Artistic License: Will Gompertz steers the Barbican Centre into the future

Will Gompertz outside the Barbican. Photograph by Richard Pohle

Despite being one of the busiest people in the industry, former BBC Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, sat down with Flora Neighbour to discuss his first year as Artistic Director at the Barbican Centre, how he navigated the arts centre out of a pandemic, and why the City of London is the real hero.

It’s almost been a year since you took the role as the Barbican Centre’s Artistic Director. Are you feeling settled?

It’s gone incredibly quickly. In one way, yes, I feel settled, but, in another way, I don’t think you can ever feel settled working at the Barbican Centre because there is so much going on.

If you think about it, the centre has a world-class theatre, a world-class concert hall, two world-class galleries and three world-class cinemas all under one roof and all operating at the same time. If you asked me to tell you exactly what is going on in every part of this building for the next week, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but that variety is what makes the centre so special.

So, to answer your question, it is almost impossible to ever feel settled, but in terms of getting the measure of the place, I feel part of the team and don’t get lost anymore!

How did it feel taking on such a responsibility with so much uncertainty during a pandemic?

It’s interesting. I was reporting on the pandemic while at the BBC and writing about how it was affecting businesses and London’s cultural scene. When I arrived at the Barbican Centre on June 1, the UK was taking its first tentative steps out of the pandemic. I started my job in a building that was virtually empty, but it was a terrific way of meeting all of the people who work at the centre – some I may not have had the opportunity to if it had been busy at the start.

It wasn’t quiet for long, however, as something extraordinary happened. When other places seemed to be struggling, people came in their droves to visit the Barbican Centre, and all of our shows as we crept out of the pandemic were hits!

Take for instance the play, Anything Goes. It sold out every single night and we had to extend the dates too. People wanted joy and to feel a sense of ‘normality’, so my job to get people back to the centre wasn’t a difficult one.

What I thought might be a very slow process of getting the centre back to where it was before, was actually pretty swift, which is mainly to do with the incredible programmes we have at the centre.

Does this role differ greatly compared to your previous roles?

I was at the Tate before working at the BBC, and, when I started at the Barbican, an old friend of mine from the Tate said ‘welcome back to the supply side’.

I loved the BBC, I loved every single second of it but my role there was specialist. When the broader role of Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre came up, I knew I wanted to be at the helm. The role isn’t just reporting on the arts but influencing the industry too. I can now shape a programme, which is exciting and the right thing for me at this time in my career.

What were your priorities when you started? And are they still the same today?

I did and still do have very clear priorities. An art centre like the Barbican, which is a significant institution, needs to reflect and represent the society in which it belongs. The Barbican does do this to some degree but we’re not doing enough.

I think there is room to develop the Barbican and its programme over the coming years so it really feels like it reflects and represents London. This is in terms of diversity, equity and opportunity. I’d also like to see more work on our programme coming from the community, and I want more people to use the centre as a civic space.

I want to take the centre from just an arts centre and turn it into an arts, education and enterprise centre. I want the Barbican Centre to be somewhere where people can learn, make, watch, and enjoy.

Have you seen any changes start to happen since you started?

Absolutely. We are setting up education programmes within the centre which offer jobs at the end. We’ll also be opening up learning spaces and studio spaces, so a lot of the work I hope to see has already started.

It can’t be done overnight and we have to maintain the Barbican original essence while adapting and progressing.

One of the real heroes in this is the City of London. I don’t think it gets enough credit for all it has achieved with the Barbican. Creating an arts centre in the middle of a community was the City’s utopian idea.

The City of London has continued to invest in the centre for the 40 years it’s been here and has stayed loyal to the centre, even through the pandemic. This has allowed the Barbican to emerge out of the last difficult few years in good shape financially and artistically.

The Barbican to me is special as it has that City of London DNA, which is that willingness to connect with the world, to share ideas, be ambitious and also welcoming.

What are you most proud of so far working at the Barbican Centre?

We had a long weekend to mark our 40th anniversary in March this year. The way it was programmed really represented the past, present and future Barbican.

We had an amazing exhibition in the Curve gallery from the Bishopsgate Institute which looked back at 40 years of LGBTQ+ experiences in London, which told individual stories. I was really proud of that as I could see the Barbican was moving progressively.

The weekend helped the Barbican to feel so alive and so vibrant. This was the Barbican we wanted.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s something for you here. The audience is incredibly diverse and the arts available help bring different communities together.

What can we expect from the Barbican Centre in the coming years?

I think you can expect a really renewed education programme to get young people into the arts from local communities. You can also expect to see a programme that really celebrates the Barbican’s eclectic uniqueness. I’d argue that the only time the Barbican’s programming makes sense, is when it makes no sense.

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