Twenty questions for West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s
newly appointed Chief Executive Officer

CEOGraham Sheffield is as excited as a schoolboy in a candy store when you talk to him about his upcoming role as Chief Executive Officer of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.  To be more true to Mr Sheffield’s heart, though, perhaps a better metaphor might be that he’s more excited than a wine connoisseur in the world’s largest wine cellar! 

One only has to spend just a few moments with this well-cultured British gentleman to notice he’s much more comfortable being called Graham than Mr. Sheffield or Mr. CEO.  And the second thing you notice is that his love of the arts spans many different forms and he certainly has a full life outside the world of arts and culture as well.

With that in mind, we thought it would be appropriate to get to know the softer other side of our new CEO…



Graham, tell us about your (really) early days…

  • Where were you born?   I was born in London - right in the Centre- in a district called Little Venice, full of canals and greenery.
  • CEOTell us about your parents.   My parents both had backgrounds in Egypt.  My father was English, but his parents lived in Cairo, where my grandfather (who passed away before I was born) ran an upmarket jewellery business.  My father founded a new jewellery business after the war in London, with a couple of partners.  They made beautiful high end pieces for the trade, and also dealt in antique jewellery.  My mother (still going strong at 87 and living on the east coast of England, near where composer Benjamin Britten lived) is half French and half Lebanese.  Her father was a lawyer in Cairo in the government of King Farouk!  The household was very cosmopolitan - at one time she spoke four languages, including Arabic. But she came to the UK after the war with my father...and they settled in Little Venice, in a flat in Maida Avenue.
  • When did you first discover your love for the arts?  Was there any one particular person who inspired you at an early age? My mother played the piano - I recall her playing Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words!  I took up the piano aged 8. I remember going to my first concert at the Albert Hall, probably aged 9 to hear Rachmaninov's 2nd Concerto.  I also had an "auntie" (a family close friend) who introduced me carefully to opera.  At my junior school, I began playing the organ and also sang (very angelically!) in the choir.
  • How did you indulge your love for the arts during your early years?   When I went to senior school (aged 13) at Tonbridge, I began to do more music, taking up the timpani for the orchestra, and playing more piano - up to Grade VIII, where I got distinction.  I became Head of School Music.  My academic subjects were Classics (Latin, Greek etc), but I soon added Music to the mix and it was that that became my academic study at Edinburgh University. In the meantime I was also doing some acting at school, mostly in Shakespeare, and visiting lots of art galleries.  This was of course the era of the Beatles in London, so it was a great scene - clothes, music...I was too young for the partying, unfortunately.
  • What was the first record you bought with your very own money?  Probably the first Beatles albums and singles...I wish I still had them!  The first classical music, I think, was Ashkenazy playing Chopin, but it's a long time ago.

Let’s talk about Graham as a young man…CEO Q&A

  • You’re a classically trained musician.  Tell us how your training as a musician led to your early career roles as a producer with the BBC?  During University I became really passionate about opera...I directed a couple of shows, was president of the opera club, and sang in the chorus.  I also conducted quite a bit.  When I finished my degree, I thought I'd become a director and went off to learn opera stage management, but suddenly - aged 26 - and very "green", was lucky enough to be offered a job as producer at the BBC, virtually straight from University, in the Radio 3 Classical Music Department. I was amazingly lucky - this was a fantastic break - salary of £4k a year in 1976!!  I learned about radio production, about editing and generally about broadcasting techniques - invaluable, even now.
  • What were several of your favourite memories of the countless programs and articles you brought to life at the BBC? I began to do radio documentaries and magazine programmes about the arts, in addition to live music recording.  I went to Cremona to do a programme on Stradivarius, Vienna to do a programme on the great Viennese composers and so on.  I went to many wonderful cities.  I made a huge series on Artur Rubinstein, on whom I started (but never finished) a book.  The wildest programme I made was a radiophonic montage feature called Avalanche, about research into and the terror of Alpine avalanches.  It was a kind of working ski holiday.  I had to go and record on the slopes with technicians and the Swiss Army, even being buried in a snow hole, with a smelly sausage and a microphone, while the rescue dogs searched for me in an avalanche exercise!
  • And how did the series on Indian music come to be?  I became acquainted with an Indian journalist in the late 80s, who introduced me to the wonders of Indian Classical Music.  In the end I went to India and made four major documentaries about how classical music was adapting to modern society.  I went all over the country and interviewed all the great names, including Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.  What an experience.

Let’s talk about your diversification into other forms of arts and culture as you… well, became older….

  • At what point did you decide although you had a great love of music, you wanted to explore other art forms?  Well opera, of course, is the ultimate multi-art form - music, theatre, design, dance, so the seeds must have been there for my passion for the interplay of art forms, for a creative dialogue between them.  But I never had a professional experience of the other art forms before I went to the South Bank, where I started to work more closely with the visual arts.  The big change at the South Bank was when I started the Meltdown Festival back in 1993, which tried to break different musics and arts out of their restrictive boxes.
  • Why do you feel the multiplicity of artistic expression is so important… to one’s individual’s life and to making a vibrant city?  Well, we all like different things at different times.  This is the generation of maximum availability of art forms through different media.  We are the iPod generation. People generally are open to many more diverse genres of music these days, than was the case twenty years ago.And I think it's the same when audiences engage with the visual arts and theatre, cinema too.  This dynamic interplay makes for a much more creative scene; many creative artists now work in several different media.
  • What attracted you to first join the Barbican?  I was attracted by the prospect of working with new Managing Director John Tusa (we worked together for 15 great years).  I could also see the potential for the place to become much more than the sum of its parts; it was exciting to take over two theatres, a hall (with the London Symphony Orchestra as resident orchestra), a gallery and cinema.  And of course that grew into three cinemas, two galleries, and multiple other spaces - a kind of mini West Kowloon, but all in one really challenging building, which we've had to fix over the last decade, as well as the programme.
  • After spending over 15 years at the Barbican, what would you describe as your most significant accomplishment?  Turning it, with a brilliant team from an artistic lost cause into one of the most respected and forward-thinking artistic institutions in the world.

OK, let’s relax a bit and talk about your personal interests…

  • You still are a practising musician.  How often do you play and what do you enjoy playing the most?  I am afraid I get no time to play these days.  If space allows, I might put a piano into my Hong Kong apartment, but I doubt I'll have much time.  It's a pity; playing chamber music is one of my great joys.  Maybe something for my retirement, eventually.
  • You clearly have an appreciation for Asian arts… which forms have you found to be particularly interesting?  The Chinese contemporary art scene is tremendously exciting. I am rather fond of Kabuki Theatre, and of some contemporary dance.  I rather love the extraordinary sounds of the Chinese Orchestras too, though I would not claim (yet) to be an expert in any of this.  But I look forward to exploring and discovering new joys.
  • Who is your favourite…
    • Composer?  JS Bach
    • Artist?  That's hard - James Turrell, but how can you ignore Goya!
    • Filmmaker? Satyajit Ray or Bergman
    • Playwright? More a playwright/director - Simon McBurney of Complicite
    • Author?  Suetonius, the chronicler of the early Roman Empire - but I also love the work of Ian McEwan
    By the time I finish in HK, there will be some local names on this list I am sure!

And, finally, you clearly have a very full life outside the arts as well…

  • The favourite sport you enjoy to watch would be…?  Well, after cricket (which is more a religion than a sport), it would be tennis and golf.
  • And the favourite sport you would enjoy to do yourself would be…? I've loved downhill skiing ever since I started at the age of 8.  It's the only sport I can say I am any good at, and I am pretty effective and stylish on most black runs, if not as fast as I used to be.
  • And what about favourite travel destinations?  Apart from skiing holidays, I love the culture and lifestyle of Tuscany and Umbria, particularly around Perugia.  But I also have a love for the culture of Southeast Asia and have visited Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – favourite spots are Luang Prabang and Hoi An and of course Angkor Wat.  And I simply cannot wait to explore the endless sights, sounds and flavours that Hong Kong and mainland China have to offer.

One final question…

  • What is the one thing no one knows about you that they would be surprised to hear?  I am actually not a bad cook - I think I must have picked it up by watching my mother.  I never really use a recipe book, but make it up as I go along.  I'm inclined towards spicy food, so if I ever cook in Hong Kong for you, expect some chillies! And, of course, my love of wine has no bounds.  Great food and fine wine… life doesn’t get any better than that. 


Next Next