The Financial Times APRIL 16, 2010 - by Laura Battle


There may still be talk of economic meltdown in the wider world but the Brighton festival shows no signs of belt-tightening: this year's wildly impressive line-up boasts fourteen premieres and eight new commissions. Not only that but, judging from the whole programme of events, there is evidence of an underlying and, dare I say it, rather unfashionable theme of positive thinking. Sure, there's a healthy dose of Russian drama, a new production of Shakespeare's Macbeth and plenty of sobering subject matter in the books and debate series, but a striking number of the scheduled works seem to emphasise the comedic and fantastical, the bold and the beautiful - and there's even a lecture titled Reasons For Optimism.

No doubt some of this confidence has rubbed off from the festival's glamorous guest curator: artist, musician and producer Brian Eno. Much more, I suspect, comes from Andrew Comben, the talented but unassuming chief executive of Brighton Dome And Festival Limited (BDFL). Many festival-goers will be unaware of Comben's role (his name appears in tiny print on the penultimate page of the brochure) but, since his appointment in 2008, this thirty-six-year-old has been credited with raising the profile of the annual festival, and the status of the company's three year-round venues. Already Comben has held distinguished posts, as director of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme at the Aldeburgh festival and head of artistic planning at London's Wigmore Hall, and commentators are tipping future success.

"Brighton's always sunny," he says, when we meet on the first warm day of the year. I raise an eyebrow. "It's true, sunny in spirit! What I noticed about Aldeburgh was its sense of melancholy, which sounds like such a downer but I think a very strong creative emotion can come out of it," he adds. "But one of the reasons I like the idea of optimism so much is that Brighton absolutely seems to embody that." Postcards promise sandcastles and sauciness, fishnets (both kinds), games arcades and a touristy seafront but behind its gaudy facade the town has always displayed a strong spirit of creative freedom and an inclusive attitude towards the arts. The festival was founded in 1967 with a focus on classical music but now embraces dance, theatre, visual art and music in all their varied forms.

Likewise, Comben's own background was in classical music: born and educated in Australia (not that you'd guess it - those shapely vowels and high-rising terminals have vanished without a trace), he travelled to the UK as a young chorister and resolved to return. A few years later he "fell into" the Wigmore Hall, having been drawn by its programme of song recitals, and began working as an usher there before rising through the ranks. "I think I managed to fix a computer," he laughs, "and that seemed to propel me into a career in arts administration." Comben soon discovered where his skills lay. "What I love is making things happen, putting things together. That, for me, is a very creative process," he says. "And it's probably fortunate for the world that I gave up singing."

Comben has introduced two particular initiatives at Brighton: a residency for Hofesh Shechter and his eponymous dance company at the Corn Exchange, and the festival's guest curating scheme, which debuted last year with sculptor Anish Kapoor at the helm. "I was looking for a central artistic influence... and visual art seemed the perfect jumping off point for a range of performing arts," Comben says. This desire for a strong sense of personality and for cohesion also led him to Eno, another artist known for his voracious cultural appetite. Aside from their creative input, curators of this stature also come with a priceless contacts book and offer an immediate media hook, so I ask Comben to defend himself against those who might dismiss the scheme as a gimmick.

"I agree that parachuting a figure in for the sake of it can lack artistic integrity," he says, "but while I'm aware of the potential for it to be a vacuous exercise, it hasn't been thus far, and I think both programmes demonstrate that."

Inevitably this year's festival provides a platform for Eno's own projects - a live performance of his Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, and the UK premiere of his "visual music" installation, 77 Million Paintings, to name just two - and those of his close contemporaries, such as Philip Glass, who will perform his own Music In Twelve Parts. However, lesser-known artists, such as the Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem and the German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, have also got leading slots. Unlike the Edinburgh festival, to which it is increasingly compared, Brighton is able to integrate literary events and Comben considers this to be a real strength: "I think our fractured and somewhat virtual communities really relish the opportunity to do something quite old-fashioned. It's like a town hall conversation."

The purpose and value of festivals is a topic that has often arisen in his discussions with Eno. "Brian has a great line, that one of the things we do in order to surrender is art, along with sex, drugs and religion. In his mind it's not simply escapism, it's a sense of communion, an experience that takes one out of oneself, and I think festivals offer that in an intense and intoxicating way."

This, perhaps, explains why arts festivals continue to flourish in this country while regional theatres and cultural programmes are becoming endangered. In effect, Comben's job involves both perspectives and he is grateful for the "high demand for good art" that exists in Brighton throughout the year, but I ask him whether the company's financial health is as good as it appears. "We've been operating at a surplus each year, and that's a good situation for an arts institution to be in, but actually the festival programme doesn't cost any more in real terms than it did three years ago so I don't think we've been profligate in our spending," he says. Private individuals, trusts and funds provide some financial support but the BDFL is also dependent on the funding it receives through Brighton and Hove City Council and Arts Council England.

With the British election race in full swing, Comben has been listening to party statements on arts policy with interest. "One of the really heartening things has been the difference in debate compared to that which we saw in the 1980s or 1990s, which was of an arts sector desperately pleading for hand-outs and trying to justify the need for that," he says. Certainly, it is cheering that the country's cultural life is now recognised as an important factor for social and economic well-being.

Cuts seem inevitable, whoever is elected to power, but Comben is confident that Brighton's future will not be compromised: "We would be stupid if we weren't facing up to the times of austerity but I think now's the time to be more and more ambitious, and that doesn't always need to end in a financial equation," he argues. "On the contrary we plan for the next few years to be even more exciting."