Art before Head;Briefing;People

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Painter, chemist and successful businessman, the incoming director of the Open College of the Arts is a Renaissance man with a new mission. Heather Neill reports

Roger Head seems to have lived several lives already. Yet here he is, still only 54, newly-appointed director of the Open College of the Arts, bursting with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new discovery.

It's not surprising that the college isn't widely known, he says; it's part of his job to change its image. In post since March, he's already well on the way to achieving his initial aims: streamlining the organisation, promoting staff ready for more responsibility, and spreading the word about the college.

Until he applied for the job - alerted by one of his four daughters - he hadn't heard of it himself. He explains: "It was founded by Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington - he does so much and doesn't get the credit - more than 10 years ago as an arts organisation providing distance learning for those with no previous academic qualifications. It fits well with 'lifelong learning'."

He provides statistics smartly: more than 40,000 students have benefited so far, there are 3,500 of them at present, aged 14 to 94, with 350 tutors running 30 individually-tutored courses in everything from painting to creative writing, singing and dancing. By post? Some tutors do meet students but, says Head, they can use tapes and there is plenty of contact by phone and e-mail. "If there's a market for a course, we define it and then employ a professional to write it. All the tutors must be practising artists so that you have a creative community of teachers and students."

Head is himself a painter and print-maker and might have been a full-time artist. After taking A-levels in chemistry, physics, maths, art and an S-level chemistry, he struggled to choose between the two cultures. "Seduced by the dark side" he read chemistry at Manchester, the first person in his family to go to university, while continuing to paint and visit exhibitions.

He then joined Courtaulds as a graduate research chemist, but soon switched to marketing the company's products, especially fashion, and his artistic and scientific interests began to coincide.

Head's astute business sense makes him an especially welcome recruit to arts education. And his own background makes him doubly suited to the college. Born in Barnstaple, Devon, into a family of farm labourers, he observed at first hand the frustrations of inadequate education. "I've seen so many wonderful people cleaning floors and minding machines." Nobody, he says, should feel that "the door has closed. Given the chance, people find they have staggering ability".

Here to talk about himself, he's soon providing student case studies: the accountant who is now a happy painter, the previously unqualified ex-students who are now college tutors.

He has a proven confidence in distance learning. In the 1970s he took a postal diploma in accounting and finance and, in 1996, the wine and spirit trade's diploma. As a hobby, he runs a weekly wine group, serious enough to put members through the same exam. The group meets near his home, a hotel in Ilkley run by his wife, who trained as an economist.

Casual fashion has been central to Head's career. After five years as a consultant in an American fast-moving consumer goods company, he became managing director of Brittania, an American jeans company. He was recruited to "sort out" its European end, Wescot, which supplied jeans to UK retailers , including 42 per cent of own-brand men's jeans to Marks amp; Spencer. Next bought their first ladies' jeans from Brittania during Head's tenure.

By 1987, alert as ever to street fashion, he was running the biggest printed T-shirt business in Europe, with the rights to print T-shirts for pop and heavy-metal bands in the UK. When Michael Jackson toured the country in 1987, Head's firm produced all the T-shirts.

The person who impressed him most during his time in the fashion trade was the dress designer Jean Muir. " She could produce something that looked stunning, was simple, fitted like a glove - and yet could be made in factories." Combining art with science or technology in this way continues to give him satisfaction.

Between 1989 and 1995 he was MD and then chairman of Robert Glew, a Bradford company supplying the hand-knitting trade. Then he took another plunge, building up a network of 14 "convenience" stores, selling just about everything, under the All Day banner.

There's a restlessness about Roger Head which has nothing to do with impatience or lack of focus - he simply can't resist a challenge. Which must explain why he produced the Greek cycle Les Atrides, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, in a disused Bradford wool warehouse in 1992.

Theatre, like the other arts, excites him. Brian Lewis, course director at the Open College, says he quoted Twelfth Night in conversation the other day and Head instantly produced a matching quote - he had once acted in the play himself.

Lewis says he sees Head's appointment as "very exciting - arts organisations need good managers and marketers. I just think he's bloody efficient".

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