Inside the Southbank Centre’s “laughable and terrifying” mass job cuts and shift to “start-up” culture

Europe’s largest arts centre will look to further commercialisation to recover from the coronavirus crisis.

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London’s Southbank Centre, the largest arts centre in Europe, is the latest in a long line of cultural institutions to announce redundancies in the wake of financial ruin due to the coronavirus crisis. 

The centre, which comprises of the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as the Arts Council Collection, the National Poetry Library, and cafes, shops and social spaces, was forced to close due to the pandemic in March. Only the Hayward Gallery has reopened. 

The centre’s senior management has announced plans to make two-thirds of its staff redundant, resulting in the loss of a possible 400 jobs. Staff have been told that when the centre does fully reopen, which may not be until April 2021, it will be run under a new model, based on a “start-up”. Just 10 per cent of its capacity will be used for the centre’s own art exhibitions, music performances and literature events. The other 90 per cent will be available for rent.

More than 6,500 current and former Southbank employees and allies have signed an open letter to the centre’s senior management protesting these proposals. It called the redundancies “brutal” and said plans for restructuring and financial remodelling “will result in irrevocable damage to the future of the centre”.

“We can see what the problems are and we’re not denying the existence of these issues,” a Southbank employee and one of the writers of the letter told me over the phone, “but senior management hasn’t offered any creative solutions.”

The campaign, entitled #SouthbankSOS, highlights the effect of these mass redundancies on the centre’s employee diversity. The redundancies, the letter said, will disproportionately affect the lowest-paid employees, who are more likely to be young people, people of colour or people with disabilities, and who will suffer most from redundancy. This follows Guardian data analysis which shows that across the UK, people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are overrepresented in the sectors hit worst by the coronavirus crisis. The letter also noted that these redundancies may not even be the wisest economic choice: reducing staff numbers by 63-68 per cent only equates to a reduction in payroll of 30-35 per cent across the organisation. It also stated that in March, when a “reformed senior leadership team” was created, Southbank staff were not made aware of who made up the team and, therefore, who was making these key decisions. These details were finally shared in an internal email on the evening of 4 August, in direct response to the open letter.

In a statement published on 4 August, the Southbank Centre said that its senior leadership team took a minimum pay cut of 20 per cent at the start of the pandemic, cuts which will continue until April 2021. It stated that the centre’s CEO, Elaine Bedell, took a voluntary pay cut from March 2020. The centre’s 2018-19 financial statement revealed that Bedell’s salary and bonus subject to tax totalled £240,750, up from £193,377 in 2018. Some have questioned why the CEO of a registered charity receives a bonus at all. The centre asserts that none of its senior executives, including the CEO, currently earns more than £150,000 a year before tax. 

“We question whether it is appropriate to maintain such a salary for the CEO of a closed arts centre, one that will be reduced in scale once it reopens, or indeed for the CEO of a ‘start-up’”, reads the letter.

In its statement, the centre described its programme as “necessary to ensure survival” after a loss of £25m in the current financial year. “Without action to manage this situation by reducing our costs and developing a new operating model, there will be no future for the centre,” it said. 

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

In its statement, the Southbank Centre clarified the notion of “renting” its space. It affirms that 80 per cent of everything that happens in its venues will be artistic, much the same as pre-pandemic (the remaining 20 per cent will be made up of “commercial activity” such as graduations and conferences, which the centre has long hosted). What will change from 2021, for a proposed one year only, is that the centre will directly produce just 10 per cent of its arts activity. The remaining 90 per cent – “rentals” – will be provided by other partners and promoters. 

Although these “rentals” will be for public arts purposes, they still “cheapen the offer”, the #SouthbankSOS spokesperson told me. “We’re Europe’s largest arts centre. We receive the second highest amount of Arts Council funding in the UK. We’re often used as a bench-marking organisation for other smaller arts institutions around the country because we deal with every type of artistic genre and activity.

“The idea that this institution could become a ‘start-up’ is laughable but also terrifying in terms of the message it might give to a load of other arts organisations in the UK. It seems like artistic activity is for hire and for sale. For the public it will not be clear what is a Southbank Centre production and what has been hired out. It’s a very troubling message. We’re questioning whether that fulfils the terms of our Arts Council grant in the first place.”

One of the major reasons the centre is in this precarious position, the #SouthbankSOS spokesperson told me, is that during the period that non-essential shops and restaurants were forced to close, none of the businesses on the Southbank Centre site paid their rent. “We’ve already had to move to a commercial model to deliver our programme. But over the last few months, that has collapsed. What’s troubling is that this time has not been used to lobby the government for more funding for the arts or for its own staff. Instead, they move to an even more commercial model. That doesn’t add up to me because it’s already been proven that it’s a fragile one.”

While the pandemic and its enforced closure of buildings has made clear the precariousness of arts in the UK, institutions’ increased reliance on a commercial market has been growing for over a decade, largely due to lack of government support. “There is a direct correlation between the increase in commercialisation and the decrease in public funding. People are always keen to talk about the cuts to public funding but in very real terms it hasn’t increased with inflation either,” the #SouthbankSOS spokesperson said.

The Southbank senior management’s focus on the financial side has failed to address issues which will affect its visitors on a more day-to-day basis. The centre is one of very few places in London where it is possible to spend time indoors without having to spend any money. The multiple foyer and cafe spaces on several floors of the centre’s various buildings are open to anyone who walks in the door, an ideal space for artists to work in and meet one another. The National Poetry Library, housed on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, is the most comprehensive collection of poetry in Britain and is open to anyone for free. While the Hayward Gallery’s main exhibition space has re-opened for its “Among the Trees” exhibition, the free gallery space which required no ticket to access and which previously sat next to it, has not. 

While the building remains closed, these spaces are indefinitely locked off from public use. Whether they will even be able to reopen and remain free-of-charge under the centre’s new model has not been addressed.

Most concerning for Southbank staff is the speed at which these decisions are being made and the lack of transparency from senior management. The centre entered into a 45-day consultation period on 16 July. But employees across numerous departments have already been told they are being made redundant. 

“With our letter, and with the unions, we’re still trying to come up with more creative solutions that don’t require redundancies,” said the #SouthbankSOS spokesperson. “But for management, it’s full steam ahead.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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