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Q&A Special: Arts Patron Donatella Flick | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Arts Patron Donatella Flick

Q&A Special: Arts Patron Donatella Flick

Princess Missikoff explains why Cameron is 'mad' and 'unintelligent' in hitting arts patronage

Conduct becoming: Donatella Flick sticks out her neck to help young conductors

Donatella Flick, one of Britain's most important arts patrons, is furious. "Madness!" she cries in her lush Italian voice. "This is a country that was fantastic, and now there's a demolition going on, bit by bit!" We're sitting in Sir Winston Churchill's old drawing room - now her drawing room - near Kensington Gardens, and I would give a lot to see David Cameron flinching on her huge black sofa as he got a withering dressing-down.

Yesterday Cameron's government agreed to delay for further consideration their big new wheeze for getting the rich to pay more tax by cutting the advantages of charitable giving. Mrs Flick is not appeased, because it makes it vastly more of a headache to fund her remarkable musical project, the Donatella Flick-LSO Conducting Competition, which has taken place every two years for the past 22 years, and has just had a record number of entrants for the 2012 one.

The deadline has just closed, and now the sifting of DVDs has begun to find 20 quarter-finalists who will conduct next September, and in three torturously selective days be narrowed down to a winner three days later. The victor will have the incomparable leg-up of becoming an assistant conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, and a useful cash prize of £15,000. The jury is top-notch: Sir Colin Davis, Sir Antonio Pappano, Imogen Cooper, Andrew Marriner among them, and past victors include some now well-placed young names: François-Xavier Roth at Baden-Baden, David Afkham at the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and 2010's winner Clemens Schuldt.

For Donatella Flick, the vindication of what she describes as exhaustingly hard work came when one of last year's finalists told her that this had become one of the most important competitions in the world. Meeting her yesterday afternoon, as the airwaves fill with the cries of the imminently threatened - the charities and arts organisations facing a whack in their private backing, the patrons facing a whack in their tax bills - was a rare insight into a most unexpected world.

It's unexpected to come out of conversation with a wealthy woman and arts patron touched as well as impressed. It's still more unexpected given Donatella Flick's international profile as a glossy platinum-blonde Italian once married to a Mercedes Benz heir, who lives between Switzerland, Rome and London off what was reportedly Britain's largest divorce settlement 15 years ago. Complex isn't the word. There are many shifting sands here, not least those of huge and terrible political events a century ago, which dispossessed Mrs Flick's father of his country and wiped out her family, and gave her her purpose.

For the real name of Donatella Flick is Princess Donatella Missikoff of Ossetia, and it is because she is a princess that she feels she must come to the aid of causes that need her. And it is equally because she is a princess without a country that she feels furious with the "demolition" she mentioned.

A topic treated with equally trenchant scorn is the shortage of properly cultured people in rich circles

Our conversation yesterday afternoon dealt with the conducting competition and the Cameron government's proposed sabotage of such patronage, her entirely extraordinary family background and its part in her sense that she must support arts, and - a topic treated with equally trenchant scorn - the shortage of properly cultured people in rich circles, the very people whom the Prime Minister wants to take over more of the arts burden.

But first, a quick explanation of the proposed tax changes -  as neatly provided by the Charities Aid Foundation: "Felicity Culture-Vulture earns £800,000 and is a 45 per cent-rate taxpayer. She makes a lump sum gift of £1m to a local museum to help build a new education centre. Through Gift Aid the donation is worth £1.25m to the museum after basic rate tax has been reclaimed. Under current rules, Ms Culture-Vulture is then able to claim back £312,500 in personal tax relief for herself, which she plans to give to other causes. However, under the new rules, her tax relief would be capped at 25 per cent of £800,000, i.e. £200,000. This means that she (and the other causes she supports) would lose out on a potential £112,500." Further comments elucidate: the patron does not gain any money by this exercise - she voluntarily opts to become worse off to the net tune of £487,500 in order to help her causes. Ergo, tax relief is not the reason why wealthy people donate, but a strong driver of how much they feel able to give.

The CAF released a poll of 120 charity chief executives showing that 88 per cent believe the Osborne plans will have a "significant" negative effect on donations. Some 56 per cent think donations will fall by a fifth or more and 78 per cent said they want the government to reverse its decision immediately. However, yesterday the Treasury countered with its own new figures showing that more than a quarter of the well-off are paying less than the 45 per cent tax - while one in 10 of the super-rich are paying less tax proportionately than their cleaners. Osborne's stall for time, as far as arts patrons and charities are concerned, leaves them all treading water in uncertainty.

Donatella Flick's many lives are somewhat more labyrinthine than Felicity Culture-Vulture's, but her reaction is simple enough.

ISMENE BROWN: What's your view on the proposed tax relief changes?

DONATELLA FLICK:  I read these reports in disbelief, it seems to me such madness and I'm very sorry that England should have come to that point. I think this man, and his team of people, are not very intelligent. They don't see that in everything you do you need to have a bigger view of it, you need to know the outcome when you start. This is a country that was fantastic, and slowly now there's a demolition going on, bit by bit. But I don't think the law will pass - it's not possible.

Your conducting competition that you've funded for 22 years now - do you see this as something the country should fund, or is it a private patron's project?

It's a very good question. Should it be something that a great orchestra funds with its public support? Or as a business? But how would they find the time to build up the concept, find the money for such a competition, when they are playing constantly? I think of my competition as a scholarship. The LSO is one of the most important orchestras in the world - the government should be paying at least 50 per cent of what I give to ensure this competition for the future. I feel it as an enormous responsibility. Of course it's the money that worries me now with what's going on.

How much does it cost?

i'd like not to say. it's very expensive and it's very, very complicated.  Because again the government doesn't understand that the money goes straight to the competition. They've been making it very difficult. They don't understand that it's the competition, they just think it's me, they look at me and try to squeeze me, and now it's in the hands of lawyers.

That's very discouraging.

Very. Very. I almost didn't go on with it this year. This was all been happening six months ago, and I nearly stopped. But I do feel that this is a very depressed time, and particularly now the young need the chance to emerge. So I pulled myself together and decided I'd do it one more time. But I don't know if I will be able to find the money for next time.  It's enormous now. We started with 12 European countries, now we have 28. I started with maybe 30 conductors, then they became 80, then they became 90, now they are 200.

It really does grow like this every time.

Yes, which is why I need to find someone else to help me. When I started it in 1990, it was just English conductors at first. Then Georg Solti [the conductor] said to me at Salzburg he'd heard about the competition, "But Donatella, all this effort, all this work, it's absurd you're doing all this work just for English talent - how much talent can you find in two years? It should be for European talent. I'll give you a way to tap into Europe." So in 1996 I started to use, through their kindness, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Academy of Music, and it grew from there. But I did actually launch it in 1990 - we say in Italian, to make a gavetta, to work it in. We started in a little theatre in North London - it gave us time to find out what was right, what was wrong, what worked in advertising, what didn't, why sometimes people would come, and other times they wouldn't. It was fascinating.

Donatella Flick comp 2010Above, the 2010 finalists, Ken-David Masur, HRH The Duke of Kent, winner Clemens Schuldt, Donatella Flick and Kristiina Poska.

Why did you start it in the first place?

It started in a comic way. I was married to a German man [Gert "Muck" Flick, art-loving scion of one of Germany's richest industrialist dynasties] and we went to Salzburg every June. It was the time of Herbert von Karajan, and I was young, and I said to people, "Why is it just conductors in their seventies or eighties?" And people said, "Because young ones can't get started, it's complicated, you need an orchestra, which is very expensive."

And at the time I was quite wealthy, through my husband. Which is not the case now I've been divorced for 15 years, I tell you - now I have to watch pennies. But at the time, I lived in a lavish way, I was a dreamer, I didn't look at practical needs. I thought we will make a beautiful conducting competition, let's go for it. So I think I did achieve this for quite a time. It's now an enormous competition, and I don't know how I can continue it without a sponsor. But I built it bit by bit, detail by detail, discussing for hours every single little detail. And I don't think you'll find many human beings who have single-handedly done a project. You need the madness of being half Italian, half Caucasian.

I must say, I think this may be the only part of my life where my work has been respected

This wasn't a joint idea with your husband?

No, my project. Don't take me wrong - while I was married, my husband supported me in it, and found the whole idea interesting. I was always interested in music but more and more now I can see the influence of my father. He was a great music-lover, and I think what parents say to their children when they are young comes back and back again and again later in life. The world of music touches my heart more than any other. I must say, I think it may be the only part of my life where my work has been respected.

It's interesting that you went for conducting, a more subtle kind of project than a violin or piano competition, which are much more glamorous for supporters, in a sense.

Because I don't give a damn for glamour. The more subtle it is, the more I will take to it. Glamour is everywhere in fashion, in cinema. But we must live also to nourish ourselves, so as to nourish others.

Who nourished you in culture? Your father [Prince George Missikoff]?

My father. Absolutely everything - my soul, my heart, my brain.

Tell me about his culture, the Alani culture in Ossetia - did you have much experience of it as a child growing up in Italy?

Yes, we knew quite a lot, because I was very close to my father, I was the only girl with three brothers. So he was proud of it, but don't forget that this was a man who knew his father was tortured in Siberia, like all the aristocrats, and my grandmother was shot in the head. So it was a page of his life that he didn't want to approach very openly with his daughter.

But at the same time, he wanted us to recognise that we were the oldest family in the Caucasus.  To remind me of the pride of being loyal, of believing in friendship - all these things that you don't find today in today's life. I know very well that to be so proud, to search for the elevation of your soul, that is not found out there where people will betray you for a dress, betray you for £50.

I know this sounds enormously arrogant, but listen carefully because it's difficult to explain: he educated me as if to rule my country

This was something that was so put inside me from the start that I think it was my father's influence. I know this sounds enormously arrogant, but listen carefully to me because it's difficult to explain: he educated me as if to rule my country. To help, help, always help your subjects, your companions, your comrades in war or politics. So you see I have a very old-fashioned education, unfortunate today.

It had occurred to me that being brought up as a princess was highly abnormal in today's context.

Yes, terrible. Highly confusing, very unbelievable. But it also gave me the sense of being humble. I remember when I was about 12 years old we went to have a Coca Cola in the Piazza Navone, and I addressed the bartender "tu" - you know, in Italian we have the intimate you, tu, and the respectful you, lei. And my father said to me, "How dare you, a little child, address an old man 'tu' like that? Even if he is a bartender, you respect him."

You were born in Italy and raised there?

Yes, until I was sent to Geneva when I was very young for my education.

Have you been back to Ossetia?

I never went - they would have killed me. My father was persecuted all his life, because the Russians were looking for the chiefs of the Caucasian nations.

When did he leave?

The Revolution took a long time to penetrate into the Caucasus. He was born in… 1907, I think? His family were hiding in the mountain with the loyal peasants, who helped them. Finally, my grandfather decided to put my father on a ship that was going to Milano, so he could be free. So the poor boy was sent on the big boat on his own, he must have been about 14, with all his paperwork about his birth, christening and title, which is why his title was recognised in England.

I can recognise this imprint in my own education from him. I learned to ride without a saddle, from him, for example. That was a mark of maturity back in Ossetia. I rode much better without a saddle than with a saddle. Every night he read to me in Russian, and made me play games with him in Russian. But at school I forgot Russian slowly. I was watching a film called The Orchestra where it was dubbed from Russian into Italian but they spoke with a heavy Russian accent, which made me cry because it was exactly how my father spoke Italian.

Donatella's Missikoff grandpaAbove, Prince Morgimet Missikoff, second from right, Donatella Flick's grandfather, with his staff in 1900 (courtesy Mrs Flick)

Was your family Christian?

No, Muslim originally, but my grandfather converted when he married my grandmother, who was from Ukraine. My father was a Christian. But it's also complicated because the Alani originally came from Tibet, so there's an influence from there too.

The thing that shocks me most is to see my grandfather in a picture from 1900 (see above) in this incredible silk shirt, the impeccable tie, perfectly pressed double-breasted coat. You think, how was this possible to find these clothes? They were poor - but probably, as my father said to me, the poor-rich. He never spoke about it with rage. Another thing he taught me was always to help Jews. It was a passion, and he told me, Marry a German man and you'll suffer! And I said, Why, daddy? And of course I did marry a German, but it was a big love and we had a wonderful child. The Alani had a religion that was in the end about believing in a Supreme Being, believing in their country, and believing in the soul, to be loyal, to be kind to each other. Sometimes people ask me why I am generous. But I say, this was my education. We were brought up with an enormous sense of duty, an enormous sense of giving.

How does being a princess affect your attitude as an arts patron?

The impact on my work in music I don't know. But the impact on my relationship with my friends is difficult. It's a very lonely situation actually. And it's a very clever remark, nobody has ever noticed how lonely it is. But I do have the advantage that I see a picture I know what it is, I listen to a piece of music I know what it is, I read Balzac or TS Eliot, and I know what it is. That's a great advantage to have, it gives an enormous richness inside, and a great independence.

These are first-class boys, very often Etonians, but their culture is vertical. Put them in front of a Giotto and they stand there with their mouth open

One of the things I've been trying to find out more about in meeting arts patrons is how receptive they are to this proposed shift in attitude to supporting arts. Since the Second World War, British society took the decision to pay communally for many things, education, health, roads, local government, culture. Do you feel that it's unfair that more people are now demanding from the arts patrons that they should take over?

It's true that of course it's annoying that the moment you support something, people run over with something else. I have to work very hard to be where I am. But on the other hand, if people really need it, maybe I can help. We need both, private and public. Because if you think: we are in a world where most people are not interested in culture, where people are ruthless about getting money, where education is very poor. So the government needs to do something, and private patrons need to be more conscious of what they can do too. Everybody should have access to museums, to concerts, to a library - that's the most basic concept, and it's too little.

In your world do you find many people conscious of culture?

No, not at all. They are not even conscious of what I am doing - they find the conducting competition something glamorous, because I'm doing it, but they're not interested in what it is.

They're more interested in their name being up in Covent Garden than looking after an experimental theatre company.

You understand exactly. I'm very fond of Covent Garden, actually, but I understand it's more glamorous for some people than a conducting competition. You have society now divided in two: the people who are conscious of culture, of music, of intellect; and the others who are only interested in Gucci dresses, glamour, social life. They're not bad people, they're nice people, but they're not educated. It's not actually their fault - it's the way they were educated.

I must say the internet and video games haven't helped. Exposure to these things needs to start at home. Then there's some responsibility at school to expose them little by little to the great moments of culture and move on from there. I had an interesting letter from a friend of my son, who is a professor at Oxford, in his twenties. These are first-class boys, very often Etonians, but their culture is vertical. If you study business, you know everything about business, but put them in front of a Giotto and they stand there with their mouth open. They know everything about one subject, but they are not well-read or well-cultured. Actually you often find this the case among great musicians too, who know only music and little else.

Did you ever go back to your roots in Ossetia?

My brothers and my son have. I've been to Georgia, nearby. I've been waiting for things to calm down a bit. There was tension with Chechnya and Ossetia, and then Russia at war with Georgia, you remember. Boys in jeans nobody notices, but I don't normally travel with a rucksack and tennis shoes. My older brother, who went there 25 years ago, found some old peasants of my grandfather's estate who kissed his feet and said, "The mountain told us that you'd come back." It was very moving.

Do you still have any family there?

No, my family were all killed. [She shows me a photograph of her father]. It's a very special people, very special blood. It's a mountain country, and don't forget that this was the Silk Road, to get to Afghanistan, so people had to pay péage to my great-grandfather, which is how they got very rich. Things were different for my grandfather. If he had not been ready to die for his country maybe today's Ossetian families would not be there now.

Because of Russian education, Ossetians there don't understand that when the Bolsheviks came everybody was killed, everything was destroyed

But the bitter thing is that because of the Russian education for people after the Revolution they don't understand that when the Bolsheviks came, everybody was killed. It's very hard to make this generation understand that - how can they know how my grandfather Missikoff would distribute a single chunk of meat to each person on his land in the famine of 1903, or around then, and he would say, don't just eat the meat, boil it and give the juice to your children? How can they know that everything was burned, everything was destroyed? We, my family now, have all of that knowledge, we have the papers, the University of London asked me about it, because everything is disappeared now. Even the Russian Ambassador told me I should write a book about it so it will be remembered.

Where are all the records?

Only in my house.

There is no memorial in Ossetia of this?

Yes, this year at last there is now a statue of my grandfather as one of the great patrons of the Caucasus, and they have put his name on the main square, but of course they are reluctant to say his family reigned for more than a thousand years. Because there's an eternal war between Russians and the Caucasus. It's very sad.

I can see where the passion you have comes from.

[Laughs] Yah, It's true. People say to me, "Why are you angry?" I say, "I'm not. This is how I speak!" It's true. There is passion, there is strength, but you pay for having this kind of education.

The stories about you when you were younger are often about your being a socialite.

The truth is that social life is very, very boring.

What are conductors like? Are they good fun?

Okay. Let's put it this way. First, they're interested in themselves! But if they're intelligent, then they are the best company. They have an enormous knowledge about soloists, about the reaction of the public, about repertoire. I would say when they're really good they're secure in themselves and they have an open heart, and they know they can build a relationship with practically any orchestra. You see, a great musician has heart.

After all these years, do you remember anything in particular that one of the prize conductors has said to you about the worth of the competition?

Last time, 2010, the son of Kurt Masur who was a finalist said to me, "Thanks, this is one of the most important competitions in the world." It was a great compliment.

You felt you'd given something back.

Yah… but I don't think it's always a question of giving or taking. It's about doing. There is this funny book that says, go where your heart takes you. It's a question of doing things with your heart open - and that does make you more exposed, somehow. It does hurt. Because 90 per cent of people are not like you or me, they don't give a damn. Even some of my dear friends don't know what I'm doing.

I wish I understood why this is difficult for people to see that even a little bit of money can make a big difference in arts.

The world today is a world that is about what you have, not what you are. And they don't want to know anything else. They will even resent you, especially if you are a woman - I think the music world is very macho. They're more interested in what you'll wear tomorrow night.

So to be told you work hard, that matters to you. You don't want to be criticised for just having waved money around.

During all these 20 years of doing this competition, I've learned something new every time. If you have the intelligence to understand how small you are compared to the music world, then you've put yourself in correct perspective. Every little detail to me is enormously important.

Because every fault will come back to you.

Brava! And more. And bigger. So you have to be alert, like an animal in the forest.

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