VISION THROUGH THE PRISM OF ARTS AND CULTURE. Elaine Bedell has been the Chief Executive of the UK’s largest arts centre, London’s Southbank Centre, since 2017. She has extensive experience as a leader in the creative industries. She was a Trustee of the V&A, is on the Council of Creative UK (which represents the UK’s creative industries) and is a Trustee of The Yard theatre in East London. Previously Elaine worked in senior roles in television. She was Controller of Entertainment at the BBC, moving across to ITV as Director of Entertainment and Comedy in 2009. Elaine has won a BAFTA and a British Comedy Award, and served as Executive Chair of the Edinburgh International TV Festival for four years.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Elaine Bedell, please explain what Southbank Centre is?
We are a creative hub. My career is steeped in the creative industries, and the wonderful thing about Southbank Centre is that it embraces so many different things. I look after 11 acres along the River Thames in the centre of London, all of it public realm, including the Royal Festival Hall, the beautiful postmodern building that is a relic of the 1951 Festival of Britain. There is also the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, and two other concert halls of smaller size; and we look after the Hayward Gallery, one of the UK’s leading contemporary art galleries. We have other performance spaces as well, including an outdoor stage in the summer. I also look after 14 retail units, including restaurants and bars. We work closely with a number of partners, resident and associate artists and orchestras. It is a cultural ecosystem.
How many people come to Southbank Centre in a year?
We have 4 million ticket buyers through the doors, but the footfall across the sites is much more, about 30 million. We are the fifth most visited attraction in the UK. We are absolutely magnets for visitors to London and so need a broad and inclusive programme of activity and work that embraces them all. It is a fantastic provision of open public space. We open our doors at 10 in the morning and do not close them until after the final event at night.
“There is no substitute for the live event.”
The front of the Royal Festival Hall and the Riverside Terrace. Photo Credit: Johnny Ladd
Elaine Bedell, how many people work for you?
We have about 500 staff at Southbank Centre that sit underneath me. The National Theatre does not come under me, but the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Festival Hall and the others sit under me. Mark Ball looks after the artistic program as a whole, and Ralph Rugoff, one of the world’s leading specialists in contemporary art, is director of the Hayward Gallery. We have a very dynamic director of music and a director of performance and dance. Each of the art forms has their specialists. I also look after the commercial side of the business, so I rather deliciously sit across all of it, but with this really expert executive leadership team who work with me to devise the strategy and the long term vision for the entire site.
Do you receive financial support from the government?
We do, and it amounts to about 30% of our income for which we’re very grateful. The rest we generate ourselves through philanthropy, through ticket sales, through working with commercial partnerships in delivering projects. It’s a very interesting and entrepreneurial model of both public and private financing.
How do you construct your programmes?
In music, for example, we have three concert halls: large, medium sized and small. We do contemporary music gigs, and every June we have the longest running artist-curated music festival in London called Meltdown. We have six resident orchestras: two symphony orchestras, some chamber orchestras and the wonderful Chineke! Orchestra, the UK’s only black and diverse led orchestra. The Royal Festival Hall is one of the world’s greatest concert halls, so we are able to pick the very best world class performers to come in and perform. Igor Stravinsky conducted in the Royal Festival Hall. Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, David Bowie… every great music star both classical and contemporary has performed there.
Is music very alive today?
Most people listen to music, and all of us noticed in the pandemic how much we missed the opportunity to come together and experience live music in congregation. There is no substitute for the live event. This is what my entire career has been focused on, and Southbank gives us these amazing platforms. I’m very glad to say people have come back to Southbank in great numbers to experience that again.
Do many young people come?
Yes, the Southbank is known for its very diverse, very young audiences because we do such an incredible range of events. We’ve recently created Southbank Centre Studio to use the Purcell Room, our smallest music space, in a very different way. We offer it to artists who are just at the cusp of their burgeoning careers to spend some time collaborating with other artists, producing new work, but just simply providing them that space to experiment and then to perform the work that emerges. That has very much attracted a young audience.
“We are nurturing the poets of tomorrow.”
Elaine Bedell, do you follow the trends of different music from around the world?
We have the luxury of spaces that allow us both to present artists who are at the beginnings of their career as well as bring in artists who already well established. Just after Space Oddity, David Bowie first ever performed live at Southbank Centre in our smallest space with only 200 seats. He came back when he was a very well-established and world famous artist. We create trends and we also establish and reflect them, and we’re a platform for international artists. We recently had the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble playing here, which is Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s moving initiative to bring Israeli and Palestinian musicians together on one stage. We had Alice Ripoli’s Brazilian dance troupe’s extraordinary performance over three nights in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Chineke! orchestra was established at Southbank eight years ago when we provided a very innovative platform for an orchestra where there were only black and ethnically diverse people playing music that was written by black and ethnically diverse composers. Now many other orchestras are playing that music, but before Chineke! they weren’t. That absolutely caused a sea change.
Why are you not also in charge of the National Theatre?
It is independently funded, an organisation in its own right who we work closely with. We do performance and dance, so we have done Circus Christmas. Until January 2024 the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz ensemble that, again, was formed at Southbank Centre, perform a jazz version of Nutcracker having reinterpreted the Tchaikovsky score. We present a number of family shows that are performance driven.
Is the Hayward Gallery still one of the UK’s leading contemporary art galleries?
Yes, we have no standing collection or exhibitions but we have three or four different exhibitions a year. At the moment we have the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, a very serene, peaceful and beautiful exhibition. And, again, we present a range of global artists in that space. The next exhibition in the Hayward is a group sculpture exhibition called The Life of Forms. It is about flux and flow in sculpture, and that will be a very contrasting exhibition to the solo artist photography exhibition that we’ve got at the moment. Next year we have a South Korean artist doing a solo exhibition, as well as an American New York artist.
Do these exhibitions compete with events at the quite nearby Tate Modern?
The arts sector in the UK all work quite closely together. There’s a lot of liaison between the galleries and clearly that makes sense. Sustainability is pulling everybody together to think about how we might work better together, to make sure that we bring works of art into the country in a sustainable way. A huge amount of expertise goes into the mounting of art exhibitions. When we curate an exhibition we talk to a number of international art galleries about putting together a tour for that exhibition. Once it finishes at the Hayward Gallery it moves on to another art gallery in Europe, making the whole business of producing the exhibition and promoting the artist much more efficient.
What kind of public comes to the art exhibitions?
Frankly, it depends on the artist and the type of exhibition. If we have an artist from South Korea we expect quite a lot of the South Korean diaspora to come. Over the summer we had an exhibition that spoke to climate activism and climate change, and artists’ interpretations of how we could bring a positive attitude to thinking about activism. The Hayward Gallery has always attracted a young audience precisely because of the nature of its exhibitions.
What is the National Poetry Library that you house here?
Established by T.S. Eliot, it is the nation’s collection of poetry; so every poem that’s ever been written. It’s inside the Royal Festival Hall on the top floor, and has a very healthy membership. It has a range of collections, but also provides some small study spaces that can be used by people who wish to study or write poetry. We have a number of events, and we’ve set up a New Poets Collective where we are inviting young poets to come together for a mentoring program. We are nurturing the poets of tomorrow. Out-Spoken is an incredibly well attended monthly event where we celebrate poetry in all its forms. We have Poetry International, where we invite renowned poets to come and read their work – or each other’s work in some cases. Poetry has had a real renaissance. We have definitely noticed an increase in popularity of poetry.
Do you have a large online activity?
We are more of a physical library. We are digitising the collection quite slowly and methodically, and we raise finance to do that. It’s mainly a reference library, but we also have an area outside the poetry library which is specifically for families with small children, and that is very popular and well used.
Delayed two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Meltdown festival’s 27th edition was undoubtedly worth the wait; bookended by headline sets from Grace Jones herself. In between audiences were slaves to the rhythm of international stars, including Peaches, Skunk Anansie, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo. Grace Jones performs at the Meltdown-Festival. 10/06/22. Photo: Pete Woodhead
Dance company Cia Suave and Alice Ripoll present Zona Franca, a vibrantly political and poetic experience, connecting eclectic Brazilian dance styles. © Renato Mangolin
Paraorchestra is an integrated orchestra of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians – the first ever orchestra of its kind in the United Kingdom. Here Paraorchestra are seen playing in the Clore Ballroom at Southbank Centre.
Chineke! Orchestra is a British orchestra, the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of majority Black & ethnically diverse musicians. Seen here in November 2019
The National Poetry Library is a free public collection housed at Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre. Situated on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, overlooking the river Thames, the library aims to hold all contemporary UK poetry publications since 1912.
Louise Bourgeois – Schools Takeover Day – 29/03/22 exploring the Hayward Gallery exhibition Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child. Photo: Pete Woodhead
“It’s really important to us that we still retain that sense of permeability and access and inclusiveness.”
Elaine Bedell, what is your impression of Southbank Centre over the years?
The wonderful thing about Southbank Centre is that it grew from this incredibly important idea which the government had when London had emerged from five years of war and the nation was on its knees. This bit of South London had suffered very badly from bombing but even though there was a requirement for housing, for jobs, and for industry to be restored, the government realised that creating a festival where the future would be looked at through the prism of arts and culture would restore the nation’s health and wellbeing. The 1951 Festival of Britain was an extraordinary intervention by a government, and we grew from that. The Royal Festival Hall is the only remaining building from that festival but my leadership strategy is based on the principles of the contribution of arts and culture, to think through what the future looks like, to have those discussions, to inspire a nation to restore well-being, to bring communities together, to encourage fledgling artists to be an engine of creativity. It is a very important story of public investment that since 1951 has gradually created this incredibly vibrant creative hub.
Is your funding steady?
Southbank Centre’s public funding has declined in real terms since 2010. We were very grateful for the government’s Culture Recovery Fund which saw us through the pandemic, but we then got a 10% cut in our three year grant. Public finances are very challenged in this country, but the return that we bring for every public pound that we receive is extraordinary.
Why is the government now providing less money?
I can’t speak for the government. All I can do is consistently urge the case for the importance and the value and the return. You only have to think back to Southbank from 1951 onwards to see what an incredible difference public funding and public investment can make.
Do you do fundraising?
Philanthropy is a really important part of what we do. Clearly the money that we get from the government is not everything that we need, and we are incredibly grateful to our donors and are constantly looking for new sources of philanthropy and new ways of funding. Sometimes that’s through visual arts, sometimes through music, and sometimes that is just funding for the principle of what Southbank is doing. This idea that it provides this very democratic, inclusive space that covers all art forms and provides this very valuable public space that is open for anybody to use and all community groups.
The architecture of Southbank is not everyone’s cup of tea?
The Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery are brutalist. They’re extraordinary buildings. I personally love them, but of course they are not without their critics. We did a period of restoration when I arrived and we work very closely with all our colleagues in the heritage sectors to make sure that everything that we intend to do is going to be received properly and, more important, that we are preserving the original idea of those buildings. The thing we have to remember about the architecture, both in 1951 and in the 60s with the brutalist architecture, was that it was incredibly radical. The idea of the Royal Festival Hall, that there was no single entrance, that it was going to be an absolutely porous building with several front halls and entrances, and that the basis of it would be this public space that you wouldn’t need a ticket for a concert to come into. No building had been built like that before. It was an extraordinary idea, so it’s really important to us that we preserve the originality of that thinking and, although the building is used in very modern ways, still retain that sense of permeability and access and inclusiveness.
As a national institution what is your relationship with the rest of the UK?
We have a big domestic audience and visitors from around the country. The Hayward Gallery does something quite unique, which is we have a team that curates exhibitions that never come to the Hayward Gallery but go around the country. We talk to several galleries outside London about whether they would like to receive the exhibition that we’re curating, and it goes to several regional art galleries. So we have an entire team dedicated to a touring version of Hayward curated exhibitions, but which never actually end up in London. We’re a national institution, and that’s a really important part of what we do. We work on a skills development programme with partners in Manchester and Birmingham, and our artistic director came from Manchester International Festival and has been working for the last six years in Manchester. Our creative learning programme extends way beyond London.
In the world of institutions like yours, who are your sisters or brothers?
The Pompidou is a little bit like us, but not in the end completely like us. I was recently in Shanghai and was looking at the West Bund which has been developed along the river and they openly said that they have looked at the model of Southbank. But again, it’s not completely the same. It doesn’t have the mix of public programming that we have. The thing I’m very committed to in my role here is that over 40% of activities that we do artistically are free, so you don’t need to buy a ticket for them. That harks back to our history and to the principle of why Southbank was created, the idea that we should be inclusive, that access to arts and culture should not be directly related to your level of income or whether you could afford to buy a ticket. I don’t think there are many other global organisations that have that mix of world class performance (for which you do need to pay your ticket – although our tickets are very carefully graded) to the outdoor activity we have or the participation events that we have on our ballroom floor where anybody can come and join in.
Do you have close relationships with schools and universities?
Yes, and we invest heavily in a participation and creative learning program. We work very closely with local Lambeth Schools. For example, one of our programs is the Art Explorers Program. The Hayward Gallery is currently closed on a Tuesday and every so often we bring a school into the Hayward. The director of the Hayward, Ralph Rugoff, literally gives them the front door keys when they arrive in the morning, and previous to their arriving we have taken several of those schoolchildren and the curators have talked to them about why they set up the exhibition, some facts about the artist and the works, and then those children take their own schoolmates around the exhibition. The children themselves are doing the curation, and most of those children that come have never been inside an art gallery before. I sometimes go over there and watch them going around. It’s an incredibly rewarding and wonderful programme.
Do you do something similar for music?
Equally, we bring classes in for our classical music program and we do a lot of family concerts. We have a wonderful orchestra whom we work with, the Paraorchestra, who work with artists who are challenged physically, and they do an event for us on the ballroom floor where all the musicians stand in different parts of the building and children can crawl between their legs while they’re playing. They can get right up close and see what a violinist actually does, or crawl under the legs of the grand piano. It’s a wonderfully inclusive and relaxed event for families, again provided for free.
In the six years that you have been doing this job has the public interest and the desire for culture grown or declined?
We all realised what we were missing when we couldn’t access it in the pandemic. This building was closed, which was unheard of in its 72 year history. People have very gratefully realised what it is to experience arts and culture up close and together with other people, that sense of community around attending and taking part in arts and culture. It is so important in these quite fractured times that we are still providing those moments where people can forget what divides us and think very much about how just experiencing and enjoying being in an art gallery, attending a music concert, dancing at a gig, how much that can bring us together. We need that more now than we ever have.
Elaine Bedell, thank you very much for this interview.
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