Southbank Centre boss, Elaine Bedell: 'The earliest we could reopen is Spring 2021' 

Once a symbol of national resurgence, Europe's largest arts complex faces reinvention – or ruin, its chief executive reveals

Adapt or die: the main auditorium of the Royal Festival Hal
Adapt or die: the main auditorium of the Royal Festival Hal Credit:  Paul Grover/Shutterstock

Of all the arts organisations now warning of the drastic consequences of Covid-19, the Southbank Centre is unique. It is Europe’s largest arts complex, with an all-embracing reach. Its offerings range from world music to piano recitals, jazz to cutting-edge art, drumming workshops to symphonies. And 40 per cent of its events are free. It is truly a People’s Palace of the arts, open to all, and last year 4.5 million visitors took up the offer.  Further, crucially, its beginnings were once the very symbol of national resurgence from crisis. At the heart of the complex, still beautiful and surprising in its boldness, is the Royal Festival Hall, which is the sole surviving trace of the 1951 Festival of Britain, that hugely ambitious celebration of the arts and culture which burst on an astonished and war-weary nation. 

So it feels particularly poignant that the Southbank Centre is now facing full closure by next April. Chief executive Elaine Bedell says that is likely to happen without either a rescue package or an overhaul of the current social distancing rules that limit the SBC’s auditoria to a financially unworkable 30 per cent audience capacity. 

“I can’t stop thinking about the irony of our situation,” Bedell tells me. “The Centre was born in the Festival of Britain, which was meant to be a tonic to the nation to help them recover from a crisis. We are going to be so needed as we come out of this present crisis, but there’s a good chance we won’t be able to do that job.”

The figures are as stark for the SBC as they are for many others, even if its financial set-up is more complex than most. The SBC doesn’t rent its site, as many do, but manages it on behalf of the Government. At 13 acres it is huge, and includes the Royal Festival Hall as well as two other auditoria, plus the country’s leading gallery for touring contemporary art exhibitions and numerous smaller spaces. Running these buildings alone – just the security, cleaning and maintenance – costs £11 million a year, which consumes over half of the SBC’s undeniably considerable £19 million annual grant from the Arts Council. 

“Even in normal times we can’t spend [our grant] all on the task of creating art, because we have a duty of care towards the site,” explains Bedell. “So we have to pay for the upkeep of the site out of money that we are given to create art. And that is really tough for us.” 

The grant accounts for 37 per cent of their income, with a further 60 per cent covered by box office receipts, corporate hire and the leasing of sites to the Southbank’s many cafés and restaurants. Bedell points out that the SBC has done its best to wean itself off public subsidy. That 37 per cent used to be 57 per cent 10 years ago, the shift being also thanks in part to the efforts of Jude Kelly, the Centre’s previous artistic director, who expanded its remit to include projects such as the Women of the World Festival. 

“We have been very successful in creating new revenue streams,” says Bedell. “What we have is an interconnected ecosystem where the government money and earned money work together.” But none of the cafés and restaurants on the site have now been paying rent since March. “Unfortunately, one of the ironies of this situation is that organisations like ours which have learnt to be entrepreneurial and rely less on public funds, but which still have fixed costs which they are obliged to meet, have been the hardest hit,” says Bedell. 

Losses are predicted to stand at £5 million by April 2021, with each of the Centre’s three main music venues remaining closed, almost all creative spend cancelled, furloughing and some redundancies, the ACE grant used up and £3 million in reserves gone as well. 

“Spring is the earliest we calculate we could reopen, but in fact we may not be able to do that,” says Bedell. “We may actually have to mothball the Centre. We are not selling tickets for any future events and have shut down our box office, and have offered a refund to all tickets already sold. We’re about to announce that there is no prospect of us reopening in the autumn.”

Despite all this, Bedell, 59, who has been in the job since 2017 and has a background in television as well as developing the commercial arm of the RSC, is chipper and determined. She says she feels “energised” by the challenge of facing down this disaster. The Hayward Gallery is an exception to the closure rule: galleries can work around social distancing rules, rather than be stymied by them as the concert halls are. She says she’s hoping to reopen it this summer. 

Her plan in general, she says, is “to operate like a start-up… We may need to come up with a wholly different proposition for the Southbank.”

'We need to operate like a start-up': Southbank Centre chief executive Elaine Bedell Credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty

This business overhaul will include, she says, “Reviewing every aspect of our business model and operation to consider how we might work differently and more efficiently; taking a blank piece of paper approach to our performance schedules to ensure we consider what events are likely to be financially strong whilst trying to ensure we maintain our artistic ambitions; considering what balance of corporate venue hire we need to have to maximise income without undermining our artistic offer; considering how we may work with new partners and with others in the sector to share costs.”

It’s quite a to-do list. “In the meantime, we are keen to restore some activity to the site, to get some areas open and some bars and restaurants open on a takeaway basis,” she says. 

“On the arts side, we’re going to animate the site with some artworks and installations, so people walking along the riverbank get the sense we are actually still alive. Our online team is hugely busy, creating playlists and mining the video archive, but we’re also keenly aware of the 22 per cent of the population which has no access to a computer, so our education department has launched a scheme called ‘Art by Post’ to reach them.” 

Bedell also feels a responsibility to her workforce. “We provide employment for 2,000 people directly or indirectly,” she says. “And I am keenly aware that many of these people are young and suffering badly.” 

There’s no doubt the challenge is very tough. The truth is that the nation’s most famous arts organisations are woven into the fabric of our society. The idea that they should be independent business entities allowed to sink or swim when cataclysm hits, neglects their symbolic function as a repository for national identity and pride that the Festival of Britain  was itself designed to engender.  The tourists get it: one in 10 international visitors to London visit the Southbank Centre. 

So far the Government’s response to the crisis for culture has been to appoint a Cultural Renewal Taskforce of distinctly dubious credentials (there’s no representative, for example, of live music in the group), to dream up “creative ways to get these sectors up and running again”. 

But Neil Mendoza, its tsar, has already admitted that he has been given no budget. There seems to be a genuine peril that we will end up with a cultural landscape all too reminiscent of the ruin and devastation from which the Southbank first arose. 

Southbankcentre.co.uk