In the face of mounting criticism of its handling of the coronavirus crisis, the management team said it was “keenly aware of the distress felt by staff” but defended its actions and called some criticism “inaccurate and misleading “.
Southbank’s planned layoffs were the subject of protests last week, with employees arguing that ethnic minority staff and people with disabilities will be the most affected by the “brutal layoffs”.
More than 6,500 current and former employees have now signed a letter detailing what they see as a “crisis” within the organization, criticizing Southbank’s executive leadership, financial management and the impact of job losses on diversity – a move they say contradicts his public comments on Black Lives Matter.
“While other institutions look forward to celebrating the return of art, artists and audiences, the Southbank Center appears to have set a course that will fundamentally fail our audience, the artists we work with and our hand. -work, and will do irrevocable damage to the future of the center, ”says the letter, organized by a group called Save our Southbank.
The open letter raises concerns about diversity within the organization, saying management is pursuing layoffs without considering “the disproportionate impact on BAME staff”, and asserts that forming a network of Black, Asian and minority staff last year were “met with resistance from senior management, with attempts to disband”.
Responding in a broad rebuttal to the letter, Southbank said the allegation regarding the staff network was “not true” and management had “been unable to find out what informed this statement”.
The letter criticizing the Southbank Center also argues that workers should not bear the brunt of “historic financial neglect and mismanagement” through staff cuts.
A recent Southbank submission to a parliamentary inquiry into Covid-19 highlighted its historic ‘crippling’ financial debts of around £ 21million, generated from loans taken out for the management and renovation of the site, which it asked the government to help with the compensation.
Responding to the allegation of financial mismanagement, the center said its commercial income from bars and restaurants had been successful in managing this debt until the crisis, but said: “Ironically, that now means we have been hardest hit by the pandemic, since those business revenues evaporated. with the closure of our site. ”
The Save our Southbank letter also claims that there is a lack of creative leadership within the organization, with no overall art director since Jude Kelly left in 2018 and no creative director since Madani Younis stepped down in October 2019, after less than a year at the post. .
“We believe that the board’s focus on finances rather than the artistic program is not simply a circumstantial response to the coronavirus crisis, but the culmination of an approach that has left the organization devoid of creative vision and leadership at the top, ”he said.
The letter’s further claims that chief executive Elaine Bedell “increased her annual salary” by 24% last year – to £ 240,750 – were vigorously dismissed.
In its response, the center said: “The CEO has not given himself – and cannot, as has been suggested – give himself a raise … No senior manager at the Southbank Center currently earns more than £ 150,000 per year. ”
The statement added that Bedell had agreed to a 30% pay cut – not 20% as the letter claims – until March 2021, with other top executives taking a cut of at least 20% and continuing. to work full time.
It also refutes the suggestion that only 10% of Southbank’s spaces will be used for artistic events, 90% of which will be “for rent”, as part of a restructuring of its entire operation.
The Southbank said this represented a “fundamental misunderstanding” of its position and promised that “almost 80% of everything in our theaters will be artistic in the future”.
However, he acknowledged that by 2021/22, he would be producing less of his own artist work, with around 10% produced in-house and 90% of art activities presented as received works.
“Southbank Center exists to present great cultural experiences that bring people together. This will not change and we continue to do everything in our power to make sure that we can get back to doing what we do best as soon as possible, ”he said.
Read the letter in full here, and Southbank’s full response here.