A light grilling…

John Orna-Ornstein
Director of Museums and the East region for Arts Council England

Give us a quick overview of your career to date and how you got here.
Most of my career has focused on one organisation – the British Museum (BM) – but I arrived there almost by accident. Towards the end of a degree in archaeology I wrote to every museum in London and only had one positive answer – from the BM. Within a few months I was a curator there in the department of coins and medals. After several years I left to work for an international development agency, but eventually found myself pulled back to the BM, this time to run the museum’s community programmes and national partnership work. This led pretty naturally into my current role – director of museums for the Arts Council.

What are your top 3 artistic or cultural experiences of all time?
Impossible. But let’s say:
•    I loved Simon McBurney’s The Encounter that I saw at the Barbican a month ago. It was clever and tender and thoughtful and funny, one of those evenings that passes in a flash. A privilege to be in the hands of a consummate storyteller.
•    Less enjoyable but equally memorable was an evening last year at a performance of Peter Maxwell Davies Vesalli Icones exploring the stations of the cross through a single dancer. It was hard work – I’d have left part way through if I could without being rude – but somehow I came away from the evening changed. There’s a lesson there.
•    Museums. I spent a brilliant day touring all of the University of Cambridge’s nine museums. Extraordinary collections, from a piece of Mars to finches collected by Darwin, took me through history and across the world in a single, memorable, exhausting day.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role at Arts Council East?
The people, the places, the work. My role is split – with responsibility for museums nationally and the development of arts and culture in the east of England. I’ve previously been based in the south west, but the east is my home patch (I’ve lived in Hertfordshire for 20 years). I’m looking forward to seeing great work, meeting creative people and getting to know the region better.

What deserves more investment: the past, or the future?
The future. Forget the past except where it has some value for the present and the future (and, of course, I think it often does). But I don’t believe we keep collections or heritage for its own sake; rather we preserve things because they bring a texture to our lives today and inspire us for the future. Show me the artist that hasn’t been inspired by the past?

If money were no object, how do you think the arts and culture might be different?
It would be better and worse. In the world of museums, the investment of millions of pounds of lottery money has created some of the world’s best museums and galleries. But I wonder if it’s also stifled change and creativity at times? Great art and culture doesn’t always need huge financial investment.
But with more money our sector would also be more diverse; it’s partly the low wages and lack of security that makes a career in the arts inaccessible to large parts of the population.

What do you think Arts Council does well?
I’ve been at the Arts Council for two years now. It’s more flexible and fleet of foot than I’d expected. Change is easier to achieve than at the British Museum! It’s good at relationships – from a high political level to working closely with individual arts organisations.

…. and could do better?
We’re consulting at the moment on some big changes, including integrating museums and libraries more effectively and a greater focus on individual artists. On the former, I believe this will help us to make more effective decisions that focus on place and impact rather than art or culture form. On the latter, it’s easy for a funder to speak to organisations, harder to hear the voice of individual artists. We think this balance needs to shift to some extent.

What is a typical day in your working life like?
As for most of us, there’s no typical day, and I’d be quickly bored if there was. But I’m in the Arts Council office in Cambridge a couple of days a week, in London at least once, and the rest of the time travelling the country and, from now, the east of England. I work with government – much more than I expected – with sector bodies, with arts and cultural organisations. I’m lucky enough to see some wonderful work and visit some great places.
How would you respond to this provocation: not all artists are good at talking or writing about their work (or work with someone who writes funding applications for them), but a badly written application could have been an astonishing piece of art.
I agree. And it bothers me. I think the increased focus on funding individual artists as well as arts organisations will make a difference. I also think: that we might need to explore new ways to make applications that don’t rely on filling in a form; that we need to provide as much support as possible for applicants; and that we need to think more about delegated grant programmes where smaller sums are distributed by local organisations that know what’s happening on the ground in detail (we do this with museums through a national programme of ‘museum development’).

What do you most and least enjoy about your job?
I love being stretched. It’s hard work, and I relish that. I love engaging with people and creativity that I wouldn’t do without my work. I like thinking strategically and combining a national perspective with a local knowledge. And, to my surprise, I’m deeply stimulated by the politics – working with local and national politicians to achieve change.
There are parts of being a funder, though, that are less stimulating. We have to get the process right in order to be fair and transparent. Important though that is…it’s not always fun!

If you weren’t doing this job, what would have liked to do instead?
I’m loving my job, and I’m going to love the learning curve of getting to know the east of England. One day I plan to work back on the ground though. I have a feeling you shouldn’t ‘be a funder’ for too long; so I’d hope to lead a progressive, passionate museum or arts organisation in the future. That might be in the UK or it might be elsewhere.