From Greg Rusedski’s practice partner to Van Gogh Alive

This blog first appeared here on the website of the Brighton Chamber.

Insight Agents‘ Chief Data Storyteller, Sam Knowles, goes on a journey of artistic discovery with Greg Talbot of Van Gogh Alive, who was a guest speaker at our latest Chamber Breakfast.

“If you’d have told me three years ago that I’d be standing up and talking to a room of 100 people about art, I’d have had a panic attack!” observed Greg Talbot, Head of Events at Active Sport & Entertainment, the company behind the spectacular Van Gogh Alive project set to wow Brightonians at the Dome for the summer. Yet there he was, on the last Friday in April in Bill’s Brighton, doing precisely that. So how did he get here? Let me tell you his story.

An economics graduate from Manchester University with a diploma in law, Greg’s career started in sports management with IMG, the leading player in that sector. He specialised in staging mass participation sports events – cycling and running, including 2014’s Color Run in Brighton – and calendar set pieces, such as the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and the Masters’ Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall. This included rubbing shoulders with such legends as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as a raw 23 year-old, as well as knocking up with British-Canadian star, Greg Rusedski.

Tennis in the Albert Hall

In search of a partner for a pre-match warm-up, Rusedski spied Greg in the green room, said “You’re about my size”, and handed over a complete set of kit. More of a squash than a tennis player, Greg (T) gamely looked after IMG’s talent and even managed to return a few serves. It was only when he noticed more than 1,000 spectators had arrived in the Hall that he asked if Greg (R) was sufficiently warmed-up. “Sure thing, kid!” he agreed, but not before saying, “thanks – and keep the kit”. Ah! The perks and unique opportunities of sports events management!

After a couple of start-ups, one more successful than the other, Greg found himself at Active Sport & Entertainment, to manage closed-road cycling events, including Velo Birmingham and the UK’s Road Race and Time Trial National Championships. He joined on 13 January 2020, so managed just 63 days in the role before … COVID lockdown number one. The pandemic affected so many businesses in so many ways, with travel, tourism, and live entertainment among the hardest hit. Into that mix you can add mass participation sports events.

Despite careful planning and rapid adoption of furlough provisions, it wasn’t long before Active’s headcount had shrunk from 30 to just four, one of whom was Greg. The remaining team inhaled, exhaled, and figured that lockdowns wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever and that people would want to do things again, so looked for opportunities that could channel their skills and experience.

Greg addresses the Brighton Chamber breakfast
Greg addresses the Brighton Chamber breakfast

Now THIS was a pivot!

In one of the more notable pivots (no, it really is), Active discovered the success that Australian business Grande Experiences had had with its immersive, multi-sensory art events and installations in more than 80 cities around the world, most notably Van Gogh Alive. Curiously, the idea had never flown in the UK, until Active partnered with Grande.

Despite the ever-changing restrictions of the first year of COVID pre-vaccines, Active opened Van Gogh Alive in Tier 2 (remember that?) Birmingham in October 2020, masks, social-distancing and all. They sold 30,000 tickets and were open for a month until lockdown two and Birmingham being reclassified into Tier 4. But everyone held their nerve, and the show reopened in April 2021, and another 30,000 tickets were snapped up. In so doing, the Active team had demonstrated proof of concept by selling tens of thousands of tickets at the height of a pandemic. This idea had legs!

The second installation was in “Wills’ and Kate’s back yard” in Kensington Gardens, a bespoke, 2,500m2 space that took three weeks to build and fit out. And although the world wasn’t COVID-free, things were really opening up again from June 2021, and the London run of four months saw more than a quarter-of-a-million punters passing through. Since then, Van Gogh Alive has delighted the public – “from babes in arms to centenarians” in Manchester, Edinburgh, and Bradford. And now Brighton, the first show in the magnificent, about-to-be-reopened Corn Exchange in the Dome estate.

Thriving in Brighton

The show is complex from the perspectives of space and time – Active needs a big space to house the installation, and they need it for at least three or four months. It’s complex from a technological perspective, with an exoskeleton onto which the cloth screens are stretched and the 38 projectors project their projections. And it’s complex from the perspective of “the travelling circus coming to town”. Greg and his team – the whole, lean company is still just seven-strong – immerse themselves in the local communities they visit, and it was so gratifying to hear quite was a series of constructive partnerships he’s brokered via the Brighton Chamber.

“We’ve found the Chamber and Chamber members to be so welcoming – so up for it,” Greg noted, with partnerships with the Hilton, the i360, and Shelter Hall. They’ve also worked with Bird and Blend to create a limited-edition Starry Night blend tea, echoing the aromas used in the Van Gogh Alive exhibit. The installation engages four senses – sight, sound, touch, and smell – and visitors tend to spend an-hour-and-a-half in the space, despite the fact that the full-loop in the main gallery lasts for just half that time. It’s fully accessible, step-free, is engaging thousands of local school pupils, and there are autism-friendly sessions planned. For both personal reasons and because of Van Gogh’s well-attested mental health challenges, the Brighton experience’s charity partner is MIND in Brighton and Hove. Indeed, since the first show in Birmingham, Active has raised more than £200,000 for its chosen charities.

The Chamber has a very few spaces left on a behind-the-scenes tour of the exhibit and, if you haven’t booked your ticket for the experience itself already, look lively.

Greg’s talk at the Chamber Breakfast was warm, personal, and heartfelt. An amazing story of how Active Sport & Entertainment used the crisis forced onto it by the pandemic to completely reinvent itself. No hint whatsoever of any kind of panic when standing and talking to a chock-full Bill’s about art. And, although not all of Van Gogh’s work is to Greg’s taste, he’s a big fan of both the Sunflowers and Starry Night. We should get used to this totally new way of immersing in art, because Active already has plans to be back in the Corn Exchange for a new show in 2025. Watch this space …