's collection that toured North America. Like Leonardo's cartoon it took on new significance, not this time because of a price tag but because someone with an eye plucked it from the heap, and opened other eyes as well. The piece, by the way, is great. You can see the sculptor's thumbprints on it. Had I ever noticed it before Kitaj? No.

Pic courtesy of V&A

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Monday, February 19, 2007

 

Honesty, trust and the grapevine

I wrote last year or so about the First Lady's reliance on people she can trust to give her a view of reality and enable her to reach a reasoned assessment. I felt then, and still feel, that I am one of the people she does trust because I don't have anything particular to gain by not telling her the truth about how things are. However, I realise that the counterpoint to this form of sense-checking is that a) it is still highly subjective, agenda-driven and opinionated, given that most people she consults do have a vested interest in what she thinks, and b) she will often trust the view of a non-expert she knows over an expert she doesn't. In fact, I'm finding that she places quite a lot of weight on unsubstantiated gossip, whether about her, the President or her projects, as if the grapevine had a sort of oracular quality.

Don't get me wrong; I'm delighted she consults (as if it matters whether I approve or not!) and it's good to know what is the word on the street, or at least the word that reaches her. But given that one instinct here is to try to look good by making others look bad, defensive criticism is rather a common currency, and some of the more negative stuff that comes back to me about Massar is really not worthy of her consideration. It's also the case that rather than sort out issues (which always crop up) between the managers concerned, people here always send things up the pipe until they come to a point of shared responsibility. They discharge their own responsibility to sort the prolem our by reporting it to their manager. For almost all non-governmental projects, that means Ministers and Governors getting issues fed up to them and they of course raise them with the First Lady's office, and she then with me. So, however trivial, they are immediately given substance, and take on the appearance of exceptional problems rather than the normal bumps that any project encounters and has to work through.

I am fighting against the desire to Do Unto Others in this respect. There is one trusted advisor to Mrs A with whom we are having quite a lot of dealings at the moment. She is universally regarded as someone only out for herself, who starts up projects that make her look good but doesn't stick with them, doesn't keep her word, and she is making mischief for us. Yet the First Lady trusts her implicitly and won't hear a word against her. So I smile and keep quiet.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

 

History rewritten

I was struck in this (see previous post) history of the National Gallery by how the author tended to see the time of director Michael Levey as one of oatmeal hessian and carpets, which then his successor Neil MacGregor replaced with more "traditional" wooden floors and silk-covered walls. Of course it wasn't so clear-cut as that at all between the two regimes. I was there in Michael Levey's time, and spent a considerable portion of my job commissioning silk wall-coverings to replace oatmeal hessian. I remember spending hours - very enjoyably - at the studio of Bridget Riley, who was a Trustee of the gallery, trying to determine the exact shade of dark red for fabric to replace the natural biscuit colour walls of the modern Northern extension. So there was already a movement back towards an older aesthetic in how gallery spaces should look, long before MacGregor arrived. Michael Levey's directorship also saw some really excellent initiatives. The Artist's Eye series, for example, where a major artist - Kitaj, Hockney, for example - selected works from the collection and built them into a thesis that illuminated their own ways of looking and creating, was superb.

I remember the private view of the Hockney show vividly, but mainly for the wrong reasons. One of his guests was a famous British author, also from Yorkshire, who had had his moment of enfance terrible in the sixties. During the course of the evening he got steadily more and more drunk, very benignly and quite loudly, and wandered from guest to guest introducing himself and saying "I'm a writer, y'know". The curator organising the exhibition, Alistair Smith, at length felt that it would be best if the writer (y'know) was put into a cab, and they linked arms and prepared to descend the stairs to the main entrance. There was something of a crowd watching them go, and the writer very carefully put one foot on the top step, and then equally carefully put the other foot on the next. By step four, however, it was apparent that the pace of descent was steadily increasing, and by step eight, the writer and Alistair were hurtling, arms still linked, legs working faster and faster, down the stairs. With an appalled fascination we all watched as, still gathering pace, still embracing, they reached the bottom and slid into a collapsed heap on the marble floor. These things were not normally seen at National Gallery private views, more's the pity.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

 

Maggi Hambling

Picking through a recently published history of the National Gallery by Jonathan Conlin, I noticed he had listed Jock McFadyen as the gallery's first artist-in-residence. In fact the honour went to Maggi Hambling, an inspired choice for this novel position. Gruff, impatient and straight-talking in the polite and slightly fey world of curatorial delicatesse, a furious smoker in a non-smoking environment, outrageous, hat-wearing and paint-covered, Maggi at first seemed like a being from another planet when she first arrived at the gallery. Used to painting in natural light, she was of course allocated a studio space almost entirely without daylight, and instead lit wholly with spotlights. After some expletives, Maggi went on to do a series of atmospheric sketches and portrait paintings making use of the strong shadows and highlights thrown by the spots. I have a charcoal sketch from 1980 for a painting she called Mac with Shadows, which the gallery now owns. I remember wandering into her studio once and finding her with her trousers round her ankles having a pee in the sink, the loos being too far away. I of course was covered with confusion. Maggi was hooting with laughter. She was marvellous with the public, and established the role of artist-in-residence as firmly as if it had been running for a decade.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

 

Any auditors out there?

One of the ways in which, to my prejudiced eye, finance departments justify their desire to control the universe down to a DNA level is by blaming the auditors. "The auditors require this." "The auditors won't allow that." I'd really like to see a charter, headed "Oh No, We Don't" from the auditor community at large, on behalf of managers everywhere driven to distraction by nit-picking demands from their Finance Departments.

Today, the news is of $9 billion - $9 billion! - in cash lost by the US in Iraq. Lugged it over in $100 bills on pallets wrapped in clingfilm and then - erm - lost track of it. Now THAT'S a number auditors should be worried by, but man reponsible Paul Bremer seems to have got a very reasonable excuse. We handed it over to the local authorities and then didn't check, because there was a lot going on at the time. Now if that works for him, I'm damned if I know why I should have to provide a boarding pass stub to prove I've taken a flight. Oh yes, because the auditors require it. Come on people, help me out here.

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Trust, Foundation, how will it turn out?

I've had a productive chat with Mrs Assad about the Foundation, as it is now going to be called (the matter of coming up with a final name has taken a lot of unresolved discussion, but the official and legal title is The Syria Foundation for Development - not sexy but at least it's agreed).

The gist of the chat was my unease about what sort of organisation this Foundation looks set to become. My belief is that it needs to be directed towards its public outcomes - getting the work done with individuals and communities - not towards becoming an institution, however respectable. I believe it should be as small as possible, challengingly exciting to work for, passing responsibility to young people in the team and supporting them like mad while they grow in the role. I think it should aim to be fast, flexible, creative, risk-ready, inspiring. In other words, not the usual corporate model. I've raised these things before in early discussions with the consultants who advised on the shape and formation of the Foundation, but their rather more conventional viewpoint held sway.

Syria needs a new model for organisations desperately. It really hasn't even got good companies yet, let alone ground-breaking ones. There's still a strong hierarchical culture in business, an absence of good delegation, low teamwork at every level, resistance to accepting reponsibility. We have a unique opportunity, it seems to me, to change that , and establish (sorry) a new paradigm. But so far, I don't see that happening. In the projects themselves, the language is of doing things in new ways, empowerment, decentralisation, fun, ideas. Over the top looms the possibility of an old-fashioned, by-the-numbers body, which won't be a joy to work for, and where the accountants rule.

I think we've done some good work on setting out values for this organisation, but they won't be enough to shape the Foundation's behaviour or attitude on their own. The culture depends on our dreams for a different way to get things done, a different view of people and by people. I unearthed a paper I had downloaded some years back in which it says something like: people should be motivated by what they can contribute, not what they take home. Positively, my sense is that Mrs Assad wants the same. Let's hope.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

 

Rain

We have had almost a week of wet weather, with quite heavy rain. Looking back, I can't remember more than a single wet day in a row over the past year, so what is coming down now is not just unusual, but very much needed. Last night, when a combination of discovering a busy ants' nest in the kitchen and hearing neighbours on both sides banging and bumping things around had got me exercised, I went and sat outside for an hour and listened to the rain pouring down on the garden and the roof of the car port. Very soothing.

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Refugees in Syria

Official figures show there are about 1 million refugees from Iraq in Syria. Unofficially, if you talk to people here, they reckon it must be nearer 3 million. The consequences can be seen on the street: there are more beggars (there were hardly any two years ago), many with limbs missing; prices of basic foods have shot up - eggs have almost doubled in price in just a few months; the roads are even more crammed with traffic. Property prices have risen too, especially for rented apartments. It can't be easy for Iraqis seeking refuge here. They can enter only on tourist visas and have to go back to the Iraq border every six months to get a fresh visa. But they do find in Syria a society that is tolerant and safe, and which shows none of the resentment towards these disruptive numbers of incomers that one would find, for example in the UK. I read with shame that Britain has granted only a handful of asylum visas to the UK for Iraqi refugees in spite of our responsibility for creating this situation.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

 

Government support

Went to a meeting last night with the Deputy Prime Minister, an occasion which had been postponed several times late last year due to commitments of various parties. It was to discuss the possibility of some government fundng for the project, and how this should be managed. There were various bods from the Ministry of Education and the State Planning Commission present, and I had hoped to squeeze perhaps $30million from the process. In the event, we arrived at a commitment of over $100million spread across five years, funds to be made available via the Min of Ed. This was all so heartening I could hardly believe it. There are some small (I hope) issues to be sorted out in terms of accountability and reporting. In effect we now have the project almost entirely underwritten by government, which will give a huge boost to our fundraising, and enable us to commit fully to the big numbers we will be spending on the discovery centre over the next three years. Given the speed of the programme, the prospect of having to halt at any stage while we waited for funds had been a major worry.

In exchange, I have lent the Deputy PM my set of Blackadder DVDs. I think I may also send him Yes Minister.

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