Comments on the coalition

16th April 2015

News, Alumni news

As the general election fast approaches, alumnus Rory Coonan (1973 English) is one of the team of leading experts who have assessed the policies and consequences of the Coalition government in a major new book, The Coalition Effect (CUP).

  • The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015, edited by Anthony Seldon, Mike Finn

‘Bread, Circuses and Britishness’ is the first comprehensive survey of the Coalition’s cultural policies (2010-15). Highlights of Rory Coonan’s chapter include an account (using information divulged under the Freedom of Information Act) of how the British Museum negotiated in secret to lend a Parthenon (‘Elgin’) Marble to the Hermitage Museum in Russia ; the overturning of the Justice Department’s ban on sending books to prisoners in jails in England and Wales, and a trenchant critique of the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony in 2012.

Rory, whose photographs hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London, cut his teeth on Cherwell, where he was arts editor. He went on to write about architecture for the Financial Times and Observer. In 1994 he created NESTA, the £250 million National Lottery endowment for science, technology and the arts, adopted by Act of Parliament by the Labour government in 1997. Along the way, he was the Arts Council of Great Britain’s first Director of Architecture and established the Lottery’s capital programme. A former director at the healthcare operator, Circle, and long-serving member of the Franco-British Council, his expertise has always crossed disciplines – a polymathic ability he attributes to his Wadham days.

“One of the great things about studying at Wadham is that, if you have the aptitude, you can cultivate in yourself a well-stocked mind – not limiting yourself to particular disciplines,” he says. Certainly his career to date bears testament to this.

Rory came to Wadham to read English in 1973, the last year of the all-male intake that had persisted since the College’s foundation in 1612. The new Warden in 1973 was the philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire. Rory recalls: “In 1974 the first women arrived, much to everyone’s consternation – to worries about the plumbing and to how College Scouts would cope with the phenomenon of female undergraduates!”

Tutored by Terry Eagleton, Coonan remembers: “Wadham at that point was the epicentre of English studies. People used to come from all over to hear Terry’s lectures and attend his seminars in College. We felt that we were at the very centre of things.” Among his achievements at Wadham Coonan won a University essay prize in his second year for an essay on the radical writer William Cobbett.

NESTA...I described at the time as a ‘National Trust for talent.’ The idea of creating an endowment from money used to take a risk – buying a lottery ticket - to fund investment (a ‘nest-egg’) in innovative but risky ideas, seemed appropriate.

Rory Coonan

  • Rory Coonan (1973 English)

    Rory Coonan (1973 English). Photo by Tarah Coonan

One of seven children, Rory grew up in the 1950s in a house designed by his father in Preston, Lancashire. “My father’s example showed me that architecture was too important to be left to architects – how right he was!” As an Oxford student he was fascinated by Christopher Wren’s career, which began at Wadham, and to appreciate the depth of Wren’s knowledge of the classics, science (‘natural philosophy’), mathematics, astronomy and engineering.  “So many of the architects I interview these days for appointments demonstrate a severely limited and limiting professional education. It all ends up in design – and it contributes much to the impoverishment of the public estate.”

After leaving Oxford he went to the painting school at Royal College of Art (RCA) to study History of Art. Said Rory: “I’m afraid I treated the Royal College as if it was Oxford and just went around and poked my nose into things that interested me.” He served on the RCA Council, whose members at the time included the designer Sir Terence Conran. While studying French Symbolist painting and the work of Gustave Moreau, he learned how to use plate cameras with film, resulting in stunning black and white portraits printed by himself, some of which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery Collection. His portrait of Simon Rattle was unveiled by the National Portrait Gallery this year in commemoration of the conductor’s 60th birthday.

It was while he was at the RCA that Rory was recruited to join the Arts Council of Great Britain by Joanna Drew, the then Director of Art.
“My work at the Arts Council included public art and funding artists at the beginnings of their careers. Many of have since gone on to achieve success. We supported early public commissions to Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley.  It was fantastic - I was in my late twenties and it was a big job with responsibility for spending public money wisely. I encountered six ministers of the arts over the course of my time there and got involved with a huge variety of projects, from the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery to the reform of copyright law affecting commissioned artists.”
In 1993 Rory was appointed the first Director of Architecture at the Arts Council of Great Britain. “Almost immediately Prime Minister John Major announced that we were going to be given billions of pounds from the new National Lottery, so I found myself inventing from scratch the design rules for all its capital projects.  These rules (published with Section 26 of the Lottery legislation) affected the arts but also sports, heritage and the millennium. It was a big project and the history of it is yet to be written but Jacob Rothschild, Richard Rogers and the Arts Council Chairman Peter Palumbo all supported the imperative that Lottery-funded buildings should be designed well. These were major capital projects, with the Royal Opera House being the first.” In 2000 Rory was awarded an honorary fellowship by the Royal Institute of British Architects in recognition of his work on the National Lottery.

However, from 1993 Rory became increasingly aware that the National Lottery was deficient in that it didn’t support science or promote innovation. After a spell in Washington DC, where he met Sandy Crary, the White House liaison chief for the US National Endowments, he returned to the UK with the idea of using some of the UK’s National Lottery income to create a permanent endowment, which could be applied to science as well as art, at the point of curiosity.

“I discovered that the US ‘endowments’ were not endowed at all. They depended on votes in Congress for their survival. So on the aeroplane coming back I dreamed up NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts), which I described at the time as a ‘National Trust for talent.’ The idea of creating an endowment from money used to take a risk – buying a lottery ticket - to fund investment (a ‘nest-egg’) in innovative but risky ideas, seemed appropriate.” One of the very first people to whom Rory described NESTA, was former Warden of Wadham Sir Claus Moser. Rory details the survival of NESTA as a freestanding charity in The Coalition Effect.

Today Rory is a man who wears several hats. As a director at healthcare operator Circle (2005–11) he employed Lord Rogers’ and Lord Foster’s architectural firms to design a new generation of compact hospitals, including the £50 million Circle Bath hospital, which was awarded UK Building of the Year in 2010. He initiated Design for Care at the Design Council, focusing British design talent on solving problems of health and social care integration. He is currently engaged in developing new funding and delivery models for houses for disabled people. A fluent French speaker and writer, he was a member of the Franco-British Council for six years. He also sits on Wadham’s Development Committee.  So what else is he working on? “Later this year I will chair a design competition and start work on a photography book. I am also developing an idea I have been nursing, to promote architectural studies at Oxford, drawing upon Wren’s time as a Wadham undergraduate (1650-52). Celebrating this fact and building upon it is surely long overdue.”

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