An open letter on Southbank Centre’s brutal redundancies, their impact on the diversity of our workforce, and the future of Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre responded to our letter. Read our reply here.

We, a group of Southbank Centre employees, have written this open letter to voice our anger and concern about the current crisis at the Southbank Centre, which is seeing a programme of brutal redundancies across the organisation, and a restructuring and financial remodelling that will result in irrevocable damage to the future of the Centre. 

Overnight, our audiences, our workforce and our sector will lose the arts centre built in the spirit of optimism in the years after the destruction of the Second World War. This loss will have a lasting impact on the arts and education in this country.

We believe we can and should do better. We believe that the most precarious workers should not be penalised for historic financial negligence and mismanagement, and we demand that the Southbank Centre adheres to its anti-racism statement by actively protecting the diversity of its workforce.

The situation we are facing: 

The Southbank Centre (comprising the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall, as well as the Arts Council Collection and National Poetry Library) announced on 15 July 2020 its plans to make between 63-68% of its workforce redundant. This represents up to 400 people (senior management have given figures of both 391 and 365 employees) out of 577 across all departments in the organisation. 

The impact on our workforce:

The redundancies, which began this week, will disproportionately affect the lowest-paid employees (reducing staff numbers by 63-68% only equates to a reduction in payroll of 30-35%). The at-risk group includes a high proportion of young people, people from BAME backgrounds and people with disabilities for whom it is more difficult to secure employment opportunities in the arts and so who will suffer the most from redundancy.  

According to a document passed from senior management to BAME staff in July, the proportion of Black and Asian employees at Southbank Centre could be reduced by 6% – though the redundancies that are already taking place make it apparent that that number could be higher. The current representation of BAME staff (20%) is already wrongfully low and does not reflect the wider population in its local borough of Lambeth (47.2%) or London as a whole (40.8%).1 These actions to reduce levels of BAME staff so significantly contradict statements made by management both internally to the Southbank Centre staff and BAME group, and externally and publicly around Black Lives Matter.2 Senior management have chosen to proceed with their programme of redundancies without taking into account the disproportionate impact on BAME staff.

Institutional racism:

The formation of a network of BAME staff in 2019 was met by resistance by senior management, with attempts to disband it. Yet the network was formally called upon for consultation in June this year after Southbank Centre were wrong-footed by their response to Black Lives Matter protests. Since then, their efforts to address structural racism and respond to the crisis of under-representation have been met by disturbing instances of racism, including one in which a board member stated that she did not believe in ‘victimhood’ and asked them if they were ‘proud to be people of colour’ and ‘proud to work at Southbank Centre’. Apologies from the Chief Executive Officer have been sought but not received.

Prolonged closure:

Southbank Centre is Europe’s largest arts centre, the recipient of the second largest grant of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio of regularly-funded organisations and a vital part of the UK’s cultural landscape, with a 13-acre site in the centre of London.3 We believe that we should be industry-leading in our response to the pandemic and in our treatment of staff. Instead, senior management are planning to close down or ‘mothball’ the site until at least April 2021 (with the exception of Hayward Gallery, which provisionally reopens to the public on Saturday 1 August for a maximum of three months). 

At a time when other cultural organisations are fighting to reopen, Southbank Centre is intent on remaining closed. While we acknowledge that indoor music events are virtually impossible to run while social distancing rules remain in place, no creative solutions have been proposed to fill that vacuum. And if the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall remain closed, Londoners lose a vital free space that belongs to them, as well as access to the National Poetry Library.

Total restructure:

When Southbank Centre reopens in 2021 it will operate with an entirely new operating structure, based, according to senior management, on a ‘start-up’. Staff have been told that the centre’s programme of contemporary art exhibitions, classical and contemporary music and literature events will be allocated just 10% of capacity across its venues with 90% reserved for rental. This decision completely undermines the integrity of these respected cultural venues and will cause lasting damage to the ability of the Southbank Centre to provide for its audiences and fulfil the terms of its grant from Arts Council England (ACE). There has been no indication of how this business model could be reversed in future. 

Lack of creative leadership:

We believe that the board’s focus on finances rather than artistic programme is not merely a circumstantial response to the coronavirus crisis, but the culmination of an approach that has left the organisation bereft of creative vision and leadership at the very top. While there is no shortage of creative leadership in our teams, Southbank Centre has had no overall artistic director since the departure of Jude Kelly in May 2018, and no creative director since Madani Younis departed in October 2019. The business mentality at the most senior level has not utilised the creative leadership and skills of the Artistic Heads. It has instead proven itself incapable of achieving anything other than managed decline.

Executive pay:

The Senior Leadership Team has been keen to stress they have taken a pay cut during the pandemic – they have also reduced their working hours by 20%. During this period, all staff at Southbank Centre have also taken a pay cut of between 5-20%, depending on their pay scale. 

In 2018-2019, Southbank Centre’s Chief Executive Officer increased her annual salary from £194,377 to £240,750, an increase of almost 24%, which means that despite her 20% pay cut she is still earning more than she did in 2018.4 This salary remains significantly higher than that of the Tate director (£185,625 in financial year 2018-2019).5 We question whether it is appropriate to maintain such a salary for the CEO of a closed arts centre, one that will be so reduced in scale once it reopens, or indeed for the CEO of a ‘start-up’. 

Lack of transparency:

Since Southbank Centre’s closure in March 2020, a reformed Senior Leadership Team has been established. Staff have not been informed who makes up this team. We therefore do not know who is making the key decisions about our future and the future of the organisation alongside the Board of Governors. 

The Senior Leadership Team claim that Southbank Centre cannot afford to honour their redundancy policy, further penalising the lowest paid, most financially vulnerable members of staff. They claim that of the £1.57 billion government bailout for cultural organisations they will only have access to loans and not grants. However, official guidance published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport states that grants of up to £3 million are available, as well as loans for any amount over £3m with no upper limit and only 2% interest repayment rates. We understand that this money can be used both for the purposes of redundancies and to ensure an organisation’s workforce remains diverse. 

The 391 planned redundancies at Southbank Centre do not include members of staff on fixed-term contracts (some of which have already been terminated), freelance event producers, technicians, or cleaning, maintenance, security and hospitality staff, who are all employed by separate companies. Around 50% of security staff, employed through a third-party agency, have already been made redundant since June, leaving the remaining staff to work stressful hours and longer shift patterns. Repeated calls for basic safety measures, like installing perspex screens at security desks, were only implemented at the end of July. These outsourced staff, a large proportion of whom are from BAME backgrounds, are not included in loss of diversity figures provided by senior management. Additionally, the figure of 391 redundancies does not take into account the artists who would have performed, exhibited and spoken at Southbank Centre during this prolonged period of closure. 

In the coming months, theatres, galleries and art centres around the world will be relying on their workforces’ collective ingenuity and determination to overcome the enormous challenge of reopening and running their artistic programmes. While other institutions are looking forward to celebrating the return of art, artists and audiences, the Southbank Centre seems set on a course that will fundamentally fail our audiences, the artists we work with, and our workforce, and will cause irrevocable damage to the future of the Centre. 

With job losses at this scale, a depletion of vital diversity, and a new operating structure we all – audiences, workers, artists, performers – stand to lose the art centre and public spaces we know and love. 


Southbank SOS


This open letter was published at 20.00 BST on Friday 31 July. As of 10.00 BST on Wednesday 5 August, it has been signed by over 7,000 current and former employees and allies

1 https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/ethnic-groups-borough
2 Southbank Centre anti-racism statement, 12 June 2020 https://southbankcentre.co.uk/about/statement-on-anti-racism
3 Southbank Centre received a £73,440,000 ACE National Portfolio Organisation grant for the period 2018-2022, second only to the Royal Opera House (which received £96,115,360). https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/national-portfolio-2018-22/more-data-2018-22
4 Southbank Centre Annual Report 2018-2019, p. 44. https://bynder.southbankcentre.co.uk/m/c213ad2d3c952e4/original/Southbank-Centre-Annual-Report-2018-19_SIGNED-FINAL.pdf?_ga=2.212783636.1652564561.1596104310-1527036645.1591271957
5 Tate annual accounts 2018-2019 https://www.tate.org.uk/file/tate-annual-accounts-2018-19