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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Down on the South Bank

By Norman Lebrecht / June 18, 2003

Just over a year ago I was asked to breakfast by the South Bank chairman, Lord Hollick, to meet his new chief executive. It turned out that we had met before, in Australia, where Michael Lynch was running the Sydney Opera House, pushing through a £20 million restoration.

The conch-shaped edifice is Australia's premier cultural icon and political hot potato. Lynch had turned it around adroitly and with remarkably few ripples. He also managed, according to his chairman's testimonial, "to reinvigorate programming, increase diversity in art forms and audiences and improve quality".

In earlier jobs, he had worked with Kylie and Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan. On a paper napkin, Lynch had the perfect set of credentials to raise the sunken South Bank from its bed of fudge.

Over breakfast, we discussed priorities. Hollick, under Downing Street orders, had given Lynch six months to focus on renewing the Royal Festival Hall and restoring public confidence.

Unlike his predecessors, Nicholas Snowman and Karsten Witt, Lynch was not going to spend his afternoons with his head in an opera and his evenings fawning on famous artists while the concrete walls crumbled and the foyers failed a health-and-safety inspection.

He would get a grip on practicalities, leaving art to aesthetes. The staff would be remotivated, there would be changes at the top and the long-heralded redevelopment would finally become flesh.

A year later, some steps have been taken: pigeon steps. A date has been set in June 2005 for closing the RFH for renovation. The Arts Council will this week approve the first instalment of a £20 million cheque. A lobby is being redone. A new cafe is due to open. Progress, of sorts, may be claimed.

But the culture of the South Bank is unaltered. The paved walkways are broken, the doors unpolished, the lighting dim. The lobbies reek of stale food, the lavatories of dereliction. Backstage, the artists' rooms are about as friendly as the interview suite at Paddington police station.

Dropping in on a conductor recently, I saw no art on the walls, the merest slip of a ragged towel, no soap in the sink and an uncleaned shower stall. Impervious inaction - itself a relic of the antediluvian public-service mentality of the old GLC, the centre's former landlord - prevails at every level of practical and artistic administration.

Artists shudder when they mention the RFH; there is no concert hall like it in the rest of the civilised world.

Lynch, like his predecessors, is quick to berate newspapers which fail to list the South Bank among London's chief attractions, but its attractions are no longer competitive.

Lynch himself admits that the Barbican has all the best tunes. The revamped Royal Opera House and the underreconstruction Coliseum make stronger claims on purse and heart strings.

To grasp the full tragedy of the South Bank's paralysis, just look at its neighbours. In the past decade, the Tate has bought and built Tate Modern. Charles Saatchi has replanted his gallery in County Hall.

The London Eye and the Millennium Bridge are the epoch's most popular attractions. The old Hungerford railway bridge has been imaginatively renovated. All the South Bank has managed to build is a stairway linking the bridge to its forecourt.

Even the National Theatre, equally disadvantaged by concrete exteriors and Arts Council interference, has revitalised its surroundings and remotivated its staff. It is a joy to enter the National, a drudge to approach the RFH.

Over 18 years, 10 secretaries of state and ministers for the arts have come and gone, recalling the South Bank as their chief failure. Tessa Blackstone, who was unjustly sacked last week, grasped the nettle but was powerless to pull.

Constitutionally, the site is administered by a sub-quango of the notionally autonomous Arts Council, a device that allows everyone to shuffle blame and shirk responsibility.

It is too soon to call Hollick and Lynch to account. Better men have sunk into the South Bank swamp, among them the former heads of GEC, the Prudential and Chelsfield - clever businessmen who frittered millions of public pounds on brilliant redesigns by Lords Farrell and Rogers, plans that now gather dust in an Arts Council archive.

Hollick, a media investor, has reshuffled his board, recruiting the fund-raiser Dame Vivien Duffield, the Mayor of London's cultural adviser Lola Young, and The Observer's music critic Anthony Holden, to consult on image.

As for money-raising, there is none. The man Hollick appointed as director of development will leave next month, without a pledge to show for his pleadings. When money is spent, after years of consultation, it is spent unwisely.

A million pounds has gone on redoing the Hayward Gallery foyer without considering whether, between Saatchi and Tate Modern, we actually need a grey bunker with no natural light, no collection if its own and no ideas more captivating than its scheduled reopening exhibition: Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund, an officially inspired show politely declined by greater galleries.

The Hayward ought to be the first candidate for the wrecker's ball. But without it, the South Bank could not function as a proper arts centre, a place where people can find music, pictures, the Arts Council poetry library, the National Film Theatre, a convertible dance stage, Jubilee Gardens and the Hungerford car park.

And therein lies the fatal flaw, the source of all the stasis. The arts centre is a 1950s conceit, based on new-town shopping malls where one stop covers all needs. It does not fit the specialised tastes of the 21st century. Most RFH concert-goers do not enter the NFT or the Hayward, and vice versa. There is no correlation; arts centres the world over face meltdown.

The biggest, New York's Lincoln Center, has in the space of two weeks lost its resident orchestra and its development chairman, having spent $10 million on plans without a sod being turned. The Lincoln, like the South Bank, is rapidly running out of time.

The solution is to strip arts centres back to core components - a concert hall or two under autonomous management, with no need for obese boards and eternal prevarication. Redevelopment could be resolved within weeks. The South Bank would rise again as the Royal Festival Hall. All else, Lord Hollick, is vanity.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001