London’s South Bank may go bust

London’s South Bank may go bust


norman lebrecht

May 25, 2020

The arts centre, which is the biggest single recipient of Arts Council funding, warned this morning that it faced a £5 million deficit, has run out of reserve, and may need to shutter its buildings up to and beyond April 2021.

What the Centre’s staff may regard as a disaster many would view as a gleaming opportunity.

The site is widely unloved among users, having relegated its core purpose of presenting classical music to a marginal activity.

This is the time for ACE to pull the plug and offer the South Bank on a public tender to private promoters. They cannot do worse than the SBC governors and administrators have done over the past 20 years.

Free the South Bank. It’s about time.

Here’s what the present (largely blameless) CEO has to say:

Elaine Bedell, Chief Executive, Southbank Centre, says:

“It is with an incredibly heavy heart that we today share further details about the future of the Southbank Centre. We know we are not alone in this and stand with our friends, partners, and colleagues – both here in the UK and abroad – during this time of unprecedented challenge.

With eight orchestras, the National Poetry Library, and Arts Council Collection all calling us home, and playing host to over 4.45 million visitors each year, we’re doing all we can to safeguard the Southbank Centre we currently know and love for the years ahead. However, this crisis has hit hard, and we join a number of other organisations and venues in sounding the alarm about the long-term health of UK arts and culture.

The Southbank Centre’s own history is traced directly to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Here, the post-war government recognised how vital arts and culture were to the health and well-being of a traumatised nation. Just as the South Bank was a focal point of social and economic recovery then, we hope that we’ll emerge from this crisis to an even brighter future, throwing our doors wide open once more.”


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I think that it will be a good thing for London to have a new concert hall. When the London Symphony moves into that hall the other orchestras can share the Barbican. It seems the South Bank Centre is a lost cause (even though it is rather scenic and I myself have some degree of affection for that place). My only reservation in relation to new halls is that they tend not to install an Organ into the main hall these days, which is a pity. At least there is an Organ in the Royal Festival Hall, but I have not noticed one in the Barbican. The most majestic of all instruments is neglected in today’s concert halls.

    • George Morton says:

      Get a grip! You really think that if the SB goes under there’s the remotest possibility of a new concert hall in London? The SB is a bastion of the arts in London, supporting SO many musicians and creatives who work and perform there. It would be a disaster if they have to remain closed until April.
      To seemingly celebrate this (and the potential loss of thousands of jobs and livelihoods) is appalling, I can only presume that you, like Lebrecht, aren’t a musician or aren’t make a living from the arts in any way (apart from, in Lebrecht’s case, spouting off about it).

      • Jan Kaznowski says:

        “It said it was forecasting a best-case scenario of a £5m loss by the end of the 2020/21 financial year. In getting there, it will have used up all its reserves, taken £4m from the government’s furlough scheme, and spent its £19.2m annual grant from Arts Council England “to effectively mothball the buildings”.”

      • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

        the 37% is interesting
        “The Southbank Centre gets about 37% of its income from subsidy. The rest is earned from ticket sales, bar, cafe and restaurant income, and money from events such as conferences and graduations.”

        • Ron Swanson says:

          60/40 split is about average for subsidy recipients. I think the RSC is the only big name where its 40/60. That’s mostly money from rights to Les Miserables,

  • Brian says:

    It needs knocking down and build a new concert hall.

  • Rustier spoon says:

    It’s a nightmare of a hall to work in as a musician…a noisy crèche, refuge for the homeless and expensive Internet cafe.

    • Appreciative says:

      Actually it’s not a bad place to work at all. The acoustic is fine once you get used to it and the facilities are better than most. It’s above ground and the location is fantastic. Not perfect, perhaps, but not a nightmare certainly. As for the homeless, no professional musician would ever begrudge them shelter, especially now. There but for the grace..

      • Rustier spoon says:

        You’re evidently not a double bass player who has been working there for the last 35 years!!!

        • Appreciative says:

          No, but I am a violinist who has been working there constantly for 30 years. Where else would you prefer to play in London? Air or AR1 doesn’t count..

  • Delbert says:

    I have been attending the SB centre for over twenty years.

    Aside from the architectural calamity (women queing for toilets, and watching men standing at urinals every time the men’s toilet door opens….(just one example but there are SOOOOO many…) the actual customer service is the WORST in Christendom.

    The rude, arrogant, evasive, unaccountable, inefficient, and utter useless staff (including box office staff) heartily deserve to have to fight for a living in an accountable modern commerical world.

    I recall with anger, being moved on with threats of calling the police if I didn’t comply, simply for sitting on edge of the fanned steps leading down to the public stage area opposite the main bar on the ground level. The hall was largely empty and I was just reading a newspaper waiting for someone. She literally had nothing better to do than threaten to call the police on someone reading a newspaper…..

    They tried to cheat me out of vouchers for cancelled concerts too.

    Good riddance to bad rubbish, in a crumby building, staffed by small-minded jobsworths.

    • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

      Well if you’ve been going for 20 years then probably nostalgia should be factored into your opinions. It ‘s become a bit of a shopping mal these last few years.
      ANyway – I’ve been going twice long as you and don’t share your opinions.

    • Brian viner says:

      I agree it sad because it is in a nice position near the thames.

    • Brian viner says:

      I agree i have been to concert halls abroad that have been refurbished and they
      Do a good job. They spent money on the festival hall and it was still looking
      Like a rubbish tip. All they did was put in restaurants and souvenir shops
      Which we do not need. It is a pity because it is in a nice spot

      • Brian viner says:

        I received an email requesting a donation. since age 12 i have spent a small
        Fortune on tickets for festival hall concerts iam nearly 80 i feel they have
        Had enough of my Money that i had to work is appalling the way the
        Building has been run down.

  • Robert Roy says:

    Since His Royal Highness, Prince Charles has been been expressing his concern for ‘The Arts’, wouldn’t this be a good point in history for him to reach into his pockets and provide some much needed support for, amongst other organisations, The ROYAL Festival Hall or The ROYAL Opera House or The ROYAL Shakespeare Company?

    I live in hope!

  • Nick says:

    Problem is only 17%* of regular attendees will risk returning to SBC (or any other performance venue) for the foreseeable future – i.e. until there is an 100% effective vaccine (which is unlikely) – what is known as herd instinct (hysteria)…
    *according to results from a questionnaire sent to us by the various orchestras, opera houses & theatres funded by ACE

    • geoff says:

      Yes, Nick, It all depends on attendance. It looks very bleak until an effective vaccine is here, maybe 1, maybe 2, maybe 3 years, maybe never.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Very sad when you think of all the greats who have performed there.
    Thank you China !

  • Christopher Sears says:

    This would be unthinkable in Germany where the government values the arts.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Generous government subsidization is necessary for the viability of many of these venues and orchestras. ‘Twas ever thus and ever thus will be.

    Subsidization will be dependent upon prevailing economic conditions – and these are perilous at best at the moment – and it’s worthwhile remembering that the ‘arts’ cohort is always opposed to conservative governments and shouting abuse at them is hardly likely to garner support.

    A simple matter of knowing on exactly which side your bread is buttered. Political partisanship never does the arts any favours. Being intelligent and fair is always better.

  • Stephen Diviani says:

    ‘Unloved by users’, the SBC going bust because of the Covid-19 lockdown is a ‘golden opportunity’, ‘free the Southbank’ (did NL get that slogan from Dominic Do-As-Say-Not-As-I-Do Cummings?), ‘offer the South Bank on a public tender to private promoters’. It is rather sickening to read somebody celebrating a catastrophe.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      It is rather sickening to read such kneejerk stupidity. I have reported the South Bank’s decline for more than 30 years. It is the country’s biggest subsidy guzzler, steadilyr reducing corfe classical content in favour of becoming a fast-food mall. I have argued for decades for a revamp. Now is the time.

      • Stephen Diviani says:

        Now is NOT the time. The SBC is one of the most vibrant & used, cultural centres in the UK, open seven days a week, its foyers open to all, offering a huge range of arts events, many attended by young audiences, in a beautiful setting, easily accessed by public transport: recently I’ve been to a wonderful performance of ‘Siegfried’ (LPO, under Jurowski & am looking forward to the entire Ring Cycle next year), a literary/political event with the Nobel Prize winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, a reading by the acclaimed poet Anne Carson, a staged musical, ‘The Light in the Piazza’, staring Renée Fleming, and two fantastic children’s events in the Clore Ballroom and, lastly, a gay literary ‘salon’, Polari, with the novelist Philip Hensher. All of these events were full. To suggest that the RFH is ‘becoming a fast-food mall’ is a grotesque untruth. The SBC & the RFH are national assets of which we should all be proud!

        • Stephen Diviani says:

          And the RFH was never intended as an arts centre only for classical music. That is why the LCC architects designed a ballroom as part of its public space – now named the Clore Ballroom – in which, from 1951 weekly dances were held.

      • Joseph Turner says:

        Get you facts straight – “It is the country’s biggest subsidy guzzler”. According to ACE’s 2018-22 NPO round, you will find the Royal Opera House tops the list. Please do your research properly before you vomit utter drivel.

  • Stephen Diviani says:

    Oh, I forgot. I also attended two performances in the ‘Ligeti in Wonderland’ season, a celebration of György Ligeti’s work.

  • Hilary says:

    It’s an architectural gem and I love it.

    The street food market on the Waterloo side is really vibrant but ditch much of the rest which in some cases is a testimony to how little this country cherishes serious art and how therecare lacunae in the education system. Take the bookshop and it’s diminutive music section.
    A comparison with the bookshop in the Philharmonie/ Berlin is instructive.

    • Brian viner says:

      They had a nice cd shop i bought some wonderful box sets. Great conductors
      And jazz legends complete with a detailed booklet 2cds only £2 each
      Christmas every day. They say don’t look back i do.

  • engineers_unite says:

    The “trauma” is mass hysteria.

    The “nation” as such does not exist, it’s a fiction invented just opposite in that scruffy building with a big clock at one end.