Trailblazer's rural revival

January 12, 1996

It has become almost the Elizabeth Esteve-Coll hallmark - some sort of rumpus in the first few weeks of a new job. In the late 1980s, as the new director of the Victoria and Albert museum, she caused a stir after a radical restructuring programme prompted eight senior staff to pack their bags.

Last term, as the new vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, she attracted vociferous comment from students who claimed that her official residence, a 17th century farmhouse, had been refurbished for Pounds 100,000.

Dame Esteve-Coll disputes the claim. It was Pounds 25,000, not Pounds 100,000. There is no chef, no 24-hour security, no re-landscaped garden. And, with just three private rooms, it is hardly the epitome of five-star luxury. But the stamp of controversy is clear, and the residence affair will not be the last time UEA hits the headlines during Dame Esteve-Coll's years in office.

That is because she is terrifically unorthodox. Her academic career is nothing if not unconventional. After a bright start at Trinity College Dublin in the late 1950s, where she won the Shakespeare Prize for an essay on the linguistic complexity of As You Like It, she ran away to sea with a Spanish naval officer, giving up her promising degree in Spanish and English.

For ten years, she roamed the high seas, but she did not stop all intellectual pursuits: "Every time we entered a port I'd buy 20 books for the journey, and I became a connoisseur of port architecture." She defends the right of today's students to do the same. "The important thing is to be happy and fulfilled," she says. "I'm not always certain that bits of paper are the most important things."

On completion of this lengthy sabbatical, Dame Esteve-Coll returned to London, translated a Spanish book on Antoni Gaudi's architecture, and subsequently read medieval art history at Birkbeck, taking a distinguished first. That was the first step in a career of commitment to scholarship which attracted the UEA headhunters.

A former V&A director, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, dubbed her a "vulgar populist" who is "destructive to scholarship".

He, like others of the old school, were upset by trailblazing exhibitions such as Elton John's collection of art deco furniture. But actually Dame Esteve-Coll underpinned the V&A's scholarship, establishing not only a research department but also a Pounds 12 million purpose-designed study centre for the decorative arts promoted as "the most sophisticated in Europe".

As she puts it: "A museum that loses the focus on scholarship becomes a theme park."

But Esteve-Coll's real qualification for the vice chancellorship is as a prime mover, a facilitator, an entrepreneur in the technical sense. Her first job was librarian at Kingston College of Art, later part of Kingston Polytechnic.

In 1982, she moved to Surrey University library, and three years later Sir Roy Strong charged her with the task of re-opening the V&A's library, which had been closed for three years because of flooding. "Academic librarianship," she says, "is all about being an intermediary between certain specialised forms of knowledge and the person who is seeking that knowledge."

This prepared her well for the V&A's directorship. "I was primus inter pares: there to make a contribution which will empower other people to make their best contribution," she says. She plans to do the same at UEA.

She has already begun a round of meetings with the departments, a process expected to take the whole of her first year.

Top of her agenda will be the marketing of the university, although she says the style of the famous Saatchi & Saatchi catchline commissioned for the V&A - "an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached" - will not be repeated for UEA.

"We are all in a very competitive market for students and for money, and if there is a continuing trend towards home-based students, then UEA has got to have a high market profile because we don't have a huge local population base, we don't have a catchment area because there are just not enough 18-year-olds in East Anglia."

With the exception of new lecture theatres and new laboratories, she does not expect to see UEA expand enormously.

The liberal-arts-college-feel of UEA, located on a tidy rural campus designed by Sir Denis Lasdun - and boasting the Norman Foster designed Sainsbury Art Gallery which partly attracted her to take the job - is likely to stay much the way it is today. That is because, as Dame Esteve-Coll puts it, "it's one of the things that makes it special".

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