An open letter warning that a planned restructure at the Southbank Centre will have a “disproportionate impact on BAME members of staff” and “undermine the integrity” of its cultural venues has been signed by more than 6,000 people.
The Southbank Centre, which comprises London arts venues including the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall, first confirmed 400 jobs were at risk in July, as part of “a comprehensive management action plan designed to stem the financial losses being incurred as a result of Covid-19".
According to the '#SouthbankSOS' letter, which was originally published on 31 July, plans to reduce the centre’s workforce by more than 60 per cent will “disproportionately affect the lowest-paid employees”.
“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,” the letter states.
A document allegedly passed to BAME members of staff in July suggested the proportion of black and Asian employees could be reduced by 6 per cent, the letter continues. It adds that senior management continued with the consultation programme “without taking into account the disproportionate impact on BAME staff.”
“The current representation of BAME staff (20 per cent) is already wrongfully low and does not reflect the wider population in its local borough of Lambeth (47.2 per cent) or London as a whole (40.8 per cent),” the letter states.
“These actions to reduce levels of BAME staff significantly contradict statements made by management both internally to the Southbank Centre staff and BAME group, and externally and publicly around Black Lives Matter.”
The letter also alleges that future operations of the Southbank Centre will be based on a “start-up” model, with 10 per cent of venue capacity allocated to the centre’s programme of contemporary art exhibitions, classical and contemporary music and literature events while 90 per cent of the space is "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),” the letter said.
“There has been no indication of how this business model could be reversed in future.”
In an open response to the letter published yesterday, the Southbank Centre said that the redundancy programme would be "be subject to an equality impact assessment." The Centre additionally refuted the claim that the organisation was changing the ratio of artistic content.
"The Southbank Centre is not changing the ratio of artistic content versus our non-artistic offering such as graduations and conferences. Over 80 per cent of everything in our venues will still be artistic programming as it was before we closed our doors," a spokesperson said in an email to Third Sector.
"What will change for the year 2021/22 only, is that the Southbank Centre will directly produce less of its own artistic work (10 per cent). The remaining 90% of arts activity will be provided, as before, by our residents, artistic partners and promoters. However, these will still be curated and selected by our artistic leaders."
The spokesperson continued: "The reason for doing this is that we can reduce our own financial risk by promoting fewer of our own events. The Southbank Centre exists to present great cultural experiences that bring people together - despite the challenges the pandemic has brought us, this will not change."
The #SouthbankSOS letter concludes by stating that 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” in the coming months.
“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,” it warns.
“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.”