Distraction and denial: Southbank’s response to their staff’s open letter

On 4 August the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) at Southbank Centre issued a response to the #SouthbankSOS open letter. This response is severely lacking. It is defensive, leaning heavily on both distraction and denial, and does not attempt to address the core issues we raised in the letter. It also manages to express, with startling effectiveness, the damaging nature of the SLT and the board’s dealings with our BAME colleagues. 

As of 9am on 6 August, our open letter has received over 7000 signatures in support of saving jobs and protecting the values of the organisation we know and love. This number continues to grow rapidly. The site SaveOurSouthbank.com went live on the evening of 31 July. The 7000-strong signatories now include current and former staff, our audiences and committed members, as well as artists, writers, poets, musicians, other leading cultural and public figures, and our peers in the cultural sector.

The Senior Leadership Team have only responded to some of the claims in the open letter thereby confirming, by implication, the other points. These are:

  • The massive scale of the redundancies (nearly 70% of the organisation)
  • That the lowest-paid employees will be disproportionately affected and that this group includes the highest proportion of young, BAME and disabled staff. 
  • That the senior leadership are planning to ‘mothball’ the site until at least April 2021 (with the exception of Hayward Gallery’s temporary re-opening until October 2020)
  • That the new operating structure will be modelled on a ‘start-up’. (See the New Statesman’s recent article ‘Inside the Southbank Centre’s “laughable and terrifying” mass job cuts and shift to “start-up” culture’ for clarification on this term.)
  • That short-term contracts have already been terminated, freelance event producers and technicians are going without work, and cleaning, maintenance, security and hospitality staff employed by third-party companies have already been made redundant. 
  • The lack of opportunities for artists and the lack of programme for audiences that will result from the prolonged closure. 

The senior leadership team described ten claims made in our letter and then attempted to refute them. We have quoted their document (in italics) and responded to each point below.

[Southbank Centre] are undertaking a restructuring and financial remodelling that will result in irrevocable damage to the future of the Centre.

SLT response, 4/8/2020: The programme we have embarked on is necessary to ensure the survival of the Southbank Centre. We will have lost £25m in income 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.

SOS: We question what ‘survival’ means when nearly 70% of the staff that make Southbank Centre what it is have been forced to leave; the organisation is functioning under a new operating model; and the proportion of our own in-house artistic content has been reduced. After such a radical restructure, can Southbank Centre still be considered to be the same institution, with the same core aims? We believe that such a drastic and significant restructure within a public institution should be subject to proper public scrutiny.

Workers are being penalised for historic financial negligence and mismanagement

SLT response, 4/8/2020: Southbank Centre does not receive any funding from Govt to run and maintain its 11-acre national heritage site. All essential repair and maintenance work to our buildings and site has been funded from our own commercial revenues or from fundraising. For major refurbishment of our listed buildings, with agreement from ACE and DCMS, we took out loans to cover the costs. In fact, SC has been successfully entrepreneurial over the years in creating new commercial spaces (its bars and restaurants) to meet the repayments of these loans. Ironically, this now means SC has been hardest hit by the pandemic, since that commercial income evaporated with the closure of our site. It is the loss of this income – £25m this year alone, which represents 60% of our costs – that has had such catastrophic consequences. 

SOS: The Senior Leadership Team is attached to the narrative regarding the expensive upkeep of the 11-acre site – we have heard it many times in recent months. There are equally important issues that the Senior Leadership team seems less keen to discuss, such as costly contracts with third parties to outsource essential services such as security, cleaning and maintenance, as well as public-facing services such as catering; consultancy projects from which our audience see little benefit; or renovations that run over-budget. Southbank Centre’s leadership needs to accept responsibility for its shortcomings. We restate that it is currently the lowest-paid workers who are bearing the brunt of the Centre’s precarious financial situation. 

Southbank Centre needs to adhere to its anti-racism statement by actively protecting the diversity of its workforce/Senior management have chosen to proceed with their programme of redundancies without taking into account the disproportionate impact on BAME staff.

SLT response, 4/8/2020: Southbank Centre absolutely stands by its anti-racism statement and will continue its ongoing discussions with the BAME staff network to create a powerful diversity and equality action plan. Our redundancy programme will be subject to an equality impact assessment. We will rebuild our organisation in the future with diversity and equality absolutely central to our recovery.

SOS: The last communication received by the BAME network from the Senior Leadership Team was on 23 July. In this email, the SLT refused to consider the proportion of BAME staff in the workforce as part of the redundancy process. This email also contained no concrete commitments to end the underrepresentation of BAME employees that exists at every level of the organisation.

We understand that an equality impact assessment is the legal minimum requirement for redundancies on this scale. We would welcome information on when this is happening, when the information will be made public, and how it will affect their decision-making. We also invite Southbank Centre leadership to share with their staff their current best estimate of the proportion of BAME employees remaining in post after the redundancies have taken place. 

Our fears about the impact of the redundancies have been confirmed in recent days by the emerging picture of disproportionate job losses amongst BAME employees in the departments that have so far been informed about their departmental restructures.

The formation of a network of BAME staff in 2019 was met by resistance by senior management, with attempts to disband it.

SLT response, 4/8/2020: This is not true and we have been unable to discover what has informed this statement.

SOS: No one from the Senior Leadership Team has been in touch with either the BAME network or the authors of the open letter (via their public email address) in the course of their efforts to discover what informed this statement. 

We cannot speak on behalf of our colleagues and ex-colleagues, and many are not in a position to make statements to the Senior Leadership Team due to the extreme precarity of their jobs during this redundancy process. There is now and has historically been a culture of fear around speaking out about diversity at Southbank Centre; the large number of employees who have signed the letter anonymously is indicative of this culture. It is also telling that the two previous heads of the BAME network (which was only established in 2019) no longer work at Southbank Centre. 

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’

SLT response, 4/8/2020: We think it misleading not to make it clear that the Board member who made these comments, in the context of an internal discussion between the BAME network and the Executive team, is herself a woman of colour.

25% of our Board members are people of colour.

SOS: This response demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding among senior leadership at Southbank Centre as to what racism is. Racism and abuse are not permissible from anyone, including from people of colour. Does the Senior Leadership Team think that racism cannot exist at Southbank Centre if the board comprises 25% people of colour? 

It also highlights their failure to appreciate the nature of the power dynamic between staff and board members, and their instrumentalisation of a person of colour with whom the BAME network had had no contact prior to the incident described. 

It is appalling that since the BAME network stated that they were offended by these comments, senior leadership have attempted to undermine them by claiming the comments were ‘out of context’ and by refusing to apologise. We seriously question whether this Senior Leadership Team is fit to run an organisation that claims to have diversity and anti-racism as core values. 

At a time when other cultural organisations are fighting to reopen, Southbank Centre is intent on remaining closed. …. no creative solutions have been proposed to fill that vacuum.

SLT response, 4/8/2020: We have reopened the Hayward Gallery and are planning outdoor art events throughout the autumn which are pandemic-proof, including our commissioned art and poetry exhibition Everyday Heroes which celebrates frontline workers around the UK. We are also planning a series of Behind Closed Doors concerts, gigs and events, which will be streamed online in the autumn. The costs for this activity have been met from donations and income generated from the hire of the hall by participants and there is no cost to Southbank Centre.

We want nothing more than to be able to open our doors again as soon as possible. However, as with all theatres and concert halls of size, social distancing makes this financially impossible and we do not think we will be able to re-open fully for the foreseeable future, depending on Government guidance.

SOS: It is worth stating again that the closure of the buildings does not just prevent ticketed events in concert halls from taking place, it also deprives the public of access to the National Poetry Library and vital, vibrant public space that is used on a daily basis by individuals and community groups. 

We are delighted that Hayward Gallery has temporarily re-opened, thanks to its committed team of front of house staff, who have shown that they are prepared to work in public-facing roles during a pandemic. However, just two days after the sell-out re-opening weekend, the entire Hayward Gallery front of house team apart from one manager (37 out of 38 people) were told that they will be made redundant when the current exhibition ends in October. With no set date for reopening, and no front of house staff, the gallery faces an uncertain future. 

Everyday Heroes, the outdoor exhibition celebrating key workers, launches on 1 September, just days after the 45-day redundancy consultation is due to finish, and at the same moment as up to 400 dedicated frontline staff at Southbank Centre will be issued with redundancy notices. This is an irony that has not escaped some of the artists in the exhibition. 

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.

SLT response, 4/8/2020: This is incorrect and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what we mean by the term ‘rental’. Around 80% of everything in our venues will be artistic in the future, and actually this is how it was before we closed our doors. We are not changing this. We will continue to host some commercial activity such as graduations and conferences in the remaining 20% of available time – as we did before. 

What will change for the year 2021/22 only, is that Southbank Centre will directly produce less of its own artistic work. In 2021/22 we will ourselves present (ie we will take the financial risk on) around 10% of arts activity. The remaining 90% of arts activity (rentals) will be provided, as before, by our resident and associate orchestras, artistic partners and promoters. However, these will still be curated and selected by our artistic leaders. The reason for doing this is that we can reduce our own financial risk by directly promoting fewer of our own events. 

SOS: This response is deliberately misleading. The 90% / 10% split between artistic ‘rentals’ and ‘own productions’ has been mentioned several times by senior leadership in those exact terms, and was included in an FAQs document distributed to all staff. Our statement does not represent a misunderstanding, despite the SLT’s attempt to obfuscate with separate but related information about commercial activity. 

Artistic rentals – no matter their quality – are essentially hires. Increasing the number of rentals risks further damaging the coherent artistic vision and ambition of the Centre. What might ‘90% artistic rentals’ look like at Hayward, for example, which currently has only three to four exhibition slots per year in its main galleries?

Crucially, we are concerned that the decision by senior leadership to focus on artistic rentals is also key to justifying large-scale redundancies across our programming and production teams: less in-house artistic activity makes it necessary to retain fewer artistic programmers.

Staff have not been informed of who the SLT (Senior Leadership Team) are and and why have this team were created [sic]

SLT response, 4/8/2020: Given the fast-paced nature of our world at the moment and the increasing need to act quickly and decisively, we created a smaller interim leadership group formed from the larger Executive team, who would focus on business recovery and emergency planning. It is an interim team to help us through the crisis of closure. We will have a new Chair next Spring because Susan Gilchrist has served her full term.The leadership of the organisation will then be discussed with the new Chair and there will be a new structure in place to take us through the next few years. 

SOS: Southbank Centre leadership has now confirmed, in an internal email to all staff, the names of members of the Senior Leadership Team. It is astonishing that it took an open letter of protest signed by 7000 people, and press coverage, for us to be given this information. 

Claims around Senior Leadership pay and hours

SLT response, 4/8/2020: Since the start of closure, the Executive team has taken a minimum pay cut of 20% and in some cases have volunteered more. 

The SLT will continue their minimum pay cuts of 20% until March 31st 2021 and will work full-time hours, as they have been doing unofficially since the whole organisation moved to reduced hours following closure.

There have been inaccurate reports regarding the Chief Executive’s pay. The CEO did not – and actually cannot, as has been suggested – grant herself a pay rise. The pay of senior leaders at SC is part of a formal governance process strictly overseen by the Remuneration Committee of the SC Board.   The CEO took a voluntary pay cut of 30% from March 2020, and will continue to do so until March 31st 2021. No senior executive at SC currently earns more than £150k p.a

SOS: We welcome any reductions that Southbank Centre executives, chief or senior, make to their six-figure salaries whilst their 400 colleagues lose their jobs and livelihoods and the arts centre remains closed. And we restate that according to Southbank Centre’s 18/19 annual report, the Chief Executive’s salary and bonus subject to tax totalled £240,750.

We understand that [Government grant] money can be used both for the purposes of redundancies and to ensure an organisation’s workforce remains diverse. 

SLT response, 4/8/2020: We intend that when we re-emerge from this crisis, we will have a diverse and talented workforce that properly reflects the communities we serve. We are waiting for more precise guidance on the Government loan application process.

SOS: The fact that Southbank Centre’s leadership are choosing to press ahead with this brutal programme of redundancies before they seem to have a clear understanding of whether they are eligible for a Government grant or loan suggests that they are using this crisis as an opportunity to carry out a cost-saving restructure. By making the majority of their staff redundant now they will be able to use the Government bailout – which it seems clear to us that they will receive – for something other than saving jobs or honouring their own redundancy policy.