Josh Neicho: The Southbank Centre’s Covid troubles are raising larger questions about its future

Josh Neicho: The Southbank Centre’s Covid troubles are raising larger questions about its future

Covid-19 has emptied London’s South Bank of visitors, ravaged its economy, devastated the programmes of its landmark arts venues and, in the process, unleashed a storm about how the crisis has been dealt with in this key part of the capital’s cultural landscape and what form its recovery should take.

The first day of this month saw a stark illustration of how fraught things have become when a protest took place following the news that nearly 400 of the 577 staff of the Southbank Centre, comprising the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery, could lose their jobs.

The Southbank announced back in May that it is “at risk of closure until at least April 2021” due to the virus, saying that opening at only 30 per cent capacity would be more financially damaging than remaining shuttered. It said this extended closure would mean it would lose £5 million this year at best, even taking into account its financial reserves, its Arts Council grant and the government’s furlough scheme. Only the Hayward has since re-opened, with Covid limitations. With none of its venues likely to fully recover for some time to come, the Southbank’s management has clearly concluded that large-scale redundancies are unavoidable.

But at the protest, Gareth Spencer, a Southbank employee and its organiser for Public and Commercial Services union, said he was “aghast” at the job cuts decision when industrial relations have been good for the past 30 years. Other staff members echoed this dismay over the management’s approach, which entails the Southbank paying less than its usual redundancy terms. “There’s lots of loyalty. There are people who have worked for the Southbank for years,” said one.

Some asked whether further pay cuts by senior management or bailouts by government or philanthropists might be sought to limit job losses. One of the protesters thought laying people off now only to re-employ them at later dates as the Centre reopens seemed needlessly expensive and wondered why the government couldn’t extend furlough for the hard-hit creative sector. Another feels the skills of front-of-house staff are under-valued: “We’re the PR of the organisation”. Staff from the neighbouring National Theatre and the nearby Tate, where hundreds of redundancies have already been announced, joined the protests.

The situation has opened up wider arguments about the running of the Southbank, especially in the two years since the departure of Jude Kelly as the centre’s overall artistic director and the lack of a successor in that exact role. Spencer says what he calls the management’s “mothball and hibernate” response to Covid’s impacts shows a lack of imagination in keeping with its commercial outlook. He’s concerned about what plans to close Royal Festival Hall for two days a week even after next April will mean for the classes, clubs and other cultural activities that take place in its foyer.

An open letter signed by over 7,000 Southbank Centre “current and former employees and allies”, headed “Southbank SOS”, described the possible redundancies as “brutal”, with especially grim implications for “people from BAME backgrounds and people with disabilities” (BAME employees are underrepresented by comparison with the population of Lambeth and of London as a whole). The letter went on to accuse the board of focusing on finance at the expense of the artistic programme. The response to the coronavirus is characterised as “the culmination of an approach that has left the organisation bereft of creative vision and leadership at the very top”.

A similar argument is made by others, reinforced by reports that the Southbank plans to devote only 10 per cent of its 2021/22 schedule to its own, in-house, productions and 90 per cent to those of others, known as “rentals”. Former Barbican MD Sir John Tusa condemns the shift as “a bad, bad day”. He believes that since 1986, when the Southbank began creating its own work, it has gone from being a hall for hire with “no identity” to adopting a taking a proper arts centre ethos, “innovating and driving, not just showing”.

In its defence, the Southbank says this means “opening up spaces to our resident orchestras, associates and other artists for 90 per cent of our programmed artist activity” and that it expects the proportion of its own productions to rise to 20 per cent in 2022/23. Vladimir Jurowski, conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra which is resident at the Centre is confident that the changes will be “almost unnoticeable to general audiences”.

The Southbank also points out that maintenance of its 11-acre site must come from its commercial and fundraising revenues, and that loans it took out to cover major building refurbishments have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. It adds that it has planned outdoor and Behind Closed Doors streamed events in the autumn, the latter funded by donations and hall hire and therefore incurring no cost. “We want nothing more than to be able to open our doors again as soon as possible” it says.

From a different perspective, music critic and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht says the Southbank’s recent history as a “sub-quango” has been a “long-running saga of mismanagement at every level”, with “an awful lot of time-servers there”. He says he sees no reason why the Hayward Gallery should be under public management “and one could say the same for almost every part of the Southbank”.

Others look on it more kindly. Its 3,500 events a year in normal times – spanning every genre of music, cabaret, film and literature and multi-arts festivals – provide huge variety and also make it “like an untameable beast” which “has its ups and downs,” according to artist Adam Dant. Music journalist and novelist Jessica Duchen describes it as combining “the best location of pretty much any arts centre in the world with the exception of Sydney Opera House,” with its “masses and masses of education work”. Vauxhall MP Florence Eshalomi sees it in similar terms: while identifying its future vitality as a matter for “the whole of the UK and the world” she picks out the annual Lambeth music festival and the pride of parents seeing their kids on stage.

The Southbank’s worthiness and embrace of diversity make it a lightning rod for criticism, both from zealous guardians of classical music and campaigners who believe it is failing to live up to its own standards. Now, unions say there’s been no improvement in the redundancy offer and that they are taking soundings about a statutory strike ballot. Any strikes would be targeted at the Hayward and the streamed events.

But setting aside how it has dealt with them, many of the Southbank Centre’s current problems have been beyond its control. “Until we have full audiences, we can’t have normal concerts,” says Duchen. “The reason concert halls in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been able to reassemble, is that they get a lot more of their income from government support. Ours need the ticketing income”.

Another part of the challenge is bringing life back to the normally-teeming wider South Bank area. Michael Ball of the Waterloo Community Development Group thinks the Centre could be more ambitious with outdoor performances. He mentions channelling the medieval mystery plays which the National Theatre put on in 1977, or getting the Royal Festival Hall-headquartered National Poetry Library to hold a poetry declamation competition, or arranging top classical musicians to take pitches near the centre, pretending they are buskers and performing virtuoso slots. Why not allow local schools to use its spaces for teaching with appropriate social distancing, he suggests, as the Park Plaza Waterloo hotel has already done for the nearby Oasis Academy?

More broadly, Nic Durston, chief executive of the South Bank Business Improvement District says that through a partnership with landowners, residents and politicians, his organisation has helped form a “very meaningful response” to the pandemic, with programmes of work that include engaging with Waterloo station retailers and the area’s corporates about back-to-work plans, and supporting the Old Vic around the challenges of mounting a Covid-compliant play. Michael Ball thinks the neighbourhood’s strong tradition of business and community co-operation through a variety of forums had achieved a “unique” harmoniousness in recent years, but said relationships have been strained by the virus.

With so much latent creativity and innovative thinking in SE1, and with protest heavy in the air, who knows what might soon appear on the South Bank’s programme?

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