Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the Barbican’s managing director for 14 years, is to stand down in September with the move coming shortly after criticism from the organisation’s own staff that it was “institutionally racist”.
In a statement Kenyon confirmed he would be leaving in the autumn, adding that it had been an immense privilege to lead the arts centre and he had been planning the move for some time.
“It’s now time to hand over the next stage in the life of this great institution to others, and for the Barbican to have fresh leadership for a new generation,” he said.
During Kenyon’s tenure the Barbican has hosted some of its most successful events, such as the record-breaking attendances at the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition in 2017. The organisation has also faced criticism about the way it has handled race issues, both internally and externally.
The Barbican and the City of London Corporation, which runs the organisation, denied Kenyon’s decision had been prompted by the institution’s own staff labelling the organisation “institutionally racist”.
“This move had been planned for some time with the City Corporation, which was aware of Nick’s desire to move on after 14 years in post,” a City of London Corporation spokesperson said.
Current and former staff collated dozens of anonymous allegations of racism at the Barbican, including senior staff using racist language, which contributed to a culture that was described as “subtle and insidiously” racist.
In response, the Barbican said it was launching an independent review.
In a statement, the organisation said: “We fully recognise the pain and hurt caused by these experiences. We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action, which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.”
It said it was “shocked and saddened to hear the allegations” and had “always strived to be an inclusive, welcoming and open organisation”.
Other controversies during Kenyon’s tenure have included two shows that were cancelled after race rows, and specifically accusations of anti-black racism.
Exhibit B, a show by the white South African artist Brett Bailey that featured black actors chained and in cages, was pulled after protesters said it was racist. In response the Barbican blamed the decision to cancel on “the extreme nature of the protest”, which it called a “serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff”.
Bailey defended the piece, and some of the actors involved protested that the work was “a powerful tool in the fight against racism”.
Earlier that year a Just Jam gig, which included grime artists, was cancelled with the Barbican saying the decision was grounded in concerns over public safety following dialogue with the City of London police. Both decisions were heavily criticised, and were seen by some Barbican staff as serious missteps that alienated black audiences.
The Guardian understands that, internally, the most recent racism row has been seen as a catalyst for a speeding-up of Kenyon’s departure, which had been rumoured for a months.
Kenyon said he was returning to music writing, criticism and research, having written books on Mozart and Bach as well as spells as BBC Radio 3 controller in 1992 and director of the BBC Proms between 1996 and 2007.
Tom Sleigh, chair of the Barbican centre board, thanked Kenyon for “taking the international reputation of the centre to new heights”, and leading it through the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There will be time for other tributes later, but the board is now focused on beginning a search for a successor; whoever we appoint will have a hard act to follow,” he said.