Underdeveloped, Underused and Undernourished – Getting Inside The Mind Of An Arts Institution Struggling To Keep Up With The Times by Louis Woodhead
It has been 6 months since the Southbank Centre begrudgingly resigned themselves to leaving the Undercroft be, for the meantime at least, after a long year in which their Festival Wing scheme was opposed by the public, politicians and a wide range of academics. Since February’s announcement, Southbank Centre senior management and board of governors acknowledgment of their bumbled, expensive, ill-thought-out Festival Wing redevelopment plan, has been almost non-existent. The press were blocked out for weeks. At this publicly-funded arts centre, public scrutiny was to be avoided.
But yesterday, Southbank Centre’s artistic director, Jude Kelly, was back on our screens via the Evening Standard’s sister TV station, London Live. Jude starts the interview with an apparent clarification: ‘we never wanted the skaters to leave.’ Southbank skaters through the 80s and 90s vividly remember Southbank Centre security coming down to harass, sometimes on a daily basis. They recall the scattering of stones, spraying of water on the floor, ripping up of paving slabs, the erecting of barriers, drilling of holes in the floor and anything else Southbank Centre could think up to deter people from skating there. This all began when the site went from being public land under the GLC and became a publically-funded private estate run by Southbank Centre Limited. Then there was the conning and betrayal of the local community, in the mid noughties, when skaters were told that the two-thirds of the site taken for ‘temporary storage space’ would soon be given back. This turned out to be nothing more than a ruse to steal away space from the community, and yet another tactical passive aggressive approach to create discomfort and exclusion. This pattern shows an arts centre determined to gradually erode an artistic resident community over several decades, and an arts centre only too happy to damage the very culture which helped put that same said arts centre on the map.
As part of that ongoing narrative, what reason would the Undercroft community have to believe that the fake and contrived park the Southbank Centre dreamed up under Hungerford Bridge wasn’t just another meticulously constructed carrot that would be dangled in front of the community, only until the Undercroft was well boarded up? When the small print came under scrutiny, it appeared to be just a hireable and programmable space ripe for the squashing together of unrelated art forms, and ready to be rented to retail and commercial purposes.
The Southbank Centre have attempted to slowly erode the home and culture of the Undercroft community for decades and any show of apparent goodwill should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. In the context of 4 decades of assaults and lies, the Festival Wing plan camouflages yet another crack at the Undercroft community.
But, according to Jude, the originally proposed clumsily manufactured ‘replacement’ skate park under Hungerford Bridge would have been a fair ‘compromise all round’. Having been reminded by us on numerous occasions, Jude Kelly is well aware of the betrayal in 2004 and 2005, where two-thirds of the communities skate spot was taken away under the pretence that it would soon be returned. The loss of this space after 30 years of use by skaters was already a significant compromise and one that should be recognised, surely? Not so. Not in the cloaked world of London’s ‘great’ arts centre.
After that huge lie 10 years ago, it appears the Southbank Centre managements condescending attitude towards its users has not changed. Even as Long Live Southbank’s membership surpasses that of the biggest political parties, Jude Kelly refuses to look at these 140,000 free, independent voices and consider that keeping the skate spot as it is may be the best option after all. She states that people only opposed her vision ‘because they felt the image of the skaters in that space… was too potent to set against something that people hadn’t seen yet.’ Dismissing 140,000 people’s democratic opinion as based purely on flippant imagery rather than substance is incredibly arrogant and patronising, typical of an institution struggling to come to terms with what form of arts excites ordinary, interested people. The tens of thousands of well thought out, in-depth and well-articulated views of the public are freely available to read on the Lambeth website, LLSB social media and the comments section of the Southbank Centre’s own social media (except where they have removed the option to comment).
Jude Kelly reveals time and time again that her single-minded, one-track vision of her objective leads her to ignore all those opposing views, even though it is her job, her duty, to listen to the users and the visitors of the site she artistically directs. Holding on to the archaic ‘we tell you what you get and you’ll jolly well like it’ ideology of the past is neither progressive nor exciting. Her constant dismissal of a 40 year history and ever-growing culture and community is a worrying insight. Her lack of understanding of a publically, socially and democratically directed future for arts is a salient reminder that what we are really talking about here, is people clinging on to their jobs, as their view of the arts looks increasingly outdated. To prove just how committed she is to the Festival Wing scheme she so forcefully champions, Jude Kelly has been applying for, and not getting, jobs elsewhere. We however, have never moved from our unfaltering commitment to our home. Because for us, this in not a job, a career ladder step, a status symbol, a dinner table conversation, a tick-box exercise. This is pure and honest passion for what we do, what we believe, what we love.
Over the past year I have spent well over 100 days sitting on our campaign table. People sign up, not, as Jude Kelly suggests, because they have some romantic idea that we represent the ‘besieged young’ of England. They don’t sign because of the imagery, they sign because they recognise the huge artistic merit of the Undercroft community. People spend long, happy hours watching ordinary people skating freely and naturally, not as some sort of performance piece or event, without a single penny being spent. Many feel that they prefer this to, or enjoy its juxtaposition to, the formal arts.
At all local residents meetings Long Live Southbank have been to, 100% of people in attendance made it very clear to the Southbank Centre representatives present, that they opposed the infilling the Undercroft with shops. One resident commented on the continued commercialisation of the arts centre that, ‘they won’t be happy till they’ve created a riverside trough.’ There are hundreds of good reasons, well grounded in reality, to oppose yet more shops along the riverfront at the expense of a cultural landmark, not least the vast retail development to be built at the Shell Centre next door. The Southbank Centre management should be humble and recognise the substance of the arts at the Undercroft. Long Live Southbank haven’t found 140,000 people to sign on a whim.
Every day at the skate spot hundreds of people engage in lengthy discussions about the space and art and culture and public spaces in general. Thousands of hours of debates and dialogue – that is true ‘public consultation’, something Southbank Centre have failed miserably at. The board of governors should recognise that the unique selling point under their boardroom, for which they have no immediate competition of in the surrounding local area, is arts and culture, not the flood of retail and eateries the will engulf the area in coming years. Is this aggressive drive to commercialise and exclude really in the spirit and vision of the Festival of Britain? No, it most definitely isn’t. It’s all just fancy dress and PR spin for a handful of people at ‘the top’ to undemocratically force their 177 million pounds (and rising) vanity project on us all.
Despite seeing such unprecedented support for preservation of the spot, Jude Kelly stated, live on air, that the Undercroft is ‘underdeveloped, underused and undernourished, and at some point the public are going to have to deal with that.’ Jude isn’t convincing when she says ‘I don’t actually want them to leave the site and because it became too antagonistic, it’s a mutual reconciliation now because they’re as important to us as any other group’. In truth, she knows that she is responsible for creating the worst relationship with the skate community since the strained relationships of the 1990s, a fracture and rift of her own doing. In reality, she herself views the space and community as being ‘like a middle class youth club or a boxing club’ with ‘about two black people’. Aside from being offensive, it reveals the depth of disconnect and just how out of touch she truly is. What sort of a legacy is this for a ‘world class’ arts and cultural centre? Especially one that so desperately wants to cajole the ‘youth’. In the interview, Jude Kelly has magically reduced the never-proven-to-be-realistic number of 200,000 young people they claimed they would provide opportunities for to – 10,000. Truth is the Southbank Centre have failed to resonate with and engage young people for decades, and this latest fudged scheme has done nothing to change that disconnect.
The Southbank Centre selectively timed collation of user numbers and falsified data are well known to us. The space the Southbank Centre took from skaters in 2005 for temporary uses has struggled to excite the public, and failed to bring in people. Our space however is not underused. The Southbank Centre just invent statistics to make it seem thus. Our space is not underdeveloped. Some of the most exciting and progressive skateboarders in the world have passed through, just in the last month. Our space is not undernourished. Jude Kelly, of the theatre world, simply needs to learn that her idea of nourishment may be discordant with a skateboarder’s idea of nourishment.
Whilst such lack of knowledge and abundant criticism of the space shows a worryingly narrow minded approach to arts for an artistic director, it seems completely out of sync with her comments just seconds earlier in the interview that ‘every single possible way’ of funding the redevelopment without closing the Undercroft had been considered. It is hard to take this statement seriously when the Southbank Centre have been so secretive with their figures and strategies. Long Live Southbank have submitted a number of Freedom of Information requests. We thought responses were fair, given that the Southbank Centre are 47% publically funded. But, seemingly they are exempt from rules obliging publically funded bodies to respond and have been unwilling to open themselves up to scrutiny. The question we’ve been asking is, just why exactly does the Southbank Centre need so much money?
An incredible amount of people have voiced what art they want but the Southbank Centre management would prefer retail as they have ‘run out of ideas’ – the Undercroft however is a breeding ground of ideas
If the Southbank Centre were serious about finding a good solution to their problem, which is without a doubt solvable, or would have been before millions of pounds of public money were squandered on relentless PR, security and legal fees, they would have opened their plans for public suggestion soon after they were first considered, four years ago. Instead, they were kept top secret until March 2013. What followed was a shambolic and shocking attempt at misleading the public, a public that wasn’t fooled by Southbank Centre staged theatrics and Victorian smoke and mirror tactics. The future is in the eyes of the young and not in the minds of the old. And that doesn’t refer to age, it refers to REAL vision, REAL communities, REAL democratic decision making, a REAL future for arts for all.