We spoke to Leonora Thomson, Interim Artistic Director at the Barbican Centre, about last year's changes and what she and her team have planned for 2021.
The City of London’s Barbican Centre rose to the many unpredictable challenges of 2020. They had to close their doors for many months but that didn’t stop them from supporting their community of artists while totally revamping their free digital offerings – not only connecting with more Londoners, but a larger international audience as well.
We were fortunate enough to talk to Leonora Thomson, Interim Artistic Director at the Barbican Centre, about the past year and what she and her team have planned for 2021.
Thomson noted how “closing the Barbican was undeniably challenging but as they say, every challenge is also an opportunity. A key focus for us did indeed become expanding our digital offer.
“We were already engaging audiences with free, high-quality digital content such as videos, podcasts and playlists through the Read, Watch & Listen area of our website but we were keen to find more ways to future proof our programme while also supporting artists, our partner organisations and the wider arts ecosystem.”
This was achieved through their investment in new technologies, such as their first live-streamed concert series, Live from the Barbican, and their new Cinema on Demand platform – which have both been roaring successes.
They were able to further support artists (not only by continuing to produce work for the public) by pushing forward with their Communities in Residence and Open Labs programmes. Both of these programmes help the local community as well as artists from all over.
They provide safe spaces and vital assistance – working to help many artists who have fallen through the gaps of government assistance. Moreover, people from groups currently under-represented in the arts sector have been particularly encouraged to apply for such programmes.
The arts industry in the UK is in dire need of these services. And the Barbican Centre is perfectly positioned to offer them. This is because they are hugely supported by the City of London Corporation – not relying so heavily on donations, business sponsorships and ticket sales.
Thompson said: “We recognise our privilege due to the vital funding we receive from the City of London Corporation and have tried to support the wider arts sector and local communities by continuing to programme work, offering our spaces to artists, and through initiatives such as our Communities in Residence programme.”
And while Thomson and her team managed to do exceedingly well during 2020, 2021 still offers up so many obstacles. Thomson described planning for 2021 akin to “walking through quicksand at the same time as juggling loads of plates!”
“Many events have had to be rescheduled, some more than once, and it’s been awful letting artists, companies and, of course, audiences down. But people have been incredibly understanding.
“All the art forms have different planning timescales and so different levels of flexibility. So, for example, classical music had been programmed right up to Summer 2021 from the beginning of last year, and the art gallery work years ahead as well. But all of us have just had to be super-flexible – we will learn a lot from this past year”.
2021 won’t be an easy year. But Thompson and her team seem excited, if not also rightly cautious, as they plan ahead. They are ramping up their online offerings now that we are in another national lockdown. And they plan to bring back in-person experiences as soon as it is safe to do so. Below are just a few of their upcoming events we are most pumped to see the Barbican Centre bring to the public during the first half of this year.
The latest exhibition in the Curve gallery, Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory, can still be experienced via a digital video walkthrough of the space. Narrated by Toyin Ojih Odutola, the video reveals an epic cycle of new work that unfurls across the 90-metre-long gallery, exploring an imagined ancient myth conceived by the artist.
They are also still preparing in-person programming for when restrictions allow, including Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, the first major UK exhibition of the work of French artist Jean Dubuffet in over 50 years. He is one of the most provocative voices in postwar modern art who rebelled against conventional ideas of beauty – hoping to capture the poetry of everyday life in a gritty, more authentic way.
Spanning four decades in the studio, Brutal Beauty highlights Dubuffet’s endless experimentation with tools and materials, as he blended paint with shards of glass, coal dust, pebbles, slithers of string and gravel.
Moreover, the Barbican’s podcast series Nothing Concrete will be releasing new episodes, including a discussion with guest speakers Sadie Coles, Sir Richard Alston and Stevie Stewart on the themes raised by their recent Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer exhibition.
There are several online film screenings and events available to view through their Cinema on Demand streaming service, including the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Women of the Gulag that tells the compelling and tragic stories of six female survivors of the Gulag, with a recorded ScreenTalk with director Marianna Yarovskaya; and Coded Bias, a documentary which examines the racial and gender prejudice embedded in artificial intelligence.
Cinema on Demand is available to audiences across the UK with a rolling programme of titles and events that reflect the Barbican’s bold and international cinema programme.
Music & Theatre
A brilliantly uplifting production of the musical Anything Goes will also be landing in their theatre for the summer. The 15-week run will star Emmy & SAG Award Winner Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) making her West End musical debut as Reno Sweeney, and Tony, Olivier & BAFTA Award-Winner Robert Lindsay as Moonface Martin. We can’t wait to get back into a theatre – bring it on.
The successful Live from the Barbican concert series is also planned to return in 2021. This year’s acts include an eclectic mix of artists across different genres, all reflecting the wide spectrum of the Barbican’s distinct music offerings. Get ready for performances by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 12 Ensemble, Benjamin Grosvenor, Moses Boyd, Shirley Collins, Nadine Shah and many more.
Level G Events
Projects from the Level G programme of free public events will still be taking place digitally too. This includes the New Suns Feminist Literary Festival running over the weekend of 5-7 March, with online talks and workshops featuring acclaimed writers, artists, and academics.
The third edition of New Suns will directly explore the legacy of eminent science-fiction author Octavia Butler, and in particular her prophetic, unfinished Earthseed series, which imagines a prescient Earth in the 2020s ravaged by ecological disaster and violent divisions.
They will also be hosting Unclaimed Conversations, an audio project exploring real life-stories and the importance of intergenerational exchange and dialogue at this extraordinary time. This question, of how it feels to age in today’s society, will be unpacked in a number of different ways.
The Barbican Centre won’t be holding back any punches in 2021, leading the charge when it comes to the recovery of London’s artistic community. We all live in this City because of offerings like these – we’ve just got to hold on a little longer. The doors of the barbican Centre, and places like it, will be flung open again. Until then, let’s get our culture fix online and stay safe at home.
Lead image by Max Colson