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THE challenging economic climate we’re living in has seen government ministers making tough decisions on how best to prioritise the nation’s budget and balance the books. So it was inevitable that the arts sector would also be facing cuts this year.
Across the UK, theatres, galleries and arts organisations saw their budgets affected. But Arts Council England in March recognised that Sunderland’s National Glass Centre (NGC), was a cultural asset to the region and it was among a number to secure financial support for the next three years, alongside a joint submission with the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, under the National Portfolio Funding Programme.
With the University of Sunderland taking over the NGC last year, a new director with an impressive portfolio of work to his name has now been appointed to steer the venue through uncertain times and build on its reputation as a glass production centre with a unique heritage, that sits alongside the nation’s great arts institutions.
AFTER a fulfilling 40-year career in the arts world, James Bustard had his retirement all mapped out in March last year; stepping down from the Arts Council North East to pursue two great passions in his life - long distance walking and playing tennis.
But the severe winter ground the 56-year-old’s outdoor pursuits to a halt, and the lure of work proved too tempting when he discovered the National Glass Centre (NGC) was looking to appoint a new director.
After 19 years working with the organisation behind the creation of the region’s most iconic art projects from the Year of Visual Arts, the Angel of the North and Baltic to MIMA and of course, the NGC, James is more than qualified to take the helm of the Sunderland riverside venue at a testing time for the arts sector.
And he has an ambitious vision to introduce new galleries and display areas that will see the NGC develop as a premier attraction in the North East and set itself on a truly national platform alongside the likes of Baltic and The Sage Gateshead.
Backed up by the University of Sunderland, the NGC now has its best chance of progressing under the direction of a man who has proved throughout his career that he likes to follow what’s in his heart and make his own luck.
This approach to work began back in 1973, when aged 18 and influenced by his family’s connection to the transport industry, from shipping to aircraft (beginning with his father who set up an office in Moscow for the famous British White Star Line shipping company in 1917 just months before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution), James decided to embark on an economics degree. But the summer before his course started, the Surrey-born student decided to buy a £27 Inter-rail card and travel across Europe viewing famous artworks in churches, galleries and exhibitions; it was to be a life-changing experience.
He returned inspired, immediately changing his degree course to read art history at Essex University, it was his “Damascene moment”, he says. “It began my love affair with the visual arts that has lasted 40 years and I have been incredibly lucky with it.”
After graduating, he began his career in a small museum and gallery in Portsmouth, before travelling more than 300 miles to Edinburgh, to become curator of exhibitions with the Scottish Arts Council, collaborating with the Edinburgh International Festival on major festival exhibitions.
Ten years later he returned to London and embarked on a portfolio of work, from an arts dealer to journalist with the Scotsman and Arts Newspaper. He even organised a highly publicised expedition to the North Pole for renowned British Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy to work with an Inuit community.
But a major career decision came while exhibiting work for the film director and painter Peter Greenaway on whether he should continue working in the private sector or return to the public sector. James says he took the right decision and headed to the North East, where his wife’s family originate from Teesside, and joined Northern Arts in 1991 as Principal Arts Officer, the predecessor to Arts Council North East, just as the region had been shortlisted for the Year of the Visual Arts.
“It was a huge time of capital growth, as the Arts Lottery had been established,” the father-of-one explained. “The North East really had got its act together and raised its game on the national arts radar. We produced the Case for the Capital which saw a whole generation of new arts facilities emerge and transformed the arts infrastructure of the North East, of which I played a part.
“But we are now facing terribly tough times and I have worked through such a growth period, to seeing the salt seller completely overturned, it’s tough for everyone in this industry now.”
So instead of taking a much deserved rest and returning south after a long and varied career, why did the NGC draw him back to the arts world frontline?
“I very much see the North East as my home now and having been part of the set up of the NGC 12 years ago, I believe I understand the grain of this building,” James explained.
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