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LEAKED: ‘Fear rules’ at RIBA, claims letter from former cultural chair

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The former chair of the RIBA’s British Architectural Trust Board has launched a no-holds-barred attack on the institute, claiming it is governed by fear and in a ‘perilous’ financial situation

In a highly critical letter to RIBA Council members, leaked to the AJ, John Tusa, who resigned as chair of the RIBA’s cultural sub-committee the British Architectural Trust Board (BATB) in December, chastised the RIBA’s governance structure as ‘guaranteed to produce deadlock, disputation and failure’.

‘I have never come across an arts organisation of any kind where fear ruled the roost and determined, shaped and influenced actions and behaviour as much as it does at RIBA,’ Tusa wrote in the letter, which was also sent in December.

‘The board fears the council, the council distrusts the board, the executive looks over at its shoulder at council, and board and staff are terrified of what any member of council says on any subject no matter how unqualified or self-interested they may be.’

He added: ‘A more destructive formula for running an organisation could not be devised.’

The veteran journalist and former managing director of the Barbican Arts Centre, also described the RIBA as ‘dysfunctional’ and a ‘deeply riven organisation’.

Responding to the letter, RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance said he welcomed Tusa’s ‘constructive feedback’.

Tusa said his resignation followed two fraught meetings in December, during which RIBA board members allegedly attempted to erode the powers of the BATB and accused it of lacking transparency.

‘It began to feel like “open season” on the very existence of BATB, of a devolved culture programme, even a free run towards dismanting it,’ Tusa wrote.

RIBA could be a useful, creative, inspiring advocate for architecture. It cannot be under the existing burden of governance, attitudes, fear and caution

He said he was frustrated by the interference of RIBA board members in a possible bid for Arts Council funding – a matter he claimed was reserved for the BATB.

Tusa went on to set these events against several previous decisions at the RIBA, which he said repeatedly undermined his position as chair.

He slammed president Jane Duncan for not consulting him on the creation of an ‘ambassador for culture’ at the start of her presidency; criticised the vacant post of communications and outreach director at the body; and said he was not consulted over a strategic review of ‘cultural activity’ at the RIBA.

Towards the end of the letter, Tusa argued that the RIBA was in need of ‘radical change’ and said ‘the world of architecture, the community of architects and the public deserve better’.

‘RIBA could be a useful, creative, inspiring advocate for architecture,’ he wrote. ‘It cannot be under the existing burden of governance, attitudes, fear and caution.’

In recent years, the RIBA has been plagued by serious questions over its financial health, including an unprojected ‘£800,000 overspend’ which alarmed councillors at an RIBA Council meeting in December 2015.

An RIBA Council meeting held yesterday (Thursday) in Hull is understood to have focused heavily on financial matters, with most items on the agenda marked ‘confidential’.

In a separate letter from Tusa, circulated in January and also seen by the AJ, he referred to what he called the RIBA’s ‘acute budgetary problems’.

After obtaining the leaked documents, the AJ contacted Tusa. He said: ‘I have had no substantive response to my resignation letter from RIBA officially or unofficially. I know that many people removed from RIBA strongly support my analysis. I stand absolutely by what I wrote. Will RIBA have the guts to look at themselves honestly? That is the question.’

Responding to the letters, Vallance added: ‘We will be incorporating Sir John’s comments into the wider review of RIBA governance which is already under way; we anticipate the next review phase will include the role of the board and committees, including the BATB.’

Vallance also said that the RIBA had a ‘clear, focused’ strategy for 2016 to 2020, which states how it will use its collections and deliver cultural programmes. 

RIBA’s response in full

‘We welcome Sir John Tusa’s constructive feedback and thank him for his work as chair of the BATB. We will commence a process to appoint a new chair of the BATB very shortly.

‘We will be incorporating Sir John’s comments into the wider review of RIBA governance which is already underway; we anticipate the next review phase will include the role of the board and committees, including the BATB.

‘RIBA has a clear, focused strategy (2016-2020) to guide all of our work, including a carefully considered programme of activity designed to offer efficiency and enable us to serve our members even better. The strategy clearly articulates how we will use and grow our collections, and deliver national cultural and learning programmes to enable diverse audiences to explore and learn about architecture and practice.

‘Many committed people are closely involved in steering and delivering the RIBA’s ambitious strategy, from our council, board and committee members around the world, to our supporters and highly capable and enthusiastic staff. We are grateful to Sir John Tusa, and many others for the contributions they make, for the good of the Institute and the profession.’

 

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