In last week's Spectator magazine, Norman Lebrecht accused the Southbank Centre of being a ‘subsidy guzzler in need of privatisation’. Mr Lebrecht has, as he admits, spent the past 30 years complaining about it. Nothing, it seems, will shift his view.
I admit I'm biased, as the Southbank Centre's director of music. Yet I do think it is right to argue that the Southbank is a rare example in London of a true civic space: a social and artistic hub; a place where people can spend time without having to spend money; where they can work, meet up, sing in choirs, dance, discover fledgeling bands, visit the National Poetry Library, let their children play in a fountain designed by artists.
Far from making the halls of the Southbank 'a laughing stock', this vibrancy and openness are key to its attraction. Every year it draws millions of visitors and artists from around the globe. In a world that is presently grappling with the injustices and inequalities, is it not more vital than ever that places such as the Southbank demonstrate the ability of the arts to unite us all?
I feel bound to correct some of Mr Lebrecht’s more outlandish claims, too. Let’s start, as he does, with the money. The Southbank Centre receives £19.2 million per year from Arts Council England. But this does not, in his words, make it ‘the biggest subsidy guzzler in the country’. Even including the Arts Council grants to our four resident orchestras, we are well behind the Royal Opera House.
£10 million of the Southbank Centre’s subsidy is needed to run and maintain a 13-acre national heritage site which includes four venues, including the Grade I-listed Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery. The rest helps to support over 3,500 performances a year of which around four in ten are free to the public. We bring annual education programmes to 16,000 children and young people and also work with the disadvantaged and vulnerable.
The restaurants and bars to which Mr Lebrecht objects are part of a strategy of which I imagine he’d approve: a reduction of reliance on government subsidy. Our public funding is now only 37 per cent of our income yet our work has real and meaningful impact: a recent report found that the Southbank Centre directly adds around £42 million across the UK and if you include indirect visitor spend, £530 million in London and £440 million across the rest of the country. The ecosystem of the Southbank Centre also supports over 7,000 jobs in London’s cultural visitor economy.
The Southbank's board, contrary to Mr Lebrecht’s assertion, is not made up of ‘public worthies’, but such figures as violinist Nicola Benedetti and Venetia Butterfield, a publisher at Penguin – both of whom have helped guide a move towards earning more from what we need. The catastrophic loss of 63 per cent of our non-subsidy income during the Covid crisis is what makes the organisation vulnerable now.
Now let’s talk about the art. It’s hard to conceive that the likes of Grace Jones, Margaret Atwood, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Philip Glass, Vikingur Olafsson, Michelle Obama or the Chineke! Orchestra would want to perform in a hall that is the 'laughing stock' he describes, or that Bridget Riley, Anish Kapoor or Andreas Gursky would be associated with an artistic programme as second rate as Mr Lebrecht claims it is.
The Southbank has always been, and always will be – despite Mr Lebrecht's claims – for everybody. With luck, when the country emerges from this crisis, he will visit the Centre himself. He may find himself persuaded.