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Southbank Centre joins the call for urgent government action to save the UK cultural sector

By | Published on Tuesday 26 May 2020

Southbank Centre

London’s Southbank Centre is the latest UK arts organisation to call for urgent government support to help safeguard the country’s cultural sector as it navigates the COVID-19 shutdown. The venue complex says that ongoing measures to restrict the spread of the coronavirus means it risks being closed until at least April 2021, which will put “crippling financial pressure” on the charity that runs the centre.

In parts of Europe there are now dates in the calendar for allowing events of a certain size to resume, while some European festivals are still confident that they can go ahead with an albeit reworked version of their events in 2020. That said, the live industry is still working out if and how it can repurpose its venues, festivals and shows to accommodate any ongoing social distancing rules that maybe in effect. Quite what that involves will vary from country to country, and depending on the size and set-up of each venue.

The Southbank Centre, which has published a report on the impact of COVID-19 on its operations, says that if it were to re-open with capacity restrictions in place to enable social distancing – so, say, at 30% capacity – it would lose more money than staying closed. As it is, the charity expects to make a loss of at least £5 million by the end of the current financial year. Opening at 30% capacity would boost losses to £11 million.

Although it has made use of all the government support schemes since COVID-19 shutdown began, the Southbank says that keeping losses down to £5 million has required using up cash reserves and the rest of its annual grant from Arts Council England. It adds: “There will be a need to make some staff redundant and the organisation will cease to be a going concern before the end of the year if further urgent support is not secured”.

Among the demands being made by the Southbank Centre of the UK government is a commitment to extend the current furlough financing scheme beyond October for the cultural industries and to “develop a large scale intervention to support the arts sector as it navigates this crisis and which helps it survive and plan for the future”.

The Southbank’s CEO Elaine Bedell 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”, she goes on, “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”.

She concludes: “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 wellbeing 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”.

The UK government has set up a taskforce to consider the specific challenges of the cultural sector as it navigates its way out of COVID-19 shutdown. Music is part of that taskforce’s remit, even though ministers didn’t think to invite anyone from the music industry to join the committee. UK Music, meanwhile, has called for a specific taskforce just for music.