Exclusive: Staff accuse London’s South Bank centre of structural racism

Exclusive: Staff accuse London’s South Bank centre of structural racism


norman lebrecht

June 24, 2020

When Creative director Madani Younis disappeared from the South Bank after less than a year, there were plenty who doubted the arts centre’s commitment to diversity. Madani went on to be appointed chief executive producer of New York’s Shed.

Now staff at the South Bank have leaked us a letter they have sent to their leadership, specifically to Elaine Bedell, Laura Popazzi, The Executive Team, The Hayward Management and Senior Management Team, The VE Management and Senior Management Team, the Ticketing and Membership Management and Senior Management Team and the Retail Management Team.

The staff state:

We are writing to start a conversation with you about structural racism within all institutions, and
within the Southbank Centre specifically.
We were pleased to receive your email on 4th June in which you expressed a desire to open the
channels of communication across all levels of the organisation in order to address current
issues faced by employees within the Southbank Centre, and push for change. We feel that now
is the right time to come together and begin that conversation with you. We hope this can be the
start of an open dialogue where we share ideas on how we can implement immediate, long term
and permanant anti-racist strategy and protocol.
In this letter, we will highlight some of the concerns that have been raised by staff in relation to
racial discrimination institutional and structural racism. We will also set out a list of key areas
that we as employees feel need to change. However, this list is by no means exhaustive, it is
only a starting point. We hope that you will take the time to read our suggestions and concerns,
and that together we can create change within our organisation and lead by example within the
arts industry.
Sharing messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media platforms,
although an important show of solidarity, is meaningless if not backed by action. We are worried
that these posts are examples of optical allyship and we want to ensure that this will not be the
case at the Southbank Centre.
A key element of the Southbank Centre’s ethos is diversity and inclusion, however, there are
cases in which these words are not being put into action internally, and are only used to tick
Firstly we would like to bring to your attention some key points that were raised by staff across
all our venues: the Hayward Hosts, the Visitor Experience Team, the Ticketing and Membership
Team and the Retail Team.
Across all venues:
● The lack of People of Colour in positions of power and higher income positions within the
organisation. This is a stark difference to our front of house VE teams. We feel the image
of the Southbank Centre community that we are presenting to the public is not reflected
within the teams higher up in the organisation. For example, the Hayward Gallery has an
all-white managerial team and there are no Black staff with full time positions in the
curatorial team. Having no or few People of Colour in these roles sends an implicit
message that this is not an accessible career progression for BAME employees of the
Southbank Centre.
● There is very little opportunity for career progression. The opportunity for extra training
and to move up within the organisation is often mentioned as a positive part of working
for the Southbank Centre, however, we are concerned that these opportunities are rarely
made available to those whose roles are lower paid positions. As we have stated there is
a much higher percentage of People of Colour in these teams and therefore this is an
area where the Southbank centre does not support and actively hinders People of
● Minoritised people are treated as a homogeneous group. There is not equal
representation across artistic programming and in higher-paid positions. For example
Asian people are more likely to be hired in higher-paying roles at the Southbank Centre
when Black people are not equally represented or supported. This is not diverse and
inclusive and hints at a ‘tick box’ mentality.
● During the year that the Southbank Centre programmed Black centred events like Africa
Utopia, Alchemy was cancelled and was not replaced with any South Asian focussed
programming. It should not be one or the other.
● Senior management and executive teams are not required to complete a comprehensive
level of diversity training. As employees who are predominantly in front of house
positions, we are expected to complete diversity training. We expect as a minimum that
this is compulsory for all staff at the Southbank Centre and would hope that our
managers and executive teams would be engaging in even more in-depth and detailed
diversity training so that they can better support People of Colour within their teams and
be a part of making the Southbank Centre an actively anti-racist institution. Currently,
instances of racist abuse between colleagues and from the public have not been dealt
with by managers in any meaningful way. Employees have felt that they have been
ignored or gaslighted when bringing the issue to their managers. This could be avoided if
the correct training was in place.
● Diversity training that is in place is minimal and does not aim to truly educate people.
This training focuses on inclusion, there is no investment in anti – racist education and no
attempt to eradicate unconscious bias.
● Development opportunities are not accessible at the Southbank Centre. People of
Colour are less likely to make it past the selection stages for these opportunities. These
selection processes are flawed and actively hinder the career progression of BAME
● There is a lack of mental health support specifically for racial issues. Due to many of the
factors stated in this letter, BAME employees do not feel comfortable going through the
current system of management or the wellbeing team to ask for support. We recognise
that efforts have been made to put these support networks in place, but all initiatives
have been ineffective so far, and like many initiatives across the site, have been
supported as an idea but not as an action.
● The security team, catering team and cleaning team at the Southbank Centre are not
employed in-house but through agencies. The agency used for our security teams, as
with many businesses, has faced difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result
of this, security staff, many of whom have been working for the Southbank Centre for
many years, may face redundancies. These job losses would disproportionately affect
People of Colour.
● Initiatives like the mental health network and the recently introduced BAME network do
not effectively create safe spaces and support People of Colour within our organisation.
Run by managers and HR, these groups underline the problematic hierarchical order
that permeates the Southbank Centre. It is a concern that the current systems in place to
support BAME employees can feel like a tool for surveillance and control rather than
empowerment. This lack of support negatively affects the mental and physical health of
these employees.
● There were several comments in response to the Southbank Centre’s “Blackout
Tuesday” Instagram post, from employees and ex-employees that mention having to
work on shows that contained racist content. Shows and events that were programmed
by the Southbank Centre or allowed to hire space at the Southbank Centre. You need to
review your programming practice to ensure that such events never return to the
Southbank Centre and offer apologies to all staff who had to experience working on such
events. Especially those who raised the issue with management and were ignored.
● The Diversity and inclusion Manager at the Southbank Centre is white.
Hayward Gallery:
● Tour Guiding is in our contracts as Hayward Hosts as a key element of our role. In
practice, it is presented as a development opportunity, open to all who want to engage
with it. However, there have been instances in which BAME members of the host team
have expressed a keen interest and enthusiasm for the role only to be turned away, with
no support or training offered to help develop skills for future tour guiding opportunities.
Including instances when the host has valuable, lived experience that is directly relevant
to the artist and exhibition.
● In 2019 a Black member of the host team lost their job due to absence. Their absence
was related to ongoing health issues that management was aware of. Previously, a white
host received an extension to their probation after significant absence due to health, but
the same support was not offered to the Black host.
● Across our exhibitions, many of which boast over 30 artists, the representation of Black
artists is minimal. This lack of support for Black artists is not only a direct contradiction of
the Southbank Centre’s diverse ethos, but is also detrimental to Black employees.
● There was no extra training given to staff in relation to the Kader Attia exhibition. This
exhibition was centred on colonialism and specifically healing from its effects. The
Southbank Centre is a significant cultural venue in the UK which has an extensive
colonial history, with this in mind staff should have been equipped with research and
knowledge through mandatory paid training. This lack of training left many staff members
feeling unprepared when speaking with visitors about the themes of the work, this was a
missed opportunity for the Southbank Centre to educate staff and subsequently visitors
about the topic. 

There is more, much more, but this ought to set the ball rolling. Maybe even a few heads.

The complaints are absolutely valid. There is no trace of diversity in the leadership of the public-funded South Bank.



  • Anon says:

    Good for these employees coming together to make a statement. These action items are really concrete, and other organizations should be aware that a lot of these requests probably apply to them too…

  • AngloGerman says:

    The quest for ‘diversity’ through equality of outcome rather than opportunity is the death of modern society.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Dr. Jordan Peterson has spoken at length about this and says equality of outcomes probably represents the demarcation line of the Left going to the extremes, just as white supremacy is the demarcation line of the Right going to extremes. But only one side of this political paradigm claims virtue.

      Equality of outcomes is anathema to talent, intelligence, initiative, entrepreneurialism, leadership, wealth creation…you name it.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      True, as long as it’s understood that equality of opportunity must be established at the earliest stages of childhood: equality of access to medical care and nutrition, equal quality of education (I don’t know about the UK, but in the US the quality of public education depends strongly on the economic level of the locality), and so on. Other inequalities of opportunity have been “baked in” for generations and must also be addressed.

  • papasmurf says:

    although diversity is laudable, quality is desirable and no ethnicity can automatically deliver that. the two need to work in tandem with one another.

  • Adrienne says:

    Wow! I knew that parts of the South Bank resembled Hitler’s bunker, but I didn’t realise that it also shared the same ethos. Must be Hell.

    Meanwhile, three gay men murdered in Reading. Virtual silence …………

    • marcus mauger says:

      Just to clarify, you are, in fact, drawing an exact parallel between the South Bank management and the National Socialist party? It’s been awhile since i was down their in person but I must have missed the concentration camps and gas chambers. Jeez….think you need to lose a few wraps on your tin foil hat.

      • V.Lind says:

        @ Marcus Mauger: I think you have badly misread the post.

        @ Adrienne: You are entirely right. Those in favour of “diversity” had better wake up to the fact that their bending over backward to make sure they are not accused of one prevalent phobia are ignoring a rather wide swathe of sins against others they should, by definition, be supporting. Reading can now join Rochdale.

        • marcus says:

          That’s possible, but the Adrienne says in plain terms that the South bank management “Shares the same ethos” as Hitler? Tell me where I have that wrong?

          • Adrienne says:

            And you seriously believe it was intended to be taken literally?

          • Larry D says:

            So like Trump, you were “using sarcasm” or “just joking”? I suggest you find better role models for your dubious sense of humor.

          • marcus says:

            Oddly enough, yes since all any of us has to go on in forums such as this is the words people write, as opposed to telepathic intuition.

          • V.Lind says:

            She says “parts of the South Bank resemble Hitler’s bunker.” I assume this is a comment on its physical appearance. I consider it an unfortunate and even silly remark, and I think comparisons to Hitler’s Germany should always be avoided, as they are always imprecise and often offensive.

            What follows is a grammatical construction many of us use: ” “I hadn’t realised that…”. It is mostly used to suggest a point, often exaggerated, which is how I read it here. I interpreted it as her response to comments that suggested the South Bank was racist, in the blog post and below. It implies that she does not think it is.

          • Robin Smith says:

            She’s referring to the physical resemblance of the buildings/architecture/structures.

          • NYMike says:

            My late British professional musician friend used to refer to the SBC as ’60s brutalism. He played in the LSO, BBCSO and did commercial playing.

      • Alan says:

        Chill. Adrienne still makes valid points.

        • marcus says:

          I am perfectly “chilled” as you put it, and she may well make valid points, but these points are not served by ridiculous hyperbole. Nazi’s indeed!? If one were of a sensitive disposition one might find that a disgraceful conflation, to say the least of it.

          • Adrienne says:

            Huge inconsistency between what appears to be acceptable, and what doesn’t.

            People getting worked up over a slave trader who was born in 1636, but references to a regime which rampaged over my parents’ adopted country, and would have regarded them as ‘degenerate’, are discouraged.

            We’ve been hearing quite a lot about alleged Nazis and fascists recently, so make your mind up.

            And still no mention of Reading.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s all on the same continuum; one thing easily leads to another. You need to remember that national socialism was enthusiastically endorsed by the middle and intellectual classes.

        But you’d have to know a bit about history and human behaviour to get any understanding of it.

  • Peter says:

    “We feel that now is the right time to come together and begin that conversation with you.”

    I believe this is going to be very much a one-way monologue from the ever-angry BLM narcissists.

  • John Rook says:

    Box ticking is clearly the fast track to paradise.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I wonder if Box Ticking will be put on the syllabus at the Royal College of Music? The percussion section, perhaps, could provide some guidance.

  • V.Lind says:

    The Southbank Centre is a significant cultural venue in the UK which has an extensive colonial history…

    What colonial history does the Southbank Centre have? I thought it was invented in the 1950s.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Isn’t this identity politics just absolutely ghastly!!

    Seems the management needs a ‘re-education’ program – possibly in some Siberian gulag, along with everybody else who needs ‘re-education’. They can surely appoint Monitors to make sure every demand is followed to the letter of the law. Like the lists in “The Mikado” and the old gulags for offenders, the increase in petty officialdom invites parody. Alas, Gilbert and Sullivan aren’t here and the people have lost their sense of humour anyway.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    ‘No trace of diversity in the leadership…”. I’m betting that’s diversity of thought.

  • Karl says:

    The entire COUNTRY of Canada has admitted to having structural racism.

    “Systemic racism exists in all institutions, including RCMP: Trudeau”

    Maybe it originated in Canada? Blame Canada? One of my favorite South Parks songs. Might make a good opera.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Activism channelled into an arts establishment CO-VOID.

  • Anon says:

    Isn’t it all white women? I think Jude Kelly said as much in the Grauniad when she left, having succeeded in turning it into a feminist institution. I imagine all the BAME are relegated to the front of house, security and cleaners.

  • christopher storey says:

    ” Minoritised people are treated as a homogeneous group. There is not equal
    representation across artistic programming and in higher-paid positions. For example
    Asian people are more likely to be hired in higher-paying roles at the Southbank Centre
    when Black people are not equally represented or supported. This is not diverse and
    inclusive and hints at a ‘tick box’ mentality.”

    This is self-contradictory drivel: if Asian people are preferred to Black people then minoritised ( sic!) people are NOT being treated as a homogeneous group

  • Bone says:

    Speaking of tick box mentality:

    ● The Diversity and inclusion Manager at the Southbank Centre is white.
    Diversity is not being sought; exclusion of one race is the only goal for those who claim to seek “equality.”

    • Anon2 says:

      Notice “Black” and even “People of Colour” are capitalized whilst “white” is not. This is no oversight.

      • Your American Cousin says:

        Yes – the poor downtrodden whites. Can’t even get a capital W. Life is so unfair.

  • Your American Cousin says:

    Wow. I have been surprised to encounter so much blatant racism and closed-mindedness in this forum. It is sometimes an undercurrent in other articles, but in this series of comments it is quite pronounced.