Lyubov Kostova - Director British Council Bulgaria since 2012
You can plan all you want and then life will happen.
Lyubov was born to a Bulgarian father and a Russian mother, grew up in Nigeria, has a Master’s degree in Indology, and has translated over 60 plays. Before the British Council she worked for 9 years at the Theatre Academy.
Experienced in communications and often described as a force of nature because of her inexhaustible energy and passion, she has led the international expansion of FameLab and co-founded the Sofia Science Festival. Lyubov has 3 children, loves the beach, parties and cooking, has over 200 fridge magnets and passionately believes that human efforts make sense.
Lyubov up close and personal
- What is the most bizarre situation you have found yourself in while doing British Council business?
One of the most fascinating things about the British Council is how diverse our work is – it can take you to all sorts of places and meet you with people from all walks of life. For example, English being the official language at our offices across the world (of course), I have often spoken Russian (to colleagues from Azerbaijan and Russia, for instance), or tossed in a (rusty, alas! I promise to bring it back!) quick phrase of appreciation in Hindi to our IT helpdesk team in India. But then again, through our work I have made some really unexpected new acquaintances – for example, with the director of the prisons, the first person in wheelchair in Bulgarian public administration, Bulgarian reggae artists who by now have successful international careers, and many more.
At one of our international team meetings I found myself sitting next to a colleague from Libya literally within days of the Bulgarian nurses’ case. Mohammad and I had a heartfelt conversation on the topic and became friends. But perhaps the most amazing meeting I have had through our work was with someone I had been friends with when we were both 10, living in Nigeria, and coming from Bulgaria and the UK! The emotional get-together was with by now the grown-up and internationally renowned writer who had arrived for a British Council event in Bulgaria 20 years after we had lost touch! Go figure! But, as the saying goes, it’s all in a day’s work. You can plan all you want and then life will happen. Like when I had to come out on stage for a concert in Plovdiv to announce a change in the programme. The reason was that the drums the artist had asked for were locked in a storage, there was one key only and it was with the keeper of that storage who on that particular day had gone off for a funeral. So we found replacement drums from Sofia, calmed down the artist, managed the audience’s expectations, and delivered a fantastic concert.
- Your love for science is hardly a secret. If science made it possible to travel 77 years back in time to 1939, what tips would you give to the first British Council representative in Bulgaria Mr. Henry Littler?
First and foremost – I would like to replace the “if” with “when” – wouldn’t it be fabulous to travel back and forth in time?! But also across space. So exciting!
Going back to 1939, when our organisation was still really young (only 5 years after its setting up globally), and the world was such a boiling pot, it was perhaps too early to realise the power of cultural relations in helping resolve conflict. Which is perhaps what I would have shared with Mr. Littler – do more to promote co-existence, cooperation, mutual respect and understanding. We have the best tools for that – education and culture. I strongly believe that a critical mass of individuals meeting through education and the arts will contribute sooner or later to a more stable world.
I would also ask him to share that the very same year we started the British Council Art Collection which since 1939 has been collecting works of art, craft and design to promote abroad the achievements of the very best British artists. This 'Museum Without Walls' as often called, is for me one of the most striking examples of forward looking cultural policy, which has stood the test of time (with over 9,000 works to date!), has helped British artists come to international acclaim in real terms (the collection features such colossal artists as Henry Moore, Damien Hirst) and needs to be shared as an excellent example all over the world. And if you haven’t yet seen the collection, do visit the online catalogue and explore the history of the collection!
Oh, and I would probably ask Mr. Littler to secure a property of our own.
- How do you feel about being the first Bulgarian who became Director of British Council?
Well, to be honest, as the song goes, at first I was petrified. I had to suddenly walk in the steps of people I have huge admiration for – my predecessors. So the first thing I did was write to all four of them, three of whom I had worked with, and ask them for advice. They were and have been all extremely generous in sharing their insights, their tips and advice, and offering their friendships. Which is actually what this is all about – anyone who’s been through the British Council recruitment process will know it is not about nationality or gender (well, yes – I am also the first female director in Bulgaria :) ) but about competence and continuity. We’re an organisation with strategies, principles and integrity – so it is not really a matter of the personality. And which is why the most natural first conversations for me were with Tony, Ian, Kevin and David.
That first – and then I brought total chaos to the tidy desk Tony had left :)
You are also an expert in Communications. What do you think should be the role of cultural relations in today’s digital world?
There’s so much online nowadays, so many voices, so many smart technological solutions claiming the attention of the users, that it’s getting growingly difficult to stand out. I believe this is the time for content richness. And cultural relations offer exactly that – the intense, compelling stories that attract audiences. Look at, for example, the digital campaign for Shakespeare Lives we are currently running globally. Just since 5 January when it was launched, there have been 105 million Twitter estimated impressions and 28.35 million Facebook and other social media mentions! In the first two weeks of January 2016 the Shakespeare Lives website has had 17,100 visits and we have managed to attract over 56% of all visitors to spend time in looking through the pages (rather than leaving straight after opening it).
Another great example of why Content is King is the enormous digital “footprint” of FameLab. I will never forget my amazement when in 2008, just a year after we had started FameLab international with 9 countries, the “buzz” it had produced online had attracted the attention of a researcher at the Banff Centre - Canada's arts and cultural organization providing multidisciplinary programming and advancing the practice of artists and leaders. As a result, I ended up submitting an article on best international practices in science communication, and was humbled to be in the company of Richard Feynman, Duncan Dallas who founded Café Scientifique and Simon Singh!
- If there is one thing about Bulgaria you can share with everyone in the world, what would it be?
Oh, wow – only one?! Bulgaria’s perhaps one of this world’s best kept secrets – it is truly a place to discover and share, and there is a lot more to find beyond the ancient Thracian artefacts, multi-vocal folk singing and yoghurt.
There are so many amazing facts about contemporary Bulgaria that are worth sharing. Here are some of my personal snippets – in no particular order. Bulgarians are really good at foreign languages – according to statistics, Bulgarian test takers of IELTS score by almost a full unit higher than the average global score! (Bulgarian average 6.8 out of max 9, IELTS, 2012). Tap water is really delicious, and then – there is the fascinating experience of drinking hot mineral water straight from the outdoor springs in the centre of Sofia, close to the area we call “The quadrangle of peace” (the St. Nedelya Orthodox Christian church, the Banya Bashi mosque, the Sofia Synagogue and the St. Joseph Roman catholic cathedral are all within walking distance in the centre of the city). The Sofia underground announces the stations in English as well as in Bulgarian. Plovdiv was voted third Best European Destinations 2016! In 2019 it will be European Culture Capital. Varna will be European Youth Capital in 2017 and aim to turn the city into a social innovative hub. The small villages along the Black Sea coast are a great place to be in the summer. The Bulgarian Antarctic base on Livingston island’ post code is 1090.