Profile: Alison Cole, South Bank Centre

The last time you went to a sporting event, festival, exhibition or concert, it probably cost you money. The last time you visited a major museum or art gallery, it is likely you got in for free.

Why? Because in 1997 a group led by Alison Cole (then director of comms at the National Art Collections Fund) took on the Government, the taxman and just about anyone else in its way to ensure the country's cultural heritage could be viewed free of charge.

Cole, 47, has now joined the South Bank Centre as it embarks on the biggest, boldest and most public revamp of London's cultural heartland. Her involvement in Britain's creative tradition is deep and wide ranging. In her spare time she is working on the
latest book for cult children's cartoon Bod, originally written by her late parents Michael and Joanne as a story for Alison and her brother.

As she sits on the steps outside the new line of shops and restaurants that front the scaffolding-clad Royal Festival Hall, tourists and builders pause to look at the diminutive woman with a mass of curly hair having her picture taken. 'They're probably wondering what Kate Bush is doing on the South Bank,' she jokes.

Two weeks into her job at the SBC, she knows the magnitude of the task it has undertaken. 'The South Bank is the great cultural quarter of London and the city's leading arts venue,' she says in a soft voice that is perilously close to being lost in the hubbub of the new Giraffe Café. 'The challenge is to reposition it as a world-class cultural and artistic destination that appeals to tourists and locals.'

At the heart of the project is the £71m revamp of the 54-year-old Royal Festival Hall. Outrageous and daring when its angular concrete form was unveiled in 1951, the structure still draws praise and invective in equal measure.

But the overhaul should pacify both groups (if not the teenage skaters who come in their droves to kickflip and nosegrind around the underpasses).

'The RFH is the crucible of the whole place. Its refurbishment is
the symbol of the whole South Bank redevelopment programme,' Cole says. 'A successful re-opening will almost be like a rebirth. It will present an opportunity to get media and stakeholder support for the ongoing transformation of the rest of the site.'

According to colleagues, Cole is more than up to the task.

'Someone who commands the level of respect in the arts world that she does is just what the SBC needs,' says Erica Bolton, partner of arts PR specialist Bolton & Quinn.

The Independent arts editor David Lister says Cole did 'a remarkable job' at the National Art Collections Fund. 'It was not an organisation that one expected to see in the press, but she managed to make what is essentially quite an abstract-sounding charity newsworthy.'

The fund's raison d'être is to help galleries buy works of art that would otherwise be sold off to private collections, but its profile was traditionally low outside the arts world. So Cole devised a memorable competition for the fund's centenary year in 2003, in which people could have treasured pieces of art displayed in their homes for a day. The winners, two brothers living in a north London council flat, ended up with Canaletto's vast 1730s masterpiece A Regatta on the Grand Canal in their front room. The charity received reams of national media coverage.

Cole's fascination with the arts runs deep. Before her decade at the art fund (where she also edited the Art Quarterly magazine), she was a freelance author, journalist and PR consultant. Her 1996 Virtue Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts is a set text for students of Italian Renaissance art. She also edited a Marshall Cavendish partworks series entitled Great Composers.

Her reputation is one of tapping into popular culture and getting things noticed. With the South Bank Centre spending tens of millions of pounds on doing just that, Cole might just be its best investment yet.

Alex Black recommends

South Bank Centre

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