Scotland's principal prima donna

July 19, 2002

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama's new head envisages it becoming a cultural powerhouse for Scotland. Olga Wojtas reports.

"I've never had a job before," says John Wallace, the new principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. "This is the first time I've ever had tax taken off at source. It's the first time I've had a pension paid."

Wallace is not the traditional principal, especially in appearance. The 52-year-old has a suave flamboyance, wearing his suits with T-shirts and his hair rather longer than his male colleagues at Universities Scotland.

He is an international virtuoso trumpet player and founder of the renowned brass group the Wallace Collection. He was principal trumpet of the Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta. But he is no stranger to higher education. He ran the brass department at the Royal Academy of Music in London for some 20 years, but on a consultancy basis - "because I didn't want them to have a hold over me".

So was it the pension scheme that lured him to the Scottish academy post, or perhaps the desire for a quiet life after endless touring? "It's not an escape - it's a real challenge. There is a very positive vision that this place can be a cultural powerhouse for Scotland."

Wallace believes the Scottish academy is not accorded its due respect by its UK peers because of its Glasgow base, given "the very snobby elitism about conservatoire culture". But he insists that it is as good as any - it is the only conservatoire to win degree-awarding powers from the Privy Council - and that it has the best facilities in the country. "And none of (the others), with the possible exception of the Royal Northern College of Music, have the loyal, dedicated teaching staff we have. In London, a lot of window- dressing goes on with teachers who are here, there and everywhere. If we say somebody's going to be taught, they get taught. In Scotland, you get a more systematic, logical training."

Wallace has the fervent patriotism of an exile, and he is clearly delighted to be home. Although he has been based in England ever since he left for Cambridge University, he comes from the former mining village of Methilhill in Fife. The area is classed as deprived, but has spawned the artist Jack Vettriano, the writer Ian Rankin and chancellor Gordon Brown as well as other eminent musicians nurtured through the colliery bands. "This is the great thing about music. It is totally socially inclusive," Wallace says. He points out that 18 per cent of the academy's undergraduate entrants are from low-participation areas, compared with its benchmark of 13 per cent and a Scottish average of 17 per cent. Academy students are already involved in outreach work through placements in local schools, but Wallace is determined to help expand the arts throughout Scotland. The RSAMD, which runs a Saturday junior academy in Glasgow for pupils, aims to set up 15 outposts across the country.

"The picture you get is that the arts are really vibrant in Scotland because of the Edinburgh Festival, Hogmanay, T in the Park and (Glasgow music festival) Celtic Connections. But what about Edinburgh and Glasgow the rest of the year, and the other 84 per cent of Scotland? Outside the central belt, it's a desert, and we need to be addressing that."

Interest in the arts has grown since devolution. Scottish Enterprise is investing £25 million to develop the "creative industries", which employ 100,000 people and have an annual turnover of £5 billion. Universities Scotland recently launched a culture campaign: it says countries are perceived largely through their cultural achievements, and a country with a high artistic profile puts itself on the international map.

Amid a trend to appoint solid administrators to head higher education institutions, Wallace believes that the Scottish academy needs someone like him. "I don't see how somebody from an administrative or business environment would have the first idea of how to do a job like this, because it is all about the future of these artistic forms. If you've been up to your neck in them as I have been, you learn something about the rate of change, about new things flourishing, and also about flashes in the pan and trends of all sorts. Although there is an overall seeming logic, it's totally crazy in another sense, and you just can't quantify it in normal business jargon," he says.

Wallace's predecessor, Sir Philip Ledger, boosted links with North America. Wallace is keen to capitalise on the growing interest from international high-fliers, but not at the expense of home students. "It's tempting to stuff the place full of full-fee paying foreigners, but I don't want to turn it into a finishing school, a vanity parade. We're more into educating people to deal with the rigours of an ever-changing world outside."

Moving to the Scottish academy has meant dismantling the Wallace Collection, but its other members are setting up a new group, the Golden Section. Students have to understand that everything has a shelf-life, Wallace says, but the creative clusters they form during their course will help to ensure there is a phoenix to rise from the ashes.

Performers seem to have to go through hard times to toughen them, he says. But he went on the dole only once, finding the experience of "queuing up to get the pittance" so dispiriting that he vowed never to repeat it. "After that, I just got on the blower or got on the schlep. What most people don't understand about actors and musicians is that they have to run their own business to survive. You can't be around for more than five minutes in music without knowing quite a bit about business. And you learn a lot about people management in the arts. Everyone is a prima donna."

Including Wallace? There is a long pause. "I think I've managed to sit on it because of long experience of running a group. I allow myself the luxury of being a prima donna every 18 months. It used to be a regular occurrence. But my job is to provide a culture where other prima donnas can be creative without rubbing up against one another too much," he says. "As people mature, they realise there's a **** part of a job and a creative part of a job, and if they have that creative part satisfied, then they're happy, and go on doing the routine drudgery that has to be done."

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