It may surprise some to know that at the helm of the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London is a University of Sydney alumnus and an Economics graduate. CEO of Royal Albert Hall, Craig Hassall AM, has been leading the cultural institution since 2017. With an impressive career that includes executive roles at Opera Australia, the English National Ballet and the 2000 Sydney Olympics Games, Craig has managed to fuse together both his passion for the arts with his training in economics. From his hometown of Gilgandra in country New South Wales, to studying at the University of Sydney then to the stages of Royal Albert Hall in London, it seems fitting that the first piece of advice Craig had for his younger self is to “be open to all opportunities.”
Looking back at his time at university, it is amusing to consider how beautiful architecture and stunning visuals likely had more influence on Craig than most. He admits, “I essentially chose the University of Sydney not for its curriculum, reputation or alumni, but rather for its buildings. The grand Sydney sandstone and the imposing halls had me from the get-go. Once there, I had a grand time.” Craig can fondly recall memories of coffee in the Wentworth Building, his radical lecturers and the contributions of Honi Soit to campus life. His memories are filled with nostalgia as he remembers the atmosphere of the university as “a place to ponder, debate, learn about collegiality and feel nothing was impossible.”
Craig completed both an Economics and Law degree but also enrolled in a wide range of subjects which piqued his interest. “I had chosen the most interesting subjects (in my opinion) that were not perhaps the strongest career wise (though in hindsight perhaps they were!) but hugely important for expanding the mind – Anthropology, Industrial Relations, Political Economy – all so fascinating and analytical. I had a great time of it.”
In his current role as CEO of Royal Albert Hall, Craig has found both his two Economics and Law degrees immensely useful, despite initially not seen as the most applicable to a career in the creative arts. Like most industries, even the highly creative performing arts will often grind to a halt due to one of two factors – the budget or the contract.
Each day as CEO of a venue such as Royal Albert Hall is as varied as the types of performances and productions the venue showcases. Within his role, Craig categorises the key elements as strategy and planning, staff welfare and encouragement, artistic planning, capital works, blue sky thinking for future growth and developing business plans for the future. However, his role is not without a few surprises and random tasks as Craig acknowledges, “for example, I am currently in the midst of grappling with what to do with a massive portrait of a famous British singer that has been gifted to the Royal Albert Hall.”
When asked to reflect on his career highlights, there are two which stand out for Craig. Most notably, delivering the 2000 Sydney Olympics when it was a key, pivotal moment for Australia and bringing in the new millennium. It was a task that Craig admits was extremely high stakes to pull it off but immensely rewarding for the team involved. Equally high on his list was being asked to present Swan Lake at the Palace of Versailles – on a lake, no less - when he was leading the English National Ballet. “We sold out three performances and nothing could rival the arrival of the Prince who seemed to run down from the Hall of Mirrors – in the chateau – through the topiaries and onto the stage. Magical!”
[The University of Sydney] was a place to ponder, debate, learn about collegiality and feel like nothing was impossible.”
A career in the creative arts is not the traditional trajectory for economics graduates but it is quite clear Craig has been able to forge both his skills and passion. When asked about the importance of pursuing one’s passions in their professional life, Craig says, “I can’t imagine why anyone would embark on a career that doesn’t incorporate one’s passions. Even a financial incentive – a high salary, a super package etc – will not in the final analysis, suffice. One spends so many hours at work – it accounts for a huge part of one’s social life, it is the main topic of conversation at a party, it is how we are all described – why on earth would passion not be the driver for this pursuit.”
When asked to consider advice to his younger self, Craig admits it is a question he often contemplates. Along with being open to all opportunities, he would tell himself, “don’t accept second best, change career at least three times before you are 30 and beware imposter syndrome – it is an illusion!”
Since this interview was undertaken, the Royal Albert Hall, like venues and creative organisations across the world, has been struck by the impact of the coronavirus and closed its doors. It is now over 100 days since Craig took the difficult decision to close the doors of the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since the Blitz and now for the longest time in its 150 year history.
The focus has gone from programming and fundraising to lobbying government and working closely with the creative industries in the UK to raise the profile of a sector in crisis and find a way to safely re-open. At the time of writing, there is no prospect of the Royal Albert Hall re-opening, certainly not in 2020, though Craig holds out hope that a solution will be found that enables re-opening in early 2021.
The organisation has lost millions of pounds in income however has maintained a strong profile through digital engagement, closed concert recordings and a concerted press campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the situation. Craig remains positive despite this situation and looks forward to a ‘new normal’ that includes, once again, a lively performance culture.