December 9, 2011 10:00 pm

First Person: Amanda Nevill

Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute, has turned the organisation ‘inside out’

I wasn’t pushed at school, but I was an absolute bookworm and loved the arts. I remember being mesmerised by a talk on Dutch painting. It was only afterwards that I realised everyone else had been bored stiff.

After A-levels, I went to Paris for a year to study French culture. I was set on a career in the arts but university wasn’t an option. I had to earn a living. After Paris, my mother told me she thought I should train to be a secretary.

My first job, straight out of secretarial college in 1976, was for the Rowan Gallery in London, which represented many big artists: Phillip King, Anthony Green, Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley. I remember Peggy Guggenheim coming in and asking, “Oh darling, where’s the john?” I politely told her that we didn’t have any and that if she wanted to see Jasper Johns she’d need to go to the Tate. She roared with laughter. Bridget Riley had a house in France so I used to write all her letters to her staff over there. Most importantly, however, I began to understand how the business of art worked.

After a year, I moved on and helped Francis Kyle set up his gallery. Eighteen months on from that, I got married and moved to Bath, where I set up the first British Contemporary Art Fair, in 1980. In the first year, we sold so many tickets that we ran out and had to recycle the used ones. Five years later, I moved to The Royal Photographic Society and, in 1990, I became its first female director. Four years later, I was appointed head of the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford.

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Museums had traditionally been run by subject experts, often academics. I didn’t even have a degree. But it was just at the time when people realised that academics weren’t necessarily the right people to gauge what the public wanted. I approached the museum as if I was a consumer. I was working in one of the most deprived quarters of Britain, and we did a big Star Wars show – attended by the director, George Lucas.

In 2003, I was invited for a “fireside chat” with Anthony Minghella at the British Film Institute. After a formal interview I was offered the job of BFI director, the first woman in the job. When Anthony died suddenly in 2008, his papers came to us. Among them was a memo saying that the new director should be “apprised of the perilous financial situation the organisation was in”. Of course no one ever did apprise me of that fact, and the first three years of the job were a challenge.

The BFI was an inward-looking organisation. It was my job to change it, to give it a clear role as a cultural institution for both audiences and filmmakers. Of course there were opponents. There always are opponents if you are going into an organisation and changing things. The changes – such as turning the National Film Theatre into BFI Southbank – happened in a whirlwind kind of way but then they had to. We were turning the BFI inside out trying to make the organisation more confident, more sure of itself. It was a political time.

After it was announced in 2010 that the Film Council was to be abolished, its funding responsibilities were passed to us, in April of this year. We now take on the full portfolio of film, both cultural and industrial, promoting Britain’s film industry internationally and allocating lottery funding to filmmakers. We will never be the sole funder of a film, and we don’t commission scripts. If someone is coming to us for production money, they need to have a distributor attached.

We also have development funds, so directors and producers can develop scripts, buy rights, develop storylines, explore costs and look for casts. Often the strength of any project is down to the development money that’s gone into it. We want to address the fact that less than 25 per cent of box office revenue in the UK comes from British film.

I never see what I do as a career. I get such pleasure and joy out of all the arts and never feel satiated. At my last birthday, my two daughters said they’d take me wherever I wanted to go for an evening. I said, “Oh let’s go and see a film.” It didn’t occur to me to do anything else.

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