Southbank Centre warns it may have to stay closed until spring 2021

Mark Brown
Photograph: Rafael Ben-Ari/Alamy

The UK’s largest arts and cultural organisation, the Southbank Centre, has warned that it will have used up its financial reserves by September, forcing its closure until April 2021 unless it gets further government support.

The centre, which puts on more than 3,500 events every year and is home to eight orchestras, revealed details of the crippling financial pressures it is facing as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

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”.

The centre said: “There will be hardly any artistic activity throughout 2020/21, as to present anything like a normal range of events would have seen the losses rise to around £11m.” The venue would be able to host events with only a limited number of guests because of the restrictions necessitated by physical distancing.

The centre is the latest arts organisation to warn of the existential threat to Britain’s world-leading cultural sector, with theatre described as being “on the brink of total collapse.” The government last week announced a taskforce led by philanthropist Neil Mendoza to advise on how the sector can set out on the road to recovery.

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.

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“The fact that none of that is happening makes us vulnerable,” said Gillian Moore, the centre’s director of music.

All concert halls, theatres, opera and dance companies are trying to model a temporary future with physical distancing rules. Few have yet come up with anything that makes economic sense.

“There is work being done on the safety of musicians on stage such as how far you need to be away from the bell of a trombone to be safe,” said Moore. “The capacity of the Royal Festival Hall is 2,700 and we reckon with social distancing we get could just under 800 people in. The economics of that are horrific.”

The Southbank Centre is home to orchestras including the London Philharmonic; the Arts Council Collection; the National Poetry Library; and a venue for festivals such as Meltdown, Women of the World and the London literature festival.

It is calling on the government to:

• Extend the furlough scheme beyond October for the cultural sector.

• Develop a “large-scale intervention” to support the arts sector as it navigates the crisis.

• Support self-employed artists and musicians who do not qualify for the current financial support schemes.

The Southbank’s chief executive, Elaine Bedell, said the centre gets more than 4.45m visitors every year. “The Southbank Centre’s own history is traced directly to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Here, the postwar 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 a brighter future, throwing our doors wide open once more.”

Numerous arts leaders have described the “high jeopardy” the sector is in, calling for targeted government help. The playwright James Graham last week said on BBC One’s Question Time that a support package should be seen not as a bailout, but as an investment.

“The money we need to cover the shortfall until we can properly reopen open is almost instantly paid back in the annual tax revenue and the VAT. In London alone, tourists bring in £2bn of cash every year specifically for London theatre,” he said.

The arts sector plays an important part in the nation’s psychological health, spirit and morale, he said, but in order to do that, “it needs to be saved in the interim”.