Lunch with the FT: John Studzinski

Most readers of this paper will think they know what to expect from a lunchtime chat with John Studzinski. Formerly a banker at Morgan Stanley and then at HSBC, now a senior managing director at Blackstone Group, the investment and advisory firm, he is a prominent figure in financial circles from New York to Beijing. So why, you may wonder, is it an arts editor who is meeting him for lunch at the Square, owner-chef Philip Howard’s Michelin two-star restaurant in London’s Mayfair?

The answer is simple: there are many John Studzinskis. I have witnessed five or six of them, in occasional meetings over the 20-odd years since we first met (at a National Gallery dinner where he was co-host, since Morgan Stanley was sponsoring the exhibition). None of these Studzinskis is the über-banker: I’ve seen the vice-chairman of Human Rights Watch, the champion of homeless charity work in London, the art collector with an exquisite and historic London home, the leading light among London’s Catholics, the leather-jacketed arts socialite at a Tom Stoppard opening. And there must be yet more Studzinski incarnations, especially in New York, where he spends half his time.

But the one I’ve come to talk to is the patron of the arts who is celebrating 10 years of his Genesis Foundation, an organisation that funds young talent across the performing and visual arts, with a range that spans scholarships at the Royal College of Art to bursaries for international playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre.

Studzinski arrives, no more than 90 seconds late (his staff have called to apologise), a trim 54-year-old in a suit that despite its demure grey tones looks as if it has been woven from liquidised banknotes. He has a quiet voice that is only just American and the manner of the super-organised – never in a hurry, yet the current flows with high energy. Within a few minutes he has greeted me warmly, wondered who designed the plates in front of us, posited a theory about a more spiritual future (“spiritual, that doesn’t have to mean religious”), asked after my children, made a gentle joke about the FT paying the bill, inquired as to whether I pray or meditate, and told me that he only ever eats a green salad and then a piece of fish.

Only a green salad? My greedy eyes have already devoured every dish on the first half of a starter menu to dream of. I quickly push away thoughts of lasagne of Dorset crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam, or tartare and carpaccio of fallow deer with smoked chestnut cream, pickled trompettes and truffled baked celeriac, or roast foie gras, burnt orange purée and rhubarb. I ask for the beetroot and celeriac salad, followed by John Dory; he goes for the turbot.

That’s that then. Studzinski has already mentioned in passing that any lunchtime conversation that lingers much on the food has something wrong with it, so clearly there is to be no banter about pickled trompettes. And he has embarked on his “extended Lent”: no drink from the start of January to Easter, for reasons both of health and of “discipline”; we ask for bottles of water. When the waiter brings an amuse-bouche of mud-coloured sludge in a tiny glass (which turns out to be a heavenly mushroom froth), Studzinski questions him closely about how much cream it might contain.

If this sounds severe, or even priggish, it doesn’t seem so. It just seems practical. Studzinski has a way of paying you the compliment of wanting the conversation to take place at a different level; with him, small talk effortlessly becomes big talk, and words such as “responsibility”, “spirit”, “dignity” or “commitment” do not seem pretentious.

Human dignity, and the nurturing of it: that, he says in answer to my opening questions about his philanthropic work, is what it is all about. He feels passionately about giving opportunities to those who can’t afford to find them. We get down to business about Genesis: yes, it is entirely funded by him – although he might be looking for partnership finance at some point. Yes, a lot of lessons have been learnt over the past decade and yes, at times he has had to draw back on his contributions. The cost? It has been higher in the past but is currently running, he says, at between £1m and £2m a year.

That seems to me surprisingly modest, when you consider a range that includes the Young Vic’s directors programme, full scholarships for young dancers to attend the Bolshoi school in Moscow, the commissioning of new operas performed by London’s independent Tête à Tête opera, support for new playwriting at High Tide Festival, sponsorship for the Sixteen, a group of professional classical singers under the baton of Harry Christophers, not forgetting the scholarships for young actors at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

There’s a strong religious current, too, especially in the musical work: the Westminster Mass commissioned by Genesis from young British composer Roxanna Panufnik for Cardinal Basil Hume’s 75th birthday, or leading contemporary composer James MacMillan’s setting of Padre Pio’s prayer, “Stay with Me, Lord”. Or Will Todd’s “Among Angels”, which marked Studzinski’s own 50th birthday in 2006 and was performed in Salzburg and at St Yeghiche Armenian Church in London.

Even that long list is far from exhaustive: Studzinski certainly knows how to make his money go a long way, by working with and through existing organisations, and he is eloquent about applying a business model to philanthropy. “It’s not to do with just writing cheques,” he insists, “it’s about planning and following it through, giving it time.” Genesis has decided to concentrate its resources on the process, rather than the end-product: “I don’t fund productions,” he says. “People come and ask me to give them £300,000 for a few nights of something on stage. I think that money is so much better spent on the process of creating, on nurturing emerging talent and staying with it, a commitment over the years. And networks: bringing young creative people into a network they can learn from and that will support them.”

Newly announced to celebrate the 10th anniversary is an annual Genesis Prize, awarded to individuals or companies that promote new talent. He also gives financial support and start-up funding to 15 small businesses working in the arts under the aegis of the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity.

All this takes place in Britain. Studzinski was born in the US in 1956, the child of Polish immigrants in what he describes as a “working-class” family in Peabody, Massachusetts. Doesn’t he, as an American, want to spread some of this extraordinary largesse across his homeland?

“There are some plans to start a project in New York soon, maybe with the Juilliard School,” he says. But he is almost embarrassingly anglophile, singing paeans to the values, talent pool, deep history and fundamental decency of Britain and her people. He came to the UK in the early 1980s and is proud, he says, to have held a British passport along with his American one for the past 10 years. It is not hard, either, to divine Studzinski’s feelings about the British establishment when one looks at the list of institutions he works with: the Royal Opera House, the Royal College of Art, the Royal Court Theatre, the Prince’s Trust. He was an important supporter and trustee of Tate when its biggest developments were taking place, he is a life trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum. And the plaudits have poured in: in 2000 he received the Prince of Wales’s Ambassador Award in recognition of his support for the homeless; in 2008, a CBE for his services to the arts and to charity. Honours from his church as well: Pope John Paul II made him a knight of the Order of St Gregory for humanitarian work for the homeless.

My next question is not as irrelevant as it sounds. “Could I see your ring?”

It’s cheeky but I decide that it’s all right to trade for a moment on our long acquaintance, and I haven’t been able to stop looking at a beautiful ring of filigree gold on Studzinski’s left hand. He readily slides it off and passes to me. It’s ravishing, obviously very old, a delicate quatrefoil Byzantine cross with an image of Christ in the centre and bands of lapis lazuli so worn by time that their blue is almost faded out. “It’s from the sixth century,” Studzinski says, “and it belonged to two popes.”

For some reason, this answer is not in the least bit surprising and I am just entertaining thoughts of Studzinski actually being a reincarnated pope – the mixture of God, power and money personified – when he comments, laughing, that he “was expecting the Stephen Green Question. You know, the one about how can you reconcile God and Mammon.” Obviously religious bankers, such as Green, HSBC’s former group chairman, and businessmen always get this one but I hadn’t asked it: it seems to me that, in Studzinski’s universe, God and Mammon understand each other pretty well and get on just fine.

I notice the waiter hovering, with dessert on his mind. Of course not. But something in me is relieved to see that Studzinski does at least drink coffee, with actual caffeine in it, so that my macchiato does not seem too sinful.

The lunch crowd at the Square is beginning to thin out but we are still talking about funding the arts. On the subject of government funding and cuts, Studzinski is uncharacteristically vague – at the same time as declaring that he believes David Cameron to be a “highly talented leader”, he also deplores the way that the arts is seen by government to be something apart, a luxury. “It’s part of life, it’s part of being human, it’s part of everything,” he says.

He prefers to talk about individual giving and is refreshingly tart on the subject of the wealthy. “I’ve sat in so many committees and people are trawling through the Rich List and saying, ‘Oh this guy’s worth 50m, he’ll give us something,’ and I’m saying, ‘Trust me, he won’t.’ Not just because he has money. You can give them any amount of tax relief you like, it’ll make no difference. You might as well take a rich guy up in a plane and ask him to jump out, if he’s never used a parachute.”

People, according to Studzinski, have to be shown how to give, and they have to have passion. Ever ready with facts and figures, he knows that the lowest earning groups give away a much higher proportion of their income than the rich, especially to religious or homeless charities. “We should do a newspaper piece on this,” he teases. “I’ll teach them how to give: it’s very straightforward – just find something you are really passionate about, and stick with it. That’s all. Then you take it on from there.”

It would be a great article, I agree, newspapers though tend to be so dazzled by the glittering fortunes of the art market that the issue of philanthropy seems pale in comparison. “Yes, well,” he says as we get up to leave. “I’ve made a lot of money buying and selling art.”

Suddenly, another Studzinski has swooped in to inhabit this body. There’s a different look on his face. I decide to talk to this other persona for a moment and say, hoping to elicit some snippets of wisdom, that it’s far harder to make money out of art than we often imply – doesn’t he think?

“You have to have a good eye,” says Studzinski, “and a lot of patience. A lot. And you have to buy tier one.” Tier One. Now we’re into a whole other world. What he means is the top percentile of an artist’s work, the top quality pieces where the prices and the potential profits are highest.

As we say goodbye, I realise we could just turn round, sit down, and start this lunch all over again, like rewinding a film – only this time we’d talk about the art market and Studzinski the hard-headed collector. Or a whole other one, about human rights work. Or about the Studzinski who nearly became a priest, and why he didn’t. And never a word about the banking.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

The Square

610 Bruton Street, London W1J 6PU

Two-course set lunch (beetroot and celeriac salad; John Dory) £30.00

Green salad and turbot from à la carte menu £75.00

Bottle of sparkling water £4.50

Bottle of still water £4.50

Macchiato £3.50

Filter coffee £3.75

Total (including service) £136.41

Funds and foundations wise up to the inner philanthropist

If the example of John Studzinski’s Genesis Foundation inspires your inner philanthropist, there are a whole range of ways to give to the arts – from putting £5 in the donation box of a local gallery to supporting an entire concert series.

Most individual theatres and galleries have “Support Us” sections on their websites which give details of how to donate directly to the venue and these invariably offer various perks – advance tickets, benefits and so forth.

The Art Fund, the oldest established membership patronage scheme, is a highly effective and entirely pain-free way of regular giving. Other methods, for beginner-philanthropists who want to dip a toe into the art world, include Tate’s young patrons scheme: anyone aged 18-40 can pledge less than £100 per month and bask in the knowledge that they are helping to build the nation’s art collection and to support educational schemes, as well as enjoying some smart social opportunities.

Foundations such as Genesis deploy large sums of money to help the performing arts, rarely by giving grants directly to individual artists but instead by supporting creative work through partnership with larger organisations and companies.

The Jerwood Charitable Foundation also awards substantial amounts of money to a variety of schemes and projects. These foundations are ideal for people who want to help fund the performing arts and emerging talents but may not be sure of the best way to go about it; the expertise and knowledge that they have built up over the years means that such charitable bodies are well-positioned to know where the money can best be put to use.

There are other options at the micro end of the scale, too, for anyone who wants to donate small amounts to individual projects that they feel are worthwhile and may not get the large-scale attention that some of the bigger projects are able to attract.

Wefund was launched in October 2010 as the first crowd-funding platform for the arts in the UK. It was founded by Michael Troughton, a lawyer, in response to the series of cuts faced by arts funding in the country.

The principle is that Wefund provides a risk-free forum for artists to ask for support and try out their ideas. Under the principle of crowd funding, a project does not need to rely on a state grant or a single rich investor, rather a series of tiny investments that build up to provide the necessary level of funds for the project.

In order to apply, the project creators make a short film detailing the concepts behind their work and come up with a series of perks or incentives for people who invest – these might include free tickets, backstage passes or a mention in the show’s programme.

Backing a project is therefore as simple as finding a project that you like the look of and can afford, with payment made via either PayPal or VoicePay.

If a project reaches its funding target, it gets the money; if it doesn’t, then it receives nothing and potential donors aren’t charged.

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