Mary Wakefield

Private passions | 24 September 2011

Mary Wakefield talks to John Studzinski about philanthropy and the importance of art

Private passions | 24 September 2011
Text settings

Do you paint yourself? Or...sing in a choir maybe? John Studzinski looks at me anxiously from the other side of a conference table, in a sleek little office belonging to his firm, Blackstone, the American private equity giant.

He’s normally a confident man; outspoken on the subject of leadership, networking and England’s art scene (which he generously props up). But getting him to answer a personal question is like trying to flip a cat on to its back.

Every time I think he’s about to reveal the underbelly of a personal life, a hobby or habit, he swivels in the air and lands on safe ground again, discussing the nature of philanthropy or the importance of art. So come on then, John, what do you do for fun? Watercolours? The flute?

‘Well...I probably spend most of my time on the art of listening,’ says Studzinski. ‘The art of listening relates not just to the arts, but to people and being open to whatever they have to say.’ And with that he assumes an intense ‘listening’ face, and also a lean-forward, ‘listening’ posture. The ball is back in my court again. Drat.

It’s not just a prurient interest in how such a rich chap spends his time and dosh — though, of course, there is that. He’s an interesting phenomenon John Studzinski, and an unusual one. He’s a banker who gives away millions; a millionaire who spends Christmas with the homeless; an American who supports great British institutions. If we can work out what makes him tick, perhaps we can persuade other fat cats to tick that way, too.

What we do know about John Studzinski is that he was brought up in Peabody, Massachusetts, the son of first-generation Polish immigrants. They must have been proud of their boy because from a very early age Studzinski was a whirlwind of ethics and enterprise, doing good and making good from the get-go. ‘Aged 14,’ he says proudly, ‘I started a helpline for people with venereal diseases. It was called Operation Venus. I wanted to help the Knights of Columbus [a sort of Catholic YMCA] who were looking for a project.’

It’s an odd little episode for a very private man to reveal, but in fact the VD hotline project says quite a lot about both the young Studz and his older self. There’s his ability to gauge the market; his interest in communication and also his Catholicism, which has always been, he says, his bedrock. Though he’s keen to emphasise that his charitable work is not about religion, a fair bit of it has a Christian bent. There’s the luminous Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum, which he sponsored, and even his charity, the Genesis Foundation, which began a decade ago, with a religious commission.

‘I was in Salzburg, sitting at lunch with a friend, Camilla Panufnik, and I was trying to think about what I was going to give Basil Hume for his 75th birthday,’ says Studzinski. ‘It was tricky because Basil had a very austere life and would accept nothing remotely material. I thought about giving a donation to the poor, then I remembered I had just met Camilla’s daughter, Roxanna, who was a young composer and a convert to Catholicism. I thought: “Hmmm, I wonder how long it has been since anyone wrote a mass in England.” It turned out to have been over 25 years. So I commissioned her to write one for Basil’s birthday.’ Helping Roxanna on her way gave Studzinski a taste for fostering young talent. ‘After that I was with the South African actress, Janet Suzman, and she said, “Studzo, we’ve got to make sure that all the actors and actresses in the world are not just from the upper-middle class, just because they can afford it.”’

Where most high-fliers would have nodded in sympathy then knocked back another gin sling, Studzinski set up the Genesis Foundation to help young, unconnected artists find their feet.

His next project, he says, is a Stabat Mater. ‘There were two commissioned in the first half of the 20th century, Poulenc’s and Szymanowski’s — but none at all commissioned in the second half. It’s time for Stabat Mater to meet contemporary music.’ And who will be the composer? Studzo grins. He can see a cheap shot at a news story coming a mile off.

Now perhaps you’ll have noticed that John Studzinski drops the odd name. There’s a fair bit of ‘as Basil said to me’ and ‘when I worked with Mother Teresa’. But if Studzinski doesn’t see the irony, it’s because he isn’t showing off in the British sense, so much as networking in an American one. Studzinski is big on contacts. ‘Sharing networks’ he calls it. And any celeb is a goldmine of useful contacts. Genesis, after all, is about more than just sponsoring an exhibition or commissioning a piece — it’s about giving young artists access to the world they must move in to make it.

The other reason to celebrate Studzinski is his extraordinary faith in this country. Towards the end of our chat, I make some disparaging remarks about the London art scene. Studzinski leaps, crusader-style, to Britain’s defence. ‘Why do people like Neil MacGregor, who’s run the National Gallery and now the British Museum so brilliantly, why do they stay here? Neil could have gone to New York to run the Met for four times as much, but why does he stay here? Why does Nick Serota, who’s probably the best art museum director in the world, stay running the Tate when he could have gone to MoMA?

‘The answer is easy because London is still the richest, most interesting arts environment in the world, because’ — here Studzo’s eyes are popping with intensity — ‘the arts in England are not about entertainment, they’re about education, cultural legacy, heritage.’

It’s a strange feeling, being given licence to be proud of your country again. I feel an undeserved burst of proprietorial delight. ‘But if you want to worry about something, worry about investing in young artists,’ says Studzinski. ‘They’re going to affect what children 100 years from now will be exposed to, in theatres, museums and opera houses. I think, in fact, the arts are going to play a big role in the re-establishment of the question of moral order.’

Now this is interesting, a connection between Studzinski’s two great passions: ethics and aesthetics. What does he mean? ‘Look at the world right now, look at this country right now, and you see that moral guidance isn’t coming from the business community, it’s not coming from the government, so maybe it’s going to come from the arts?

‘But that’s a subject for a longer discussion,’ he says, standing up, shaking hands, and disappearing back into Blackstone’s smooth interior.

Mary Wakefield talks to John Studzinski about philanthropy and the importance of art
Written byMary Wakefield

Mary Wakefield is commissioning editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articleSociety