The New Statesman Interview - Matthew Evans

The irreverent new supremo of galleries and museums tells his charges: show more gratitude to the ta

Initially, Matthew Evans and I arrange to meet at the Savoy. I wonder how we will recognise one another, and he says, rather dangerously: "I could always carry a museum director's head under my arm." A joke - but not one guaranteed to provoke mirth among those disposed to view the new chairman of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Commission as the wielder of a cultural guillotine.

The row blew out of nothing. Last autumn, Chris Smith named Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber & Faber, as head of the new commission, which replaces separate commissions for libraries and museums. Under normal circumstances, the general public would have regarded this merger as an uneventful piece of quango-crunching. Evans's strategy decreed otherwise.

In January, he delivered a speech suggesting that many of the great London museums were regressive, isolationist and wary of technical advance. Unless they sloughed off the habits of "renaissance states", they risked becoming "cultural versions of Marks & Spencer". His text argued for social inclusion, better co-operation with the regions and a suggestion that museums should shift collections to shops, schools and pubs.

Brian Sewell, the art critic, described Evans's diatribe as "the thoughts of Chairman Mao couched in the conventional waffle of Islington". Sir Henry Keswick, chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, accused Evans - in a widely leaked personal letter - as driving towards an "Orwellian state". Other museum heads, equally outraged, hunkered down to wait.

The commission will be launched on 1 April, and the row still simmers. Did Evans expect the fury his speech provoked? "No, and I was amazed at the sensitivities that emerged. I knew it would cause a gasp. It was also slightly cynical. How do you put a new body on the map? You've got to be in the public eye to acquire influence and stature. The danger is that it turns into the Matthew Evans roadshow. We don't want it to be like Jocelyn Stevens at National Heritage."

And so Evans, possibly more shaken than he allows, has resolved to strike a placatory note; hopeful that peace will prevail once the commission is open for business. This would, no doubt, be a sound idea - except that emollience is not his strongest suit. Following a diary clash, we rearrange our meeting to the Faber boardroom, where Evans kindly runs off a photocopy of the letter in which Keswick lambasted his speech and accused him of personal ambition.

Overcoming his fury, Evans has agreed to meet Keswick for lunch next week. This bridge-building initiative was slightly marred by Evans assuring his host that he, alas, did not know where the Savoy Grill was situated. Could he have directions? Keswick duly filled him in on the geography of The Strand, oblivious to the wind-up. A bit mischievous, surely? "Well, I can be like that," Evans says virtuously. "But I am holding myself in check."

It is a loose-ish rein. Moments later, he says: "Keswick's view was: 'This jerk has arrived on the scene. We don't know who he is. Let's see him off.' Leaking that letter was pretty extraordinary for someone who claims to be an officer and a gentleman. There's such an anxiety about the new body that there's a sort of mad reaction. But, long ago, I learnt not to get upset about people I don't have any time for." The residual worry must be that Keswick's public ire is privately echoed by other custodians of "renaissance states."

"It ought to be possible to say something like that without people going bananas," Evans says. "The good guys saw what I was doing, and the bad boys went ballistic." Although he will not name names, he praises the Science Museum and the Tate. Neil MacGregor, the powerful head of the National Gallery, has not - conversely - been one of those eager to phone Evans with helpful advice.

But beyond personalities, and beyond plans for caryatids in karaoke bars, lies the fear that new Labour is dedicated to putting its Dome-crested stamp on cultural institutions. For London directors, centralised funding is the great fear and the last taboo. Last year, they were said to have forced Chris Smith to abandon such a plan. The resulting compromise was the new commission - an advisory body regarded with deep mistrust, lest it becomes a stalking-horse for direct funding.

According to Evans, it already is. "It was going to be a funding body. However, the decision was made to change direction. The debate is unresolved, and that is the problem the nationals face." For now, he says, the new body has other priorities and a reputation to build. After that, he sees no impediment to its becoming a dispenser of funds for the nationals.

"That would be fine. Last week, an unnamed museum director talked about the Royal Opera House's problems. Those arose because they never accepted they should be funded by the Arts Council." What about Keswick's Orwellian nightmare? "I don't see that. They have central funding already, from the DCMS [Department of Culture]. We would perform exactly the same function. I think it's a row about nothing. They [the national directors] find it very difficult to accept they're publicly funded. They will thank sponsors for their munificence. You don't hear them say: 'Oh, by the way, we're also grateful to the taxpayer.' There's a feeling they are private museums, a little club, not accountable."

On the day we meet, a leak, seemingly from Chris Smith's department, says that the commission will indeed be the funder of the future. Though the contents do not disturb Evans, the provenance does. "I don't know where it came from. At the very moment when I'm trying to cool things down so that I can work with these people, it's all being stirred up," he complains, acutely aware that he is now sandwiched between the sensibilities of museum directors and government approval. It is clear which preoccupies him more. "The only thing I'd worry about is if the body lost the support of the government or minister sponsoring it."

It seems possible that Evans has not yet gauged the animus provoked by his new body. What is it for, museum directors ask behind his back? Why, of 14 commissioners, are only four in place? On the first point, Evans says: "I don't see the confusion. It's an advisory body to government, and it's independent." It will, he says, inherit a few executive functions. It will push for more money. On the nationals, the remit decrees close co-operation, but no executive powers. As for the current dearth of commissioners, he says there is a gender- and race-balanced, cross-sectoral line-up in the pipeline.

But won't he also be an enforcer for Smith? "It's a very difficult balance between being set up by government and being independent . . . It is easy for me, in that I am totally behind government policy in this area." Hence his allegiance to localised projects, such as "taking the Lindisfarne Bible back to Lindisfarne" and new technology ventures, notably linking museums to the People's Network installed in libraries.

On the debate over the nationals' progress in such areas (they say plenty; he says not enough), Evans is at one with government aspirations. "When new Labour came in, obviously they wanted people sympathetic to their agenda to have positions of influence. I don't think there's anything wrong with that." But what, one wonders, is the lure for Evans, who seems to lead a balmy life; overseeing the interests of authors who, like Seamus Heaney, have become friends and Ivy lunching partners. Or, as he puts it: "My job is to see that the edifice called Heaney is steered through Faber to the benefit of both."

A noted charmer and redoubtable networker, Evans is also the father of two grown-up sons and three children, aged 8, 6 and 4, from his second marriage to the publisher, Caroline Michel. So why the museums job? "The buzz is that I've always tried to do something other than work at Faber."

There is, as he now knows, a price for such excitement. What rankles most is the scorn of those who label him a cultural Visigoth. "I am chairman of a major literary publishing house. If I were one of Margaret Thatcher's Essex businessmen, that would be one thing. But you could say Faber is the equivalent of the National Gallery. . . It is water off a duck's back. But the violence of the language has shown there are issues to discuss."

I wonder if Evans yet knows quite how harsh the descant of opposition is. Two days before we met, a leading director once again told me of his contempt for the original Evans speech. "No one minds ignorance, but it showed such a lack of judgement," the anonymous director mourned. "Why didn't he get someone to write it, or at least read it?"

The Evans diatribe was actually co-written with his chief executive and approved by the four existing commissioners; a fact that may be of scant comfort to a museums establishment requiring balm. As Chris Smith told the NS on the eve of my meeting with Evans: "Matthew's heart is in the right place, but he will have to spend a great deal of time soothing ruffled feathers." Rather bravely, Evans juts his chin. "Someone else told me I'd upset rank-and-file people in museums who don't earn much money and work very hard. If I've ruffled feathers, those are the only ones I am worried about."

Stroking the plumage of the great holds less allure. "They are a vested interest - a group who have been left alone. Presumably they have had a very big political influence, which may not now be there." And suppose they will not have him at any price? "They have enough political nous to realise that would be suicide for them. I have been appointed to do the job. If they say I am completely useless and stupid, that is not going to get rid of me . . . I can't be detached at this stage . . . I am quite capable of being as paranoid as the next person." Whatever reconciliation Chris Smith - and Evans himself - may wish for, this sounds less like a peace treaty than a call to arms.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor