Brighton rocks For Chris Barron, artistic director and chief executive of the Brighton Festival, securing Lottery funding is only the beginning
He doesn't want to sound ungrateful, but when Chris Barron, artistic director and chief executive of the Brighton Festival, heard that his scheme to upgrade the Brighton Dome into a modern arts/educational complex had received a £15 million Arts Council lottery award, his first thought was: 'How on earth are we going to get the rest?' Even with matching funds in place, the total was not quite enough for the project to go ahead. He was pleased, of course: 'We have allowed ourselves to get excited. We did go out for some drinks and we did get rather noisy.'
If this seems a rather measured reaction to a £15 million jackpot, it is because, as Barron is well aware, it is a milepost rather than a finishing line. The award marks the end of a gestation period which predates the advent of the Lottery and Barron's arrival in Brighton. Plans to upgrade the dome have been 'knocking about for years', and rhwl has been on board since 1985. The opportunity to refurbish the dome, a series of interlinked Grade I-listed buildings on the estate of Brighton's Royal Pavilion, was a key factor in Barron's decision to take the job as festival director: 'When the job came up the Lottery thing was just starting and I thought: 'This is a once in a lifetime opportunity'.'
Barron is a prime example of what it takes to be a successful client in the age of Lottery funding. He loves buildings. His career as an arts administration aficionado - which most recently included stints as associate director of Edinburgh Festival and director of Manchester City of Drama - means that he is constantly looking at the way venues work. 'I can't walk into a building without looking round it and thinking what works, what doesn't, and looking at how I'd change it.'
He has a close working relationship with the Arts Team @ rhwl, and together they produced what the Arts Council has described as an 'exemplary' Lottery application. Barron estimates that £1.9 million was spent before securing the grant, a figure which doesn't take into account the extra hours put in by himself, the architects and the 'hugely committed' festival team which has become accustomed to 'putting together Lottery applications and festival brochures at the same time'. Despite the grind, Barron praises the Arts Council's rigour, saying: 'Overall I'm quite glad we've done all the work we've had to do.'
Barron also has the stubborn streak needed to spearhead a project of this size. Running arts festivals has taught him to trust his instincts - he says that he has learned to be unapologetic about the fact that he has no artistic advisory board to decide on the contents of the festival, and to say simply: 'We're having it because I like it.' It is an attitude which he learned from Frank Dunlop, the enigmatic former director of Edinburgh Festival who was once Barron's boss: 'Whenever Frank had a plan he would say, 'I'm not telling anyone because if I do they'll make it complicated'.'
In fact, Barron does 'tell people', and he does listen, arguing that public participation exercises 'in the end always improves the design'. But his approach is to infect with enthusiasm rather than to let doubts seep in. 'People say to me: 'That'll be difficult', and I say: 'No it won't, it'll be easy'.' The beauty of discussing the scheme with the public, he says, is that 'people are absolutely ready for it. To a lot of people the Brighton Pavilion is just where they got their school certificate, it's not anywhere exciting. That's why it's really important to have rock concerts, and events with as wide an appeal as possible, so that everybody is looking forward to it opening'.
Barron is also pragmatic. The original grandiose proposals included an entirely new pavilion theatre as well as the refurbishment of the dome, (aj 12.6.97), but 'when it was announced that the Lottery funding would have to be capped we realised we had to drop the new building. In retrospect, if we hadn't done that, I doubt we would have got anything at all'. As it is, phase 1 is due to start on site next summer - all the funds have now been secured - and should be finished by June 2001. Barron is 'really looking forward to handing over to a project manager, and to actually being a client' - a peculiarity of the Lottery-funded projects is that the funding body effectively assumes much of the client role - and eventually to running the dome as a permanent base for the festival.
He is still quietly optimistic about the chances of the new theatre being built, and construction of the first phase is being carried out on the assumption that phase 2 will follow. 'A benefactor would be good,' says Barron, rather wistfully. 'There's an ideal opportunity there for someone, a chance to put their name to a really good new theatre. The Royal Pavilion has to be called the Royal Pavilion, but the pavilion theatre doesn't have to called the Pavilion Theatre. If I won the Lottery I'd do it myself.' Applications please . . .