Interview with Sean Gregory

Director of innovation and engagement, for the Barbican and the Guildhall School, UK. Interview by Jacques Moreau and Nicolas Sidoroff from Cefedem Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, 23.04.2021.


Sean Gregory, director of innovation and engagement, for the Barbican and the Guildhall School in the UK, discusses the need for a real paradigm shift in higher music education, including reflection on why and how things are done. This calls for open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to others in order to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances. Gregory urges for diversification, co-creation with others, and partnerships for alumni and other institutions and points out that the artist’s role must move beyond classical conventions and embrace the new normal.


Please present yourself, explain what you’re doing, where you come from and what is your main activity currently.

My name is Sean Gregory. I am director of innovation and engagement, both for the Barbican and the Guildhall School. Currently my main responsibilities in the Guild School sets with research, overseeing research, our innovation work, which includes everything from adult learning to staff development and to the development to encouraging new initiatives and ideas, laboratory of ideas for staff and students. And also I oversee all the underwriting work as well. I also have responsibility on the Barbican side, particularly around the areas of our civic work, our social responsibility work, which of course connects into what I do with the Guildhall School as well. I have remit around digital and how our digital strategy, uh, interfaces with the programming we do at the Barbican, both in the arts programming and also all the learning and community related work we do there.

My history as such is that I’m a musician. I trained as a musician and a composer. For many years, I worked as a creative leader in many different social education, community settings as a collaborative composer, basically mainly music, but working across art forms. I gradually moved into the Guildhall to teach and to then begin to lead Barbican’s work with Peter Renshaw. And gradually my roles and responsibilities have evolved: they’ve led me to work with the Barbican and the Guildhall School setting up creative learning, which is a major initiative, with all our outreach work and which continues to grow and develop today.

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How do you currently understand the overall role of your Institute of Higher Arts Education? How do you see the role of your Institute developing in the near future?

 So, this is talking of the Guild. The Guildhall School is there primarily to train musicians, actors, production artists for the profession, and to make sure the training they receive is as relevant as possible to what’s expected of artists and practitioners, production practitioners in society, with their specialism. But most importantly, also within the context of society now and into the future. And I think this is the one of the key things, it’s almost a manifestation of the last 20, 30 years where, where I feel finally now: the training of artists, of artists who will go out into society as a whole, not only to perform and deliver their skills to the highest possible expectation in the traditional terms, but also how they can use those skills in as meaningful and creative way now and into the future, not only in terms of delivery, what delivering what you would expect of an artist of a performing artist or creative artist, but also how those artists can influence and inform and inspire people in terms of what’s possible now and into the future.

So it’s, as conservatoire, we are working towards the Guildhall being a conservatoire for the 21st century, 2020s and beyond, rather than a replication of what a conservatoire has always been either emanating from the 19th, 20th century. It’s not one thing instead of the other, it’s combining the tradition and all the things, the qualities that come from that, with the innovation of now and into the future. We have a sort of strap line as part of our mission of craft and creativity at the forefront of cultural change. And I think that’s a very important sort of captures of what we’re trying to do through our training.

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As you speak of the 21st century, toward what definition of the artist, how can you see the future role of the artists in the creative work play in society? What impact are you aiming to reach with those artists you are training?

These artists are socially, not only artistically and creatively, well, they are artistically engaged they are creatively engaged, so they think beyond just the peer reproduction of their repertoire, what they do, and they think about the impact of widest possible impact they can have through what they do, so beyond the concert hall or the theater, and all that sort of the more traditional places where you would use your skills, and how you translate those into a much wider setting.

We want the artists to make a difference. We want them to have a social conscious social awareness, we want them to have an awareness of the contexts, they connect to the context they go into and they work in, and that what they do is of the highest quality, again, not just in terms of the traditional expectations, but if they are in community settings or wider collaborative settings using their skills, they are doing that to the highest possible level, and they know how to do that and how to apply that.

We talk a lot about activism as well: artists now need to be actively engaged with the realities of the world and think about how they can apply and use their skills in those different contexts. I’m saying all of this, recognizing that not everyone wants to do that, you may want to come on onto this.

Just to say that, I think it’s not to say that every young artist or graduate who comes out to the Guildhall School is going to be a social artistic activist, as much as a performer. But what we feel is really important, is that when they are in the environment of the Guildhall School, they be in that environment, that vibrant learning, reflective, as well as the training environments, they are presented with the possibilities, doors are open to them, and they are made aware of these possibilities. And we expect them to a degree to engage with those possibilities and at least understand where they want to be as they move out into the world of work and what they do.

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Do you see that those artists, as you understand them, as you wish to train them, have an impact on the economic sector, on the economic part of the field they are engaged in?

Yes. That should come on to that. So we work first and foremost. Again, we want our students and our graduates to be enterprising in the broadest sense of the word. They are social entrepreneurs, they are creative entrepreneurs, and they are business entrepreneurs. If they have an idea, they know how to make that idea a reality. And obviously that part of that is how to make an idea work artistically, creatively, educationally, but also they know how to make it work in terms of financially, what that means and setting it up as a business, or just seeing that idea through and knowing how to have the money in place, how to pay people and all those sorts of things. By producing artists who are able to think like that, that plays into, I think, the positive impact artists have now and in the future can have on our own economy and our creative economy.

And I think this is often something that conservatoires indeed arts organizations, particularly publicly funded arts organizations, have been reluctant to think about, you know. They’re there to do something different. And there is a value in that. It’s not that everything should become completely commercial and completely financially led, but we are now in an age of being of a mixed economy, basically that mixed economy of what you can create yourself, what might be funded through more traditional forms of state and public funding, and where you need to be out there and get your own commercial, economic support. And to think about how the impact of what you do can help to catalyze creativity and enterprise, and new business opportunities in other sectors as well. And the key word here is partnerships, the partnerships that we can develop as organizations with other sectors and other organizations, and indeed [the partnerships] our own artists and our own graduates, can build when they’re out there.

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Focussing on your specific field of expertise, linked to what you are doing with Barbican and the community, the work of your community: What is the importance, for the community, for the evolution of society, to have those artists in the field of what you are working on, your field of expertise? What does their creative work play in that field?

Thinking of the Barbican and the Guild, and particularly what we can do together, we are discussing and talking more and more about what the civic role and purpose of indeed the Barbican and the Guild are as organizations in their own right and as organizations together.

Now, some of that is to do with the building and the spaces, why people come in, whether they are audiences or visitors, why the students are there and what that means and how we best use space right through to the activity and the work that we do. The role of the artists in relation to that, be they Guild or students graduates, or the other artists we work for, is it artists?

Many artists don’t necessarily just think about the craft and the specialism and they do, they are relating that to the world they are in, and we need to be hearing that and understand that and seeing how that can feed into what we do as a sector and what we do as organizations in our own right. So the partnership and the ecology between the arts organization itself, the Barbican, the Guildhall and the artists themselves, or the students and the teachers, and how that contributes to the culture, the sense of community, the work that comes out, the way that engages and works with the wider public and audiences, is a really key part of that.

And it’s how those things interlink and work together, rather than just thinking of them all as separate entities and things that are just sort of delivered and done without any consideration of how this impacts on the audiences and people and how this might change things.

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In your opinion, what are the most influential general trends and developments currently, and in the near future in society economy and the arts?

That’s a huge question. They all are. That’s great! So there’s two or three things here.

One is, I think we are, this is a personal thing, but I think this is what’s happening as well. I think we can no longer think about art and the artistic creative imperative and the social education learning based imperative. There’s two separate things. These need to be thought about together. So whether it’s to do with the training of young artists or to do with how an arts organization, such as the Barbican programs things, you are always taking those things into consideration. And I think this was happening already, and it has been happening over the last few years, more generally in the United Kingdom. And you look at the strategies, for example, of the Arts Council now, which is “let’s create” and it’s about participation, collaboration, shared curation, co-curation between artists, communities, people, and places, arts organizations that are not just cathedrals for great art, but they are open public spaces that everyone has the right to be in and to engage with.

So I think there is still a priority, now to come to your question, is how that really begins to manifest itself in the overall artistic, creative civic, social and commercial strategies and developments of those organizations and their are thoughts about as one.

So in the Barbican, we are talking about our creative imperative and our civic imperative and our commercial imperative, as one, as part of our overall strategy. And we need to be thinking about that in one breath and not thinking of it only in terms of the audiences, we need to get into the venues, to the box office and everything else, but it’s also the positive impact and value it has in other ways. So it’s not just financial benefits and impact for us as an organization, it’s the social benefit, it’s the health and wellbeing impact, and how that can play working with the health sector, working with the corporate sector in terms of the value it brings to their employees. These are many things that have been talked about, and thoughts about again, they’ve been quite separate. I think we’re at a point now where we want to bring those things together and think about them as one.

I think the other thing I want to mention, which again, you’ve referenced in your questionnaire is of course, the pandemic, the COVID crisis, and what that has done to us in terms of how we are living our lives, how we have been living our lives the last 12 months. And as, and as we recover from that, and we start to go into the new normal, whatever that is, how people experience culture, creativity, how people engage with that, how people in participated in that, how they’ve been doing it during lockdown when they’ve been there in house, the role that digital plays in relation to that, not just in terms of consuming through a screen, but how you can engage and participate, how it’s democratized. It’s accelerated almost the democratization of culture in society. And that has a big implication, I think, in terms of how artists engage, bring their work, and develop their work. Do they do that in pure isolation, you know, in the sort of 19th century meaning of the word, or do they do that in a 21st century sense of the word, which is about engaging with people and place and what’s going on in the world. I think that that plays back to how we program, how we teach, what our curriculum is, the role of technology, the role of live experience. Art forms in that purely sense, music, theater, visual arts, artists, programming more in the interdisciplinary sense, and the more traditional and the more innovation ways of creating and putting things on.

So as I think, just to sum up, I think it’s not that these things weren’t happening before, but I think the pandemic has accelerated a lot of these questions and I haven’t even started on the quality and inclusion, the whole race question that, and the black lives matter, or that has come to the fore again over the last 12 months. But all of these things are now alive, part of the ecology, and we can’t ignore them or talk about with the bits and then forgets about them and carry on doing things as we are. The new normal is we will be doing things differently. We have to do things differently. And it’s not just a sort of business as usual sense.

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How do you see, in your institution, those changes to appear and what are the main drivers for that and the challenges you will need to face?

It’s a very important question. So obviously one of the biggest challenges is: it’s one thing to say all of these things, and we have these things written into our strategies. They are there, for the Guild and the Barbican, but these are our priorities, the artist in society training the opposite side of the 21st century, our civic purpose within the Barbican, it’s reconnecting people and places, arts without boundaries, it’s all there. But we, I think as a sector, we’ve become very good at saying the right thing and knowing we have some activity going on in that area. But meanwhile, we keep doing things as we’ve always done in other areas in the main areas of our core business.

So the challenge is now to get beyond that and really start to keep challenging and breaking down the assumptions around the core business of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’ve talked during lockdown about doubling down on our core purpose. What are we here to do? Who is it for? And in the light of that, how are we going to do things differently in the future?

And that is a huge challenge because it turns everything inside out, including the business models that we have run things on, you know, up in the past and up to now really, the funding models that are played, the way we go out and raise money and get sponsorship and support, you know, the touring orchestra, you know, it’s just, you know, there’s the climate change, the environment. Can we justify putting so much money in which loses money year in, year out on an orchestra, you know, to keep doing what it’s done, because it’s always done it that way. And then it goes off on its tour and it does what it does in that, and then comes back for essentially the same audiences and the same stripes of life.

Again, I’m not saying we need to get rid of orchestras. They are a very important part of our ecology as we move forward. But it’s just that how we think differently about the conservation and the survival of those, but in a very different environment for now and in the future, in are very different ecology. I think essentially it’s about creating a new level playing field in terms of what you do and why you’re doing it and how you then prioritize things and the prioritizing in the past, which has never, always been explicit, it’s just being well, of course, that’s the priority. Why wouldn’t it be the priority? And I think the question now being asked is “is it questioning of that? You say that, but why is that?” And in the light of all that’s come up through the pandemic, in the light of all that’s come up through the anti-racism debates, our colonial history, et cetera, et cetera, the climate change, you know, everything that’s coming with that now as well. How can we keep just saying, “well, we do this because that’s how we’ve always done it”. Because that is not sustainable. Its the future. It’s not sustainable for our communities and our media society. It’s not sustainable globally if we’re going to literally survive as a planet.

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Do you see that artists are playing in a proactive role for those changes or do the changes have to go on against the artists? Or what role can play the artists and the creative sector in those important changes?

That’s such an important question again. It’s a very live debate. I don’t know how I can speak for you in France, but in the UK is obviously… artists, particularly the freelance practitioners, have been terribly hit by the pandemic. And what that has highlighted is the widening gap, you know, in society. And actually the role, to come to your question, the voice and the role of the artists needs to be bought more centrally into what we’re doing at the moment.

It’s almost like the institutions, the cultural institutions, I include the Barbican and Guildhall, they have a hold on it and it’s almost, it goes, they are the means that it goes through. And then it goes to the artist and with all the challenges and the bureaucracies and everything that comes with institutions, it slows things down and the artist’s voice can get lost in that.

So I think part of this is bringing the artist voice, the emerging, the established artists, a far more diverse community of artists as well, those who perhaps don’t fit into the current mainstream, but need to be brought in because they have ideas, they are asking the right questions and they can be part of the solution and they need to be seen as part of the solution, to shifting into this new normal, this new paradigm I was describing to you earlier.

It’s less top-down, you know. It’s gotta be bottom ground up with communities, with our artists, with the emergent ideas. And it is our role as the larger systems in place to let go a little bit, to give space for. And we actually have this in our strategy at the Barbican to create space for people and ideas to connect and to allow the possibilities that emerged from that. And, you know, the failure and the risks that come with that to allow those things to really emerge, come to the surface and use then our assets as organizations, as the systems at play to allow those ideas, to develop, evolve, and work in a new and different way into the future.

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A Specific question linked to the current situation you can see in regard to accessibility and diversity in your project in Barbican and Guildhall: What can you see about this theme, this issue, what is the weight of this issue, in the future, the near future? Is it part of the challenge also and what part of the challenge is it?

Its a huge part of the challenge, but I think it’s to be viewed positively and, you know, I’m, living the challenge day by day, you know, at the moment, particularly with other senior colleagues, you know: as directors, we have ultimate responsibility and are seen as part of the problem, because we represent the system that still has a huge lack of diversity in terms of the people who work, who teach, who work at the Guildhall, who work at the Barbican. It’s predominantly white, it’s predominantly middle class, we’ve for 20 or 30 years. And I’ve been at the heart.

We’ve been developing new programs of creative learning, learning and participation, community based work, and some fantastic things have happened and they continue to happen at that level, but that has not fed through effectively into the staff demographic, you know, of the Barbican and the Guildhall, in the representation of the artist and the programming that we put on, in the way the curriculum is taught.

So a big part of the work at the moment, in our equality, diversity and inclusion work, our EDI work, as we put new strategies and action plans in place, we are having to take a very clear and systematic look at our curriculum and how we decolonize the curriculum of the Guildhall, our programming at the Barbican and how we open a diversified art, our student community, our staff community, the community of artists we work with, the training that we offer our staff, not just to do a quick training course on how to appreciate what it is to be more diverse or issues of race; it’s actually how that training contributes to our working culture, the way we work, the way we listen and learn, and recognizing that this is not going to be a change overnight, but it’s changed that needs to happen.

Our recruitment processes for staff, for students, and indeed, how the pathways, from the moment a young person from any background, any socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds, first experiences and engages with art through to them realizing that they can come and work in the sector, they can be part of the creative and arts industry, they are entitled to be part of that in, and not just in the artistic sense, but yet the behind the scenes working in any aspects of a very open and thriving industry and that they need to be part of that as well.

So it’s a huge piece of work. It’s not happening quick enough, you know. It’s still too slow. We’re moving as much as we can, but this is where the bureaucracy and systems and, you know, even so that we’re trying to do the day job as well, we’re still trying to run an art organization and a conservatoire as well at the same time, and keep them running as operations, as businesses and to instigate these very significant changes.

But it goes back to earlier questions. This needs to happen, not only because of the moral imperative, there is a huge moral imperative to this, but actually if we’re going to survive as a sector, the diversification of our arts community, our artists, community, of the communities who live and work and study on a day in day out basis, in the Barbican, Guildhall and elsewhere, the more diverse that community is in every sense, the more creativity, the more vibrant and live and the more of the 21st century is going to be.

And that’s scary for some people because the artistic life has been based on how it goes back to how things have always been done and what it’s based on what you know, rather than what you don’t know. And we need to go into what we don’t know. We don’t know. And we are not the experts on everything. But I think in our institutions and our sector, a lot of it is based on what you know, and if you don’t know that, you’re going to struggle to get into it. And that’s what people from the outside field, well: “that’s not for me because clearly I don’t know what you know, and you don’t want to know about what I know and what I could bring to this organization or this work.

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What can artistic practices become in that context of sustainable de-growth where we all go into? What can our practices do, will, they change or what can they become, how can they move on in that perspective?

I think they need to become more collaborative. Of course collaboration is a big part of the access we know, but again, there’s collaboration in the more traditional sense, you know, and of course, I’ve been in many discussions over the years where you could sit in an opera house and say, well, we collaborate. We have our theater technicians, we have our musicians, we have our singers on stage, and there’s a degree of collaboration, but this is a different type of collaboration. It’s a source of you clear things away and you almost start again and you don’t start the collaboration with assumptions. You start collaboration with the people who are in the room and the ideas that are gonna come from that.

There’s a growing focus on the idea of co-creation, you know, so, whether it’s artists co-creating or programmers, producers, curators, co-creating with artists, and even more importantly, artists and institutions such as the Barbican co-creating with people in the community, with community neighborhoods, where ideas grow together based on needs, based on things that matter within those contexts. And out of that, that’s where you start to develop new and exciting things that need to be taken as seriously as the beautifully curated art exhibition based on the famous artists or the great concerts or theater piece that we would know and expect to see in a certain way. So it’s back to the working culture and the way that you develop new possibilities and new ways of engaging people.

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So the next question is coming naturally: How do you think this desirable future can be achieved?

Through listening and learning, always listen. We have to be better in listening. I think maybe as a human species, we’ve lost the ability to list a bit, but certainly those of us, in a certain place within our particular sector, think we’re listening, but we’re not listening enough.

And I think: and then translating what we listen and learn from into new ways of working is a very important way forward. Ways of working, we talk about a lot, we talk about that a lot in the Barbican and Guildhall, and it’s not just to do with the most immediate creativity, it’s just how we operate as an organization. And, again, it’s back to this: it just can’t be just a top-down directive.

It’s, we’ve had to respond to COVID, COVID and the pandemic very quickly. And that, the way we’ve all responded to that, has not been through endless committee meetings, or just like a process that you would always go through. You’ve had to do it there and there, and you become agile and responsive and very imaginative and creative in the way. Then you do still then find ways of producing work, presenting work, et cetera, et cetera. We need to carry that into this next phase of work, as we return to this new normal, as talking about. And as we’re going into that new normal, we ensure that we are thinking about our audiences, our participants, our artists, our programming, our curriculum, in a very different way.

And it goes back to what I was saying earlier: It’s we need as leaders to trust that process, and not feel we have to be the experts and know everything ourselves. It’s our role as much to facilitate and to use our knowledge expertise, to have more, to help other ideas, to grow and develop and take form.

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Is there anything we haven’t discussed yet, or you would like to add to this conversation as a final perspective, final point, or final thoughts?

No, I think you’ve more than covered it, but, because of the role I am in, it’s just, I think, the way higher education and the profession, the partnership between those two sectors feels really important for culture moving forward, you know, particularly, everything I’ve been describing.

I think one of the challenges, in developing new business models, any operating or business model is financially led, it’s the money that speaks. If it doesn’t make sense there, it’s hard to get any further. And what we need to get better at is being able to demonstrate the value and impact of what we do, particularly through the arts and the creative industries, the value that wings that is not just financially paced.

Now we know that we’ve got hundreds and thousands of stories. We can all tell about the value and the impact it had for that particular person or that particular group of people. But we’re not very good at telling that in a more coherent and wide impactful way. I think the sorts of research and evaluation impact models that come naturally through higher education and the work they do could work very helpfully in the professional and live sector as well.

The challenges, it mustn’t become an over academic exercise because it’s the academic side which can scare off, people who have to get shows on a day, it just loses it. Again, it’s this like leaving some of our assumptions at the door and allowing skills and expertise to just think about things in a different way. That’s another collaboration, that I’m very interested in happening between the Barbican and the Guildhall, and we’re beginning to work on this, but I think it happened more widely.

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