V&A ‘Bowie Is’ ExhibitionCASE STUDY

Ben Green managed the extraordinary, tri-partite rights arrangements between the BBC, the V&A Museum London, and the David Bowie Archive (New York).

It was definitely one of those ‘once in a blue-moon’ career moments: when the initial briefing phone call makes your heart skip a beat, and you count your lucky stars that you work where you do…

Only a handful of people directly working on the project were told: – the television director, Francis Whately, would be making a new documentary about the music, style and cultural legend that was David Bowie. The programme had Bowie’s personal blessing, and his story was to be told through rare access to the David Bowie Archive in New York, including permission to use previously unseen film footage.  Interviews with many of Bowie’s creative collaborators were also being lined up, and the programme would be broadcast around the time of the hugely anticipated exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, ‘Bowie Is’.

The BBC has good relationships with many of the leading museums, galleries and arts organisations in the UK, and sometimes partners with them to create a richer experience for exhibition visitors and audiences. The partners usually agree that there is a symbiotic benefit to share archive content, knowledge and access, to create something far greater (and more interesting) than each individual party offering the parts owned by them.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was no exception. For some years there had been some joint projects, including ‘Handmade in Britain’, a year-long season exploring the history of British decorative arts (pottery, textiles, etc) involving exhibitions and close collaboration on a television series for BBC4.

So, it made perfect sense for both partners to consider how the new Bowie documentary and the exhibition could work together.

The V&A, working in partnership itself with the David Bowie Archive, created a stunning collection of artefacts, notes, stage costumes, artworks, music and film that brought to life the great man’s extraordinary career.  As part of that, they needed to license some of the BBC’s fantastic archive footage featuring Bowie: for example, his breakthrough appearance on Top of The Pops singing Starman (1972); and extracts from Cracked Actor (1975).

It was quickly realised that there could be a virtuous circle of collaboration and synergy set up between the parties involved: the BBC and the V&A both needed the Bowie Archive, the V&A needed some BBC Archive, and the Bowie Archive (including David and his Management) needed the exhibition and the documentary to succeed creatively. And the timing, like everything Bowie turned his attention to, was perfect.

This was an unusual agreement from a rights point of view – not the usual, run-of-the mill transactional licence, but one where the parties all put complete trust in each other to make this rather unusual tri-partite permission work.  The archive material had to be used sensitively, in perfect synergy and context to support the narrative, to ensure the documentary and exhibition were both of the very highest editorial standard.

Everyone realised that they were working on a rather special project, at a unique time ‘when the planets aligned’ creatively. There were lots of ‘phone calls about the ‘value’ of the assets, time and expertise that each were contributing – but these were not so much in relation to the rights being acquired or transferred but, under a process quite rightly undergone with all third party partnerships, to satisfy Fair Trading policy guidelines.

The Bowie Is exhibition opened at the V&A on 23rd March 2013, and continues to tour the World to sell-out audiences. (Details here)

The BBC TV documentary David Bowie: Five Years was first broadcast on 25/05/13, and is occasionally repeated and made available on the BBC iPlayer (Visit programme page)

Both are remarkably creative pieces of work, and what now seem fitting tributes to Mr David Jones.


N.B. The Case Study above represents both personal views and general historic facts surrounding the project. For the avoidance of doubt, these views are not those of the BBC, nor do they represent any endorsement (actual or implied) by the BBC of Ben Green Associates Limited.