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Mar 31 / Simon

Is the future of the arts in his hands? A serial giver owns up

Independent on Sunday, 11/03/12
As a new contemporary art gallery opens on the beach at Hastings, Simon Tait asks the man behind The Jerwood Foundation about nepotism, saving theatres and picking up the tab for British culture

The name Jerwood is ubiquitous in the arts, a name that adorns playhouses, dance studios, rehearsal spaces, student bursaries, prizes ranging from drawing to dance, exhibitions and now an art gallery. Jerwood is the great enabler, the crucial partner without which the Royal Court would have closed. And Jerwood is controlled absolutely by a single, 84-year-old retired lawyer, driving it on a path of cultural philanthropy.

In this Dickens year, Alan Grieve is a 21st century Dickensian. He was the bright young solicitor who earned the trust of a self-exiled millionaire called John Jerwood, and with the fortune left on Jerwood’s death he created his own empire. Even the names have a Dickensian chime.

In 20 years Grieve has given £90m to the arts, building theatres, dance houses, libraries and creative facilities, and helping the careers of countless young artists, performers and craftspeople.

At Hastings among the fishing boats and net sheds on the Stade, a working beach where the Peggottys of David Copperfield might easily live still, Grieve has built the latest and perhaps his last in a line of capital arts projects. For a while there was a vociferous protest against the plan – an effigy of a gallery was even burned on the beach long before any designs had been drawn up – because it would be seen to clash with historic Hastings, but the campaign ran out of steam when the understated architecture emerged as being rather complimentary, and attention was diverted when the pier was almost completely destroyed ion October 2010.

Another seaside gallery, costing a modest £4m in an £8.5m development partnership with the local authority, it joins the south east coast “string of pearls” of Margate’s Turner Contemporary (£17m), Eastbourne’s refurbished Towner (£8.5m) and Bexhill’s De La Warr (£8m). The Jerwood Gallery opens on Saturday, devoted to 20th century British art.

He is the last of the Victorian “entrepreneur philanthropists” – his own phrase – in the mould of Andrew Carnegie, Lord Shaftesbury and John Passmore Edwards. He is autocratic, single-minded and the only recipient of a National Lottery grant to give it back.

When searching for talent to help him he is inclined to look no further than his own family: his art historian daughter Lara Wardle is the new director of the Jerwood Foundation, and his son Tom is the new gallery’s architect. The eldest of his five children is “fashion’s first lady”, Amanda Harlech of Chanel.

He has personally assembled the art the gallery has been built for, filling a hole in the national offer, he believes. Latterly this has been done with advice from Lara, the former associate director of 20th century British art at Christie’s, and of the new director of the gallery, Liz Gilmore, brought from the Arts Council where she had been head of visual art. “It is a private enterprise for the public benefit, and that’s true philanthropy,” he says.

Grieve was 30 when the senior partner of his Gray’s Inn law firm, Taylor & Humbert (now Taylor Wessing), asked him to look after a “tricky client”, tricky because he was based in Tokyo with his pearl business. Grieve travelled the world for Jerwood as his business lawyer, becoming his friend and confidant. In the mid-70s he was given power of attorney to create a charitable foundation, the chief interest of which initially was Jerwood’s old school, Oakham, to which he gave close to £8m. “He had no children but he had money and he liked education and the arts,” Grieve says. “He did what he wanted to do.”

When Jerwood died in 1991 Grieve took control of an organisation with huge assets but no order. It took him two years just to find out their extent. He acquired property, principally the handsome Fitzroy Square townhouse that was the Jerwood headquarters until the autumn, and invested shrewdly enough to treble the assets. His CBE came in 2003.

Grieve has a Micawber-like respect for good financial management – “It isn’t my money after all” – and an extreme aversion to paying what he considers over the odds. He made a handsome profit for Jerwood when he sold Fitzroy, moving the Foundation into a converted Notting Hill mews block.

The art collection, he estimates, is worth around £6m but has cost £1.5m. He has never paid more than £100,000 for a work, yet has assembled a canon of British art which started with Brangwen and Bomberg, and has progressed through Sickert, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Winifred Nicholson, Lowry, Christopher Wood, Terry Frost and Keith Vaughan. He has added Jerwood Painting Prize winners like Craigie Aitchison, Maggie Hambling and Prunella Clough, and the gallery will show a large representation of the collection, plus temporary themed exhibitions (the opening show is devoted to Rose Wylie). “It’s still organic, we’ll continue to buy, but sometimes we fail at auction because we’re not prepared to pay prices we can’t afford,” he says. Most recently Lara failed to buy a Tristan Hillier when bidding went above the Jerwood ceiling.

It was the painting prize that started Jerwood’s serious arts sponsorship in 1994, at £25,000 the richest of its kind when it was phased out in 2004. Then came the first major capital commitment, the Jerwood Space in Southwark, as a much needed rehearsal facility for drama and dance. The rents are calibrated according to what the client can afford, and this is the project for which Grieve applied for lottery funding.

“I made an application like a lot of people in those euphoric days and it took quite a while, very bureaucratic, but eventually we got a grant. I only kept it a few weeks before I realised that the Arts Council would want to bear in on me, tell me I hadn’t done this or that. So I rang up Gerry Robinson (then chairman of Arts Council England) and asked to whom I should make the cheque out. I think you’d say he was taken aback.”

When the Royal Court was on the brink of being closed as unsafe in the mid-90s, it was Grieve who stepped in to offer £3m to help rebuild it. A news story suggested that he had insisted that the quid pro quo would be a renaming to “Jerwood Royal Court” but that Buckingham Palace had vetoed the idea. “Absolute nonsense,” Grieve says. “Look, the Royal Court was going bust, John Mortimer (the Court’s chairman then) and Stephen Daldry (artistic director) came to us to save it, and we were happy to do so with the biggest grant we had ever given.”

The Royal Court rebuild was by the architects Haworth Tompkins for whom Tom Grieve later worked, but his own practice, HAT Projects, was born after Jerwood’s Hastings scheme was already under way. Ten other places, including Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Gloucester Dock, had been looked at for possible gallery sites before, with the advice of a planning consultant, Hana Loftus.

Hastings was chosen, as much for the amenable attitude of the local authority as the site, and Loftus later joined HAT as Tom’s co-director. “When we were being considered I knew nepotism would come up, and I asked Hana’s advice,” Tom Grieve says. “She told me to look at the project and nothing else, and then make my decision if the offer came. As it was, my father pretty much left us to do our job.” Would he work with him again? “That was my piece of good fortune”, he says after a moment’s thought. “If there is a next time, it will be someone else’s turn.”

Alan Grieve himself it’s unfazed, referring to “enlightened nepotism”. He and his co-trustees chose a practice from a competition, he says, which had come in with a costing, at £4m, well below any other. “I think we got a bargain”.

To keep the assets legally separate from the Liechtenstein-registered charity, in 1999 Grieve created the Jerwood Charitable Foundation at arm’s length from the main three-man Jerwood Foundation. The JCF was endowed with £25m from the assets, and its chair is now Tim Eyles, of Grieve’s old law firm Taylor Wessing. Grieve doesn’t sit on the board but his presence is palpable. “I consult him on a regular basis, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Eyles says. “I value his experience and nous, his artistic judgment. I’d say Alan has a basic influence on most things, and long may it continue. We will consult him on every major decision”. The gallery, however, is not the JSF’s but the parent foundation’s own.

There have been failures. Attempts to create open air sculpture courts in the Midlands have recently been abandoned after 12 years. And in 1999 David Goldesgeyme was brought from running arts sponsorship for Lloyds TSB and introduced two big new award schemes for film and fashion. “They weren’t right for us,” Grieve says bluntly. Goldesgeyme still refuses to talk about it, but there was a row and he left. Similarly, the former newspaper executive Andrew Knight was invited to be JCF chair in 2003 but two years later had gone, a misfit in what Grieve calls the Jerwood family. Eyles, his successor, is family.

His enlightened philanthropy, however, will never realise the dream of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, of taking the burden of arts funding from public subsidy. “Politicians will always do that, whenever there are cuts they will try to come up with an alternative, but there isn’t one,” he says. Not in the short and medium term, he adds, and certainly not without the tax breaks American givers get, the difference between America and Europe. Philanthropy will continue to work alongside subsidy here, it won’t replace it.

“Philanthropists have always been key to the arts, particularly to the Victorians when there was no state subsidy and sponsors like Cadbury and Leverhulme were the nearest thing,” he says. Now rhey are Hamlyn, Wolfson, Weston – and Jerwood – but without the colossal pound power of a century ago.

The new Victorian philanthropists are businessmen who can see to the end of a project and make assessments accordingly, no ‘blind chucking money at something“ he says. “The thing about Jerwood is, there must be tangible identifiable results before we start. That’s absolutely characteristic of us”. And very characteristic of Alan Grieve.