It’s been a whirlwind start for John Fulljames, who came from the Royal Danish Opera to Oxford in November last year to take up his current role as inaugural Director of Oxford University’s Humanities Cultural Programme (HCP).
To recap, the HCP is a founding stone of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. The Centre was made possible by a £185 million gift from Stephen A. Schwarzman, who is Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder of Blackstone, one of the world's leading investment firms. It remains the largest single investment ever received by the University.
Now in an office within the Humanities Division building, which occupies the former Radcliffe Infirmary and is a literal stone’s throw from the Schwarzman Centre, John has more than found his feet, three months into his role.
Midway through our discussion he reminds me that while the building works are only just beginning, and the building itself slated for completion in mid-2025, it will likely open ‘to the public sometime in 2026.’
2026 is not far away, he says. ‘The planning horizon for large scale ambitious performances is two to three years, so that is very much in focus right now.’
‘We’re very active now developing relations with audiences, developing our operating model for the Centre, really thinking about how it can be a space for co-creation, for public creativity as well as for activity originating in the University.’
One of the persistent themes of the conversation is how strongly the building with its soaring atrium and Passivhaus energy standard, will be a public building, whether for international visitors or the citizens of Oxford city.
‘The whole community is welcome to come in and have a coffee’, and Fulljames insists ‘The coffee will be very good.’
Regarding the arts and humanities within Oxford, he suggests that the ‘cultural programme here has actually been going for 800 years in this University across music, theatre and literature – not to mention more recently dance and film. There is a long history of brilliance among both the student body and the academic research body, as well as in the wider city. We have an incredible opportunity with this new building to catalyse and join up all those pockets of activity, so Oxford can really sing, not shout, from the roof tops, as a really important place for culture, globally.
‘Oxford has a special ability to bring people together from around the world, something which it’s done with thinkers for centuries; now we’ll do it with artists as well. I think this can be a game changer for the University, and the University’s connection with the city and the region.’
The Schwarzman Centre will not only house the new Institute for Ethics in AI, but the departments of English, history, linguistics, philology & phonetics, medieval & modern languages, music, philosophy, and theology and religion. And at the centre it will offer a 500-seat concert hall, a separate theatre and an experimental, immersive ‘black box’ space with seating for 100.
‘It’s the first purpose-built, concert hall of scale for the city, as well as for the University,’ Fulljames reminds me.
Of course, Oxford has many college chapels, a cathedral that is also a college chapel, the Sheldonian Theatre (of course) and memory-inducing for many alumni, the Holywell Music Rooms on Holywell Street. One of the most underrated concert venues is the University Church on the High Street, as central and accessible as the bus stop right outside it.
But in almost none of those venues can you make a live recording without fear of an ambulance roaring by, sirens ablaze, or indeed rely on the acoustics to convey even to an in-person audience the exact beauty of what is being performed.
As such, music is going to get a massive boost from this venue: ‘It’s a world class acoustic which can be adjusted for different genres of music from chamber music to orchestral to jazz and bands – sitting in the centre of a multi-disciplinary building. It’s going to be a chance to place music at the heart of our cultural landscape, rather than separated off in a little world of its own.’
John is just as vibrantly enthusiastic about other arts, incidentally, including some you may not have considered.
‘Film, theatre, dance, and more contemporary art forms such as gaming. It should be a home for culture in the broadest sense, and the creative industries which spring entrepreneurially from the humanities, just as science parks spring from the science divisions.’
I’m very keen that the HCP and the building act as a springboard for students to have conversations with the creative industries. I’ve loved meeting Oxford University Innovation – we are looking at how we can work with them to support nascent commercial businesses and social enterprises. So much of the value that arts organisations deliver comes on top of their economic value and it’s good that the University recognises that in the way it thinks about supporting a wide-range of start-ups.’
‘The biggest growth sector in the UK, at least until the pandemic, was the creative sector.’
Returning to the ecclesiastical nature of so many concert venues in Oxford in the past, John notes that they will naturally continue, as will the choral tradition. But having a dedicated concert venue will unlock its own value.
“…it will also allow for widest range of the musical traditions, building on the recent work in the Music Faculty with a South Asian series and the world music series at St John’s College. We want to be a home for all kinds of music and many different audiences.”
Taking clear note of the hugely dispersed feel of so many myriad activities in Oxford, whether during term time or outside it, one of John’s big goals is that the Schwarzman Centre play a centrifugal role, a unifying role.
Around it he feels very strongly that the humanities need all the help they can get right now, with political support trending towards useful knowledge and STEM subjects, with nary a consideration for the powerful value of the humanities.
‘Nationally, the humanities are undervalued. So we need to ask what the humanities can do to demonstrate their value to more people’s lives. What for instance can the humanities bring to a solution for climate change? From my perspective it’s narrative. The humanities helps us to understand our place in the world, to formulate a new understanding of where we fit in. That means re-reading old literature, and conjuring the new literature, which allows us and the next generation to tell new stories. Without that work there will be no big economic shifts or great engineering projects. We need to be able to respond emotionally, as well as intellectually, to the challenge of living in a world in crisis.’
He mentions literature professor Martin Puchner’s recent book Literature for a Changing Planet. ‘He shows how literature, and culture more generally, has been and is part of the problem, because it has used resources in an unsustainable way. I am very aware of this. How do we adjust our models cultural production and consumption – whether it is a touring theatre company or an audience driving to a venue - to take account of their environmental impact? That’s a big priority.’
‘Success for the HCP means people looking back in ten years’ time and saying, ‘that was the moment when arts and culture were at the heart of the way the University opened up and engaged the public.’
‘Of course the arts and culture which happens in the building is immensely important – we need to offer transformative experiences - but I hope that the sense of inclusion which emanates from the building may just catalyse something wider across the collegiate University.’