The man who has led the Sage Gateshead for its entire history is to step down.
Anthony Sargent’s announcement yesterday that he is to step down as general director of Sage Gateshead at the end of the year does not come as a major shock.
He came to the North East to oversee Gateshead’s visionary music project 15 years ago, will see it celebrate its 10th anniversary in December and is already well into uncharted waters in terms of time served.
By the end of the year, he hopes to have ushered in a new 10-year business plan for Sage Gateshead - fashioned in the light of 30% funding cuts across the arts - and welcomed a new three-year funding package from Arts Council England.
Last year Anthony was awarded the CBE for services to the arts and shortly afterwards saw the resident orchestra renamed Royal Northern Sinfonia.
He has helped to establish Sage Gateshead’s international reputation and has exceeded all original targets for the institution.
“We are operating, on a financial scale, two and a half times what was originally planned and, in terms of the education plan, five times what was planned,” he said yesterday.
“The original staffing structure assumed a more modest scale regional centre and what we have now is a major international centre.” All this achieved, he had considered his position at Christmas and decided against signing a fourth five-year term as Sage boss. It had seemed a “neat” moment to call it a day – although well ahead of the actual day of departure, which will come after the Sage’s 10th birthday.
In a dressing room where countless Sage performers have tuned up or powdered their noses, Anthony said: “I could stay here until I die and no-one would want that.
“There’s always a thing with founding directors. I do have some colleagues who have set things up and stayed a long time but I think there comes a point when they stop reinventing themselves and being fresh, and this is the longest I’ve ever been in a job. To be in one place for such a long time is, for me, a really new experience.”
Still, the headhunters have been circling, much as they did 15 years ago when he was sounded out about a job in Gateshead.
“In this sort of job you’re constantly approached,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of approaches in the last six months about one job in Canada and another in the United States. They were really interesting.
“So in terms of what I do next, there are a lot of people around the world who suppose I might have a contribution to make.”
Anthony is chairman of the New York-based International Society for the Performing Arts until 2016, in which capacity he recently returned from Bogota, so there is no question that the world is his oyster.
One thing he is not considering is retirement.
If one of those two North American jobs doesn’t come to fruition – both involving running a music institution – he might opt for consultancy work.
Sage Gateshead, he reflected, had done quite nicely out of some work he did for Latvia when a new concert hall was planned for the capital, Riga. He had enjoyed the experience, too.
He recalled that he had been in “a challenging place” when the Gateshead headhunter came calling.
“My full-time job was head of arts for Birmingham but I was on loan to the BBC to work on Millennium Music Live, a big festival. When someone rang up to talk about a music centre in Gateshead I said it wasn’t great timing.”
But he agreed to go for dinner and pass on to the caller any ideas he might have.
“The vision that he explained did get more and more exciting, the way the education would be important and the role in the community, and there is something exciting about being a founding director.”
Anthony said it was over coffee that the headhunter got his man, asking him if he could come up with someone who could be a rather particular kind of leader, someone who could build a team and build relationships locally and internationally.
“That last 30 seconds really resonated in my mind. What he had described was just the way I like to work. They didn’t want someone who stomps around full of self-importance – and I already knew the reputation of the Northern Sinfonia, Folkworks (one of the founding partners of Sage Gateshead) and the education work in the North East.
“I knew about the Angel of the North and I had been up to the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990. In London they were saying that of all the garden festivals, that was the one you had to see.”
Explaining his predicament to his boss at Birmingham City Council next day, he was told: “You must go and do it.” And he did.
There have been no regrets. Yesterday Anthony reflected on the “buccaneering, edge-of-the-map drive” he had found in the North East, much different from Birmingham, where he had found people cowed by the proximity of London.
“There’s something in the blood of this place, in the bloodstream of the people who live and work here... a real go-for-it feeling that is very refreshing.”
He highlighted, too, the general lack of stuffiness and formality and the friendliness of the people.
He remembered asking George Gill, leader of the council at the time, what Gateshead’s core mission was. “He said, ‘Well, I think it’s very simple. Gateshead people deserve better than they have and it’s the council’s job to give it to them.’ That is such a visionary thing to say.”
One thing that would be a wrench when the time came would be leaving the North East, he said, as both he and his wife, Caroline,
had made many friends here.
Also leaving early in the new year is Katherine Zeserson, Sage Gateshead’s respected director of learning and participation.
Both she and Anthony will be hard acts to follow but the headhunters will soon be on the case – and the two departing leaders will be useful ambassadors for the region wherever they find themselves next.