The atrium at the British Museum. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Neil MacGregor, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hytner: exeunt stage right

Three titans of British culture are stepping down this year. Mark Lawson looks at their legacy – and the space they’ll leave behind.

It is an ancient rule of journalism that, while two instances of something are a coincidence, three constitute a trend. So the departures of high-profile directors of leading British artistic institutions are now officially trending, following the announcement by Neil MacGregor at the British Museum that he will follow Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre and Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre by leaving office this year.

As the three men all took up their posts between 2002-4, their incumbencies have overlapped for a decade and all faced a very similar challenge: how to attract larger and broader audiences at a time when, in the case of Hytner and MacGregor, their public funding was diminishing in real terms and, for Spacey, was non-existent: the Old Vic, which he took over after a series of unsuccessful occupancies by various companies, receives no direct Arts Council grant.

With a strategy that will surely be taught on arts administration courses, MacGregor and Hytner fought for easier admission – free entry at the BM, the £10-£12 Travelex reduced ticket scheme at the NT – and took their wares to places they were not usually available: the British Museum toured and lent objects more and show-cased them through old and new media in the Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, while the National has beamed its shows (and those of other theatres) into cinemas around the UK and the world in the NT Live scheme.

Apart from access and out-reach, Hytner and MacGregor also became the public leaders of their sectors, making the case for museums and theatre in Whitehall and across broadcasting.

Spacey’s legacy is less tangible. A number of the shows he put on at the Vic – including the plays Cloaca and Resurrection Blues – were notorious stinkers and he was generally at his best there as an actor – in Richard III and Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow – rather than a director or administrator. In a way unwise for any company, he was himself the brand, although this focus brought advantages.

The loss of a planned major revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America would have been catastrophic for most repertory theatres but Spacey was able to fill the gap with a run of his sell-out one-man show Clarence Darrow. In a theatre without government funding, Spacey was, in effect, the Old Vic’s subsidy and it is his publicity and box office impact that the theatre will most miss, although he seems likely to return to the venue as a performer.

Although coming from very different backgrounds – in Glasgow, Manchester and New Jersey – MacGregor, Hytner and Spacey are, like most British cultural leaders of their generations, all men. And it will be noted that Hytner and Spacey have also been replaced by blokes: Rufus Norris and Matthew Warchus.

Gender analysis of appointments is complicated by the fact that, if Marianne Elliott had made herself available for the National job, she would almost certainly have got it, ahead of Norris. And strong female candidates to replace Spacey – Josie Rourke and Vicky Featherstone – had already been installed at other venues, the Donmar and the Royal Court, before the Old Vic vacancy came up.

Even so, the British Museum board has an opportunity to break the apparent stone ceiling at the UK’s greatest cultural institutions and should surely look closely at the very talented Dr Maria Balshaw of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester among a list of contenders that will surely also look at directors across Europe and the US although it is possible that there might be some journalistic and political opposition to a building with such a nationally emblematic name being run by someone from abroad – an equivalent to the opposition that Sven-Goran Erikkson faced as the first foreign coach of the English football team.

In another footballing metaphor, some candidates to follow MacGregor might also fear becoming a David Moyes, the coach who failed horribly at Manchester United to replicate the long success achieved by Sir Alex Ferguson. Norris and Warchus, although having taken the National Theatre and Old Vic jobs, may also have reason to fear the parallel.

The only drawback to making a very successful appointment – as the boards of all three institutions did a decade or so ago – is the the difficulty of finding an equivalent successor.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism