Interview with Barbara Matthews

NTU pro v-c talks about finding out who you are at university, leading a stellar theatre company and why Nottingham should be European Capital of Culture

November 2, 2017
Barbara Matthews

Barbara Matthews is pro vice-chancellor (culture) and head of the College of Art, Architecture, Design and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. She was formerly executive director of the renowned theatre company Cheek by Jowl and of the Royal Court, later serving as director, theatre for the Arts Council England. Her first role in higher education was as a pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort University, and she moved to NTU earlier this year. She is now leading NTU’s support for Nottingham’s bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023, submitted last month, in which the university is a partner.

Where were you born?
I was born in Uppingham, Rutland.  

How has this shaped you?
It was a small and very supportive community. My father was a teacher who also wrote books, and so education, learning and scholarship were constant companions during my upbringing. Although Uppingham is a small market town, I was taken to plays and concerts as a child, and the town library was a second home on Saturdays.

How did a chemistry graduate find herself managing theatre companies?
I acted at school and spent more time on the university stage than I did in the laboratory [at Durham University]. But I felt that I could not act professionally without some training – which I could not afford. The National Student Drama Festival came to Durham in my last vacation, when I was meant to be head-down in the library. I offered to help with the organising, and after a week of 17-hour days I realised that I might have found a home for my administrative skills! After a year of working in a residential children’s home in Hounslow to raise the money, I did a postgraduate diploma in arts administration at City University [now City, University of London] and wangled a placement at the Old Vic in London. Much to my delight, they offered me a job and I stayed.

Looking back on your career in theatre, what are you most proud of?
Being part of the team that brought about Cheek by Jowl’s all-male As You Like It – with Adrian Lester playing Rosalind. It was a wonderful piece of theatre, which we toured all around the world, was enjoyed by thousands and won a Laurence Olivier Award for its director, Declan Donnellan. Playing a part at the Arts Council as it completely rethought its relationship with those it funded – there were some major challenges, but I think theatres and theatre companies were in a better place as a result.

Why does a university need a pro vice-chancellor for culture?
At university, students discover their future roles alongside academics who interrogate our past and create our future. Culture and creativity are essential ingredients – for everyone, not just those studying creative subjects. Universities are becoming increasingly aware of their role within their communities and their contribution to the social, economic and cultural success of their regions. An informed and strategic approach to engagement and investment ensures that everyone benefits.

How will you be contributing to Nottingham’s bid to become European Capital of Culture, and why does the city deserve the accolade?  
NTU has joined with the University of Nottingham, the city council and the Cultural Strategic Partnership to support the bid process. Many academics have contributed ideas, and our staff have been very active in helping to spread the message. Our Capital of Culture bid, titled “Breaking the Frame”, sets out how the city will empower its citizens to take culture back into their own hands and will give them the opportunity to reframe their own relationships with Europe through creative collaboration. The title is inspired by the “frame-breakers” of the Luddite rebellion, which originated in Nottingham, then the global centre of the lace-making industry, in 1811.

Is NTU’s involvement with the Capital of Culture bid partly about shifting media and public perceptions of the city? How could that benefit NTU?
Partly – but it is much more than that. Nottingham is already a richly vibrant city with a diverse cultural offer – very much influenced and contributed to by NTU’s graduates and staff. The designation of European Capital of Culture will help us to showcase what we have and raise our ambition so that our students, staff and graduates can enjoy some of the best art available, work alongside international artists, volunteer and collaborate. Success will help us with recruitment of students and staff, forging new research partnerships across Europe, [developing] opportunities for our graduates and furthering our work in supporting the development of the East Midlands as a centre of cultural and creative excellence.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
One who used the three years to find out who she was.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have the courage to be different, and take every opportunity you can.

What keeps you awake at night?

What do you do for fun?
I walk, garden, battle with crosswords, do up properties and, of course, go to the theatre.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Too many to mention! But a common feature is the ability to see the world from a unique perspective and yet communicate it in a way that many understand – a crucial ability in an artist – coupled with generosity and compassion.


Peter Brown is the new director of the Irish Research Council. Mr Brown, who was appointed the council’s deputy director in 2015, has been interim director since May, following the departure of Eucharia Meehan. In 2016, the council funded about 1,400 researchers, 300 postdoctoral fellows and 1,100 postgraduate scholars with awards totting up to more than €100 million (£89 million). Its chair, Jane Ohlmeyer, said that Mr Brown’s “experience, his commitment to basic frontier research and excellence across all career stages and disciplines, and his track record in successfully deliver-ing major research projects, make him an ideal fit for this role”. Mr Brown said that his priority would be to “consolidate the council’s unique role within the Irish research ecosystem”, which sees it coordinate partnerships with 17 government departments and agencies.

Industrialist Sir John Peace is the new chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. Sir John, the current chair of the British fashion brand Burberry, is best known as one of the founders of Experian, the consumer credit reporting agency, which now employs 17,000 people and had revenues of $4.5 billion (£3.4 billion) in 2016. Sir John, who served as chair of Nottingham Trent’s board of governors between 1999 and 2009, has also been chairman of banking group Standard Chartered and Midlands Engine, the government’s economic growth strategy for the region. Sir John, who takes over as chancellor from Sports Relief chief executive Kevin Cahill, said that he was “delighted” to return to a role at the university, which he said makes a “hugely important contribution to the ongoing growth and cultural development of the region”.

Ronald Elsenbaumer will take over as chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne on 1 November. He was most recently an adviser to the president at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he has been provost and vice-president for academic affairs.

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