Adrian Ellis founded AEA Consulting—a leading strategic consultancies in the cultural sector— in London in 1990. Prior to founding AEA, he was Development Director and then Executive Director of The Conran Foundation, where he was responsible for planning and managing the establishment of the Design Museum in London. He has also served as Executive Director for Jazz at the Lincoln Center for five years and has served on the board of several cultural institutions, including the Getty Leadership Institute, the Kaufman Center, Pathé Pictures, The Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and National Museums and Galleries of Wales. Adrian is a member of MMIAM’s International Advisory Committee. Recently, he sat down for an interview with Brittany Johnson.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you become interested in the arts?
I grew up in North Wales in the UK, a mountainous and rural area. My mom was a textile artist, my aunt was an architect, and my grandfather was a sculptor. He was from Scotland; you can still see his work around Edinburgh. So, I came from an art family. We weren’t ‘well-established’ in the art world, but we were all interested in and involved in culture.
As a teenager, my mother’s side of the family was still in Edinburgh. I loved going to the Edinburgh Festival [Fringe] in the summers, rushing around seeing events and hearing music. I’ve always loved music, and in particular jazz. Rural North Wales and jazz don’t really go together, but it’s always been the art form that most engaged me. I remember the first time I heard jazz; it was a broadcast of Voice of America going out to US troops in West Germany. I was probably about 10 or 11 and became hooked.
I was, I suppose, the black sheep of the family; they were proto hippie types, and I was the nerd. I went to university and then the UK Treasury as a civil servant. I was perhaps 28 or 29, working for Thatcher’s government and I wasn’t comfortable with privatizing everything. Although it was a prestigious job, it was a job I wasn’t particularly persuaded by. I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life as a civil servant. I went to work for Terence Conran, a British entrepreneur. He had recently set up a Foundation in the UK and at this time, this was uncommon. The foundation was setting up the Design Museum in London. I spent five years helping summon the Design Museum into existence. This meant all sort of planning: of buildings, architects, curatorial policy, directorships and more, very interesting stuff. It was also part of an urban regeneration program. That was the wild west—or East in London terms—trying to figure out culture and urbanism. I’ve been pretty much on that jag ever since.
Afterward, I became a sort of troubleshooter on other projects and then along came the National Lottery in the UK, this big spigot of capital funding for the arts. Everyone was looking for someone who knew how to plan facilities. This was the beginning of AEA Consulting; in 1990.
And then I married a New Yorker and we moved to New York in 1998 and my job became to set up AEA in the US. It was easier than I thought to set up, but it took a year or more to find the balance with running AEA in both locations. But we’ve been doing the same thing ever since: one-third of what we do is the non-architectural side of capital projects, ‘why are you doing this and how are you going to run it?’, another third is straightforward strategic planning for cultural institutions, the National Gallery of London, the Getty, etc., the final third is cultural strategy for cities, districts, and sometimes countries.
Well, that’s been the last 30 years, except, as I mentioned, I’ve always loved jazz and I’ve always said that if I had the opportunity to work with jazz, I would. When we were working with Jazz at the Lincoln Center—right before their opening with Wynton Marsalis as artistic director—they offered me the job as Executive Director. I thought about it for about half of a second and said, ‘thank you, I’d love to do that.’
Jazz isn’t an art form the program really focuses on. If someone were interested in jazz, where would you tell them to start?
I’ll provide a simple option, but who cares. The album that has sold the most, also one of the best jazz albums there is, and also one of the best entry points into genre is “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. It has John Coltrane on tenor and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano…it is absolutely and indisputably gorgeous. Start there.
You know, a lot of really interesting jazz today is fused with other things. So, you can start with whatever music you like and follow the thread. We live in a golden age in terms of access, all you need is the slightest modicum of curiosity and off you go on a journey. Easier than back in the day when I was a teenager. Anyway, even though it’s a complete cliché to name that album, it is remarkable. Every time I put it on, I think ‘holy moly!’ I was listening to this when I was 16 and it’s just as riveting today. Some things age well.
So, after Jazz at the Lincoln Center you returned to AEA?
I was there for five years before returning, but, ahem, they didn’t really need me, they were doing just fine. I was still very interested in urbanism and culture and what culture contributes to cities but realized there wasn’t really a forum for people who were planning or running in those sectors to communicate. They didn’t necessarily get together or even know who they should be talking to. So, a really simple idea to get these people in a room together became the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN). And there are 50-odd districts, that range from “top down” districts that are looking at more organic districts thinking, ‘wow, there’s so much action there’ to those more organic districts that are looking at the top thinking, ‘god, I wish I had that much infrastructure.’ So, we create a dialogue between them that looks at what works and what doesn’t work.
You’ve had a long career in this sector, do you have any advice for those just starting out or early on in their career?
I don’t have a career philosophy, if I can be honest. If you apply enough energy to any situation, something may come out of it. Easy to say. My advice, however, probably suits my generation more than yours. I was part of a more privileged generation; there was a lot more social mobility, I was paid to go to college for example, how different is that? So, this somewhat cavalier attitude, may not be good advice for your generation. All that said, I’m not one of those people who says, ‘follow your heart and it will all work out,’ you still need to have common sense, you’ve got to have chops, and a lot of luck. We underestimate luck. Luck subsumes where you were born, when you were born, race, gender the whole random lottery.
There was a place in the world for a strategy consultant for the cultural sector. This sector has certain distinctive dynamics and when someone from a general consultancy comes into a cultural organization, they don’t quite understand the underlying dynamics. Cultural organizations have a double bottom line, the rate of return on capital is not everything, there are rules around deaccessioning artworks, etc. Yes, you need the general skills but also to understand this context. So, I realized there was a place for that and there still is a place for that.
The good luck for me was that the arc of my career, let’s say 1990 through today has been generally an arc of expansion throughout the cultural world. Perhaps too much of an expansion?
What do you mean by that?
There is this sense of ‘What can’t the cultural sector solve? We may be slightly too hubristic about all the things the arts can do. But it’s coincided with a period of significant growth in the sector. So, it’s been an interesting period in which to work.
Now, we’re trying to remain relevant for a rapidly changing world, it will be very interesting but also a rougher ride. Larger institutions, particularly, have got to make adjustments that leadership can find quite uncomfortable.
So, why? Why is the cultural sector in particular going through this?
One reason is that we’ve talked the talk but didn’t always walk the walk. We’ve preached a sort of evangelical message around inclusion and now people are asking to see the proof.
We’re in a period of rapid discontinuous change, from a reckoning on race and social justice, to COVID, to now the fall out of the Russian invasion, climate change and technology…I could go on. If I told you I’ve just seen a piece of news for say a North Korean attack on South Korea, you might say ‘wow!’ but you probably wouldn’t find it that difficult to believe. So, to navigate a large, perhaps clunky, hierarchical cultural institution through all that is very difficult. Leaders need a disposition that is looking five, ten, fifteen years ahead and thinking ‘what do we want to be doing then?’. It’s difficult to do this in the twilight of your career, which is when you get to run things, you can end up in a sort of defensive huddle.
So, switching gears a bit. Would you share something you’ve done in the past year that you’re particularly proud of?
Personally, we’ve moved to Italy. Dogs, piano, driving licenses, residency, all of these things that come with relocating to Italy and some of the bureaucracy, and all during a pandemic! We were lucky. We always thought we’d relocate to Italy in our dotage, however, the stupidity of Brexit meant that if I got residency before the end of 2020, we’d have most of the benefits of still being in the EU; so, it worked out. Libby has citizenship and I am a big fan of chain migration.
On the professional front, as a consultant, you live through other people’s achievements, not your own. We did some work with the National Archeological Museum in Athens 18 months ago of which we are very proud. It’s a truly globally significant museum and in a key urban location in Athens. This week, they announced a major revitalization project and a new strategy for its relation to the city. So, I feel pretty good about that. If you keep in touch with projects enough you’ll see the work you’ve done for an organization through their actions.
Last question, since the program goes to Italy but not to Umbria, do you have any recommendations for what students could/should see there?
Umbria, which was part of the Papal States, is stunningly beautiful. You have these gorgeous hilltop towns with medieval and renaissance art and architecture. Of course, you’ve got to go to Florence, Venice, and Rome, but you should also wander around some of these hilltop towns—Perugia is a classic example—walk into their city museums or churches and you will see incredible paintings and sculpture, amazing stuff.
Another thing about Perugia, if you like jazz, it has one of the best jazz festivals in the world. Umbria Jazz has three festivals a year, world class programming, world class musicians.
Lastly, in the hilltop town I live in Montecastello di Vibio, there is the world’s smallest theatre. It’s called the Teatro della Concordia. It has 99 seats, 62 in boxes and 37 seats in stalls. It was built in 1808 by idealistic Umbrian families trying to keep the values of the French revolution alive. It’s beautiful and they program it well too. So, I would recommend that.
*Headshot photo: courtesy of Global Cultural Districts Network.