Crisis on the Southbank

Tessa Pinto | Arts Editor

Employees of the Southbank Centre, the largest arts organisation in Europe, have published a scathing open letter following the decision taken by management to enforce around 400 redundancies, which was announced at the end of July. The move will result in roughly two thirds of employees losing their jobs, with the youngest, lowest paid and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) members of staff being worst hit. The letter, authored by a group operating under #southbankSOS, argue that the current workforce is already woefully unrepresentative of the ethnic makeup of London or the surrounding area of Lambeth, with only 20% of the workforce currently identifying as BAME (around 40.8% in London).

The group are also highly critical of the statements which have been issued by management during the unfolding of the Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S and the rest of the world since June. The commitment by the Centre to be a ‘truly inclusive organisation – a place where everyone can see themselves’ rings hollow in the light of the latest announcements, and highlights the performative nature of so much engagement with the anti-racism movement.

The Southbank Centre is a charity which includes major venues on the Thames in London, such as the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery. These are some of the finest post-war buildings in the country, constructed in the aftermath of the Second World War as a symbol of optimism and recovery for a nation devastated by death, and by physical and economic destruction. Like most other arts organisations, it derives a large proportion of its income through ticket sales which have foundered in the wake of the pandemic – and yet it is also renowned for putting on an extensive programme of free public events, a legacy of the Southbank’s civic origins.

Now, almost 70 years after its founding, the Southbank is no longer a symbol of optimism but a bellwether for a new operational approach which will see the centre run on the basis of a ‘start-up’. When it re-opens next year, the Centre will use only 10% of its capacity to run its own programme, with the other 90% rented out to external companies. Furthermore, the current proposal is to close the complex for two days a week, which would represent a huge loss of a generous public facility in the centre of a city which has increasingly little in the way of public indoor space.

#southbankSOS argue that the decision to run the charity like a business is not simply the result of short and long-term financial instability but of a particular cultural mindset amongst management. Over the past few years, an increasing amount of space has been given over to restaurants and pop-ups, with similar attempts to monetize the historic skatepark under the Queen Elizabeth Hall successfully opposed by a local campaign. #southbankSOS argue that the latest decisions to cut staff and switch to an uncompromising business model is ‘the culmination of an approach that has left the organisation bereft of creative vision and leadership at the very top’. The coronavirus pandemic has merely provided the opportunity for this approach to become status quo.

The news follows on from recent announcements that the National Theatre, also on the Southbank but not part of the complex, will be cutting 400 jobs, whilst the Tate further along the river to the east will be cutting around 300. These institutions are global giants in the public provision of the arts, and set the tone for smaller organisations across the country. If these follow in suit, the landscape of the public arts in this country looks increasingly bleak. And yet there is hope too: the workers affected by these decisions are fighting back. A strengthening of collective organisation through trade unions and other means is an empowering and important development in a sector that is fraught with precarity and institutional racism. Public pressure and solidarity with these growing movements may yet change the course events.

The open letter can be read in full and signed here:

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