CAMPAIGNS: ARTS PR - American dream becomes reality

Client: Barbican Centre

Client: Barbican Centre

PR team: In-house, Birdsong PR and Mark Borkowski PR

Campaign: Launch of ’Inventing America’ season

Timescale: September 1997-January 1998

Budget: pounds 25,000, including cost of launch event

Two years ago, the Barbican began work on a festival celebrating the US

as one of this century’s most dominant cultural forces. Launched on 22

January 1998 and running through to Thanksgiving on 26 November,

’Inventing America’ is the largest ever festival of American culture in


The festival has a pounds 3 million programming budget and will draw

together the ’essential American experience’ from theatre and music to

cinema, technology and food. Current scheduling ranges from readings by

Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker, to a performance of

’Monsters of Grace’ a multi-media experience by composers Robert Wilson

and Philip Glass.

American Airlines, are principal festival sponsors while sponsors of

individual events include the Observer, Selfridges and Ernest and Julio

Gallo Wines.


By creating a festival across all its activities, the Barbican wanted to

position itself as a broad ranging arts centre - not simply home of the

London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and part-time London base for the Royal

Shakespeare Company. The Barbican was also keen to bring in new

audiences and to shake up British views of US culture by creating media



Last October, Ruth Hasnip, Barbican director of public affairs realised

the PR remit for launching the festival was too large to be handled

solely in-house. So she brought in arts specialists, Birdsong PR, to

promote ’Inventing America’ to the international, tourism and non-arts

focused media. In order to draw in US tourists, the agency set up

interviews with Graham Sheffield, Barbican art director and various US

press, including the LA Times. It also worked with the British Tourist

Authority (BTA) to generate interest worldwide.

The Barbican in-house team promoted the opening programming, such as a

concert by jazz musician Max Roach on 30 January and exhibitions of

Shaker furniture and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

For the launch event on 22 January, Mark Borkowski PR organised a photo

call, projecting images of US icons including Marilyn Monroe on to the

Centre’s Sculpture Court. The secretary of state for culture, media and

sport Chris Smith opened the festival.


The image of Marilyn Monroe helped gain launch coverage ranging from

Channel 5 and BBC Newsnight to the Worcester Evening News. In the week

leading up to the launch, features on US culture appeared across the

board, including the Financial Times, Sunday Times and Simon Hoggart’s

column in the Guardian.

The festival’s first four concerts, which included the LSO’s performance

of John Adams’ ’Nixon in China’ were all a sell-out. The Harley-Davidson

exhibition was also hugely popular. Launched by an Elvis lookalike, who

appeared on MTV and CNN, it gained over 15,500 visitors in its first two



The launch events were a great success with the media and public alike,

and seemed to meet the Barbican’s objectives of pulling in new audiences

and generating discussion.

On an international level, it is perhaps too early to judge the launch’s

success. However, the BTA’s Dutch office is bringing over a party of

motorcycle journalists from The Netherlands for the Harley-Davidson


The US media appear to be biding their time, to see how the festival is

received. To date, press coverage includes the International Herald

Tribune, Time Out New York and the Wall Street Journal. But, more

in-depth analysis for later in the year is currently being negotiated

with various programme makers and the New York Times. The Barbican’s

Hasnip is confident this will encourage US tourists to experience their

own culture, gleaned from 50 states, in one central London location.

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