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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Disgrace of a South Bank Show That's Going Nowhere

By Norman Lebrecht / August 30, 2001

Things that go bump in the dead of August are seldom a symptom of strategic foresight. The departure of Karsten Witt, chief executive of London's squalid South Bank Centre, was officially ascribed to 'a major organisational review.' Once the full facts are known, it may look more like major organisational confusion.

Two weeks before Witt went bump, the South Bank Board assured Parliament in an annual financial statement that its artistic life 'continued to flourish' and its development plans were proceeding apace. No need to ditch the pilot, you'd think, let alone conduct a six-month self-examination. But beneath the face-saving formulas of an overspun press statement stands a national institution that no longer knows which way is up.

Witt, before the summer break, had been asked to account for his achievements over the past two years. Recruited from Deutsche Grammophon in Hamburg, Witt had not come cheap. He required double the salary of his predecessor, Nicholas Snowman; over the past year his emoluments rose to £265,500 (plus £15,891 in pension contributions), making him the highest paid arts executive in the land.

Witt is not short-winded, nor good at jokes. He took an hour and a half to deliver his paper, and some found it longer than Tristan. When he finished, board members wondered what he was still doing there. For Witt had declared his own job redundant, arguing that the Centre should be broken down into its component parts - concert halls, art gallery, movie theatre - each of them managed autonomously.

The chairman, Elliott Bernerd, took Witt at his word, agreeing that he should leave with a £250,000 payoff at the end of the review, in which (contrary to reports) he will play no significant part. Witt has let it be known that, if his breakdown strategy is accepted, he might like to stay on as manager of the concert halls. He should not hold his breath, nor should he feel personally culpable for the paralysis he leaves behind.

The South Bank Centre has put itself almost beyond redemption. Formed by the Arts Council when Margaret Thatcher abolished its rightful owner, the Greater London Council, it has stumbled along for 15 years trying to convert a begrimed concrete caterpillar into an artistically attractive and financially efficient butterfly. A grandiose £167m Richard Rogers scheme was set to fly when the Tories fell; New Labour rightly scrapped it.

Chris Smith, as Culture Secretary, brought in Bernerd, a pugnacious property magnate, to redevelop the site bit by bit. But Gerry Robinson, the Arts Council chairman, refused to release funds until he saw full-site plan. In a clash of egos, progress stalled. Bernerd agreed to fund the purchase of a strip of land out of his own pocket if ACE funds were not forthcoming.

He then underwent cancer treatment in the US for five months. A bold plan to demolish the Hayward Gallery was shelved. The long-awaited acoustical refit of the Royal Festival Hall was put off for yet another year. A so-called 'masterplan' gathered dust. The ACE paid for the land-strip last month, but continues to withold development approval.

The site is now on the verge of dereliction, a laughing-stock among European arts centres. Its functioning has become so slipshod that agents find it necessary to visit artists' dressing rooms before rehearsal to ensure there is a towel in the shower, and that the towel has not been used by a previous occupant. It would cost £40,000 a year to provide proper backstage care.

Bernerd originally promised to cut the Board to eight members. Instead he has swelled it to 15, some of whom - like Deborah Bull, a member of the Arts Council and director of two ROH mini-theatres - represent conflictual interests. Others, like the comedienne Joanna Lumley, brought a dash of celebrity to a dismal appeal.

No board member has any specific responsibility. Several have asked to resign, only to be assured by Bernerd that they are sorely needed. Mostly, the Board builds castles in the sky for the ACE to admire. At one interminable development meeting, the composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle raised a white card with the word 'Webern' above his head. Few on the board knew what he meant.

Trading income has barely risen since 1992 and sponsorship has actually fallen. Operating costs, however, have soared from £21.8m to £28.1m, half of which is funded from public subsidy.

Two South Bank users, the National Film Theatre and Philharmonia Orchestra, have requested Government intervention. The new Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, and her arts minister, Tessa Blackstone, know that they cannot allow the stasis to persist - the more so when the City-funded Barbican is about to brandish an acoustically renewed concert hall and a superior artistic programme.

What's to be done? Cut the talking shops. Eliminate the hapless ACE, slash the board in half, appoint an executive chairman and give him two years to restore the site, or shut it down. This show is going nowhere.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999