elaine bedell

Elaine Bedell OBE: “We can’t let our cultural pre-eminence be diminished by lack of funding”

03 Jun 2024 | |By Rob Crossan

The Southbank Centre CEO, and Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award finalist, on the trials and tribulations of making sure art is for everyone

“I’ve always thought that absolutely everybody is a bit creative and most people just need an outlet for it.” It’s a good place to start from should you happen to find yourself the CEO of one of the UK’s most vibrant and important cultural centres – as Elaine Bedell did when she joined the Southbank Centre in 2017 as the first female CEO in its 66-year history.

Standing proudly on the banks of the Thames, sandwiched between the London Eye and the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre welcomes over 3 million visitors each year to its sprawling complex, which includes the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall, the National Poetry Library, a food market, and much more. Whether your idea of a great night out is a live recording of a comedy podcast, a classic Shakespeare play retold through the medium of contemporary dance, or a concert of Ukrainian folk music, you’ll find it here.

A London native who grew up in Hackney and Leytonstone, Bedell joined the Southbank following roles as Controller of BBC Entertainment and Director of Entertainment and Comedy at ITV. Under her leadership the Southbank has expanded to offer more than 5,000 events each year, with around half of which are free for the public. In recognition of her efforts, Bedell was awarded an OBE for services to business and the arts in the 2024 New Year Honours list, and has also been shortlisted for this year’s Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award, an annual prize which celebrates female entrepreneurs pushing boundaries and making a positive impact on society.

Here Bedell talks the breadth and depth of British creativity, the importance of public funding for the arts and making the Southbank stand out when the world has entertainment at its fingertips.

How much success do you think you’ve had in attracting a more diverse audience to the Southbank?

It’s so important to us that local, community groups feel they can come and use our spaces. Tomorrow’s Warriors are a great example; they’re an ensemble that grew out of simply using space in the Southbank and they really gave rise to the triumph of a young, jazz renaissance in South London.

That all started from letting community groups use our space. Hip-hop dancers use our space down by the cloakrooms; it’s not just about what’s on the stages, it’s about what’s going on around all the spaces. We’ve had an open foyer policy since the early 1980s and we fling open our doors at 10am every morning. You can come here and use the space even if you don’t have a ticket. I want kids on skateboards to come in here!

southbank centre
Image: India Roper-Evans
Your Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award nomination seems to be a rallying cry in some ways. What would you most like to change about the Southbank which you haven’t yet been able to accomplish?

I’d like to fix the lifts! They’re original and they all need to be replaced. We’re given money from Arts Council England but we’re not allowed to spend that on the building – it’s for programming only which is exactly how it should be. But we’re looking after 11 acres of beautiful Brutalist architecture which needs constant attention.

Festival Hall, which is even older, hasn’t had any public money spent on it since 2007 and it has 3 million visitors each year, so that’s a lot of wear and tear. We can manage the maintenance but we can’t do huge interventions. Festival Hall needs a new roof and we can’t stretch to that on our own. We’re happy to match funds with private donations but our donors like to match government funds so we need half the money from them then we can make it work with our donors. We used to get money from the Lottery Fund but we don’t get that anymore. Ever since the creation of the Arts Council there’s never been a capital solution really. We’re a postcard attraction for this country and we’re generating a cultural eco-system that meets commerce and provides 1,000 jobs. But we can’t do that with decaying buildings that aren’t fit for purpose. We need a bigger pot.

Is the expansion of chain restaurants and bars on land owned by the Southbank an inevitable consequence of funding cuts – and will this only become more pronounced?

We’re not a rapacious landlord but, during Covid, the restaurants and bars on our site were all on a rent moratorium, so huge chunks of our income just fell away. Our public financing has declined, in real terms, by 40 per cent in the last ten years but our cost base has gone up. We have to find other sources of income, but philanthropists generally don’t want to pay for fixing lifts, so we had to start using our spaces for restaurants and bars.

It was a brilliant idea but ee’re victims of our own success really, as this real estate is so valuable now and the rent has gone up, so it’s very hard to get small, independent restaurants to come here. Perhaps that isn’t the place for them anyway. It’s not purely our choice; the government owns it all. The important thing is that the restaurants we do have are ones that can cope with the volume of 20 million visitors [to the area] each year. I’d love to be able to subsidise rent here so that we could have different types of start-up restaurants but we’re not able to do that.

What piece of criticism has stuck with you most?

The leadership challenges I’ve faced are very different from the ones I thought I would face when I began; I’m thinking about the cost of energy, the war in Ukraine, and Covid to name a few. You have to develop a very thick skin to do this job. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy.

It’s quite right that people care very much about it. I do think we have delivered but I remember thinking, as the first female chief executive during Covid, ‘this place is not going to go down on my watch’ while watching grass growing through the concrete during lockdown. I was criticised for saying to The Telegraph at the start of lockdown that we probably wouldn’t be able to open again until the spring of 2021, as people thought that was too long. But I was right and that was really a government decision. We had to make sure that we had a business plan that meant we could reopen this huge 11-acre space without breaking the bank.

You grew up in a working class family in Hackney and were taken to the Southbank a lot as a child. What are the main challenges facing young people with similar backgrounds when it comes to accessing culture? Have they changed since the 1970s?

I grew up in East London and my Dad brought us here for piano recitals. He left school at 14 but was a very talented pianist, quite knowledgeable about classical music, and he had a very real sense as an East Londoner that Festival Hall was for people like him. He thought arts and culture should be available to everyone, regardless of income.

The challenges now are different to when I was young. I like to think that Southbank is still providing the level of access it could and should but you have to know it’s there and we have to put on a range of exciting, immersive, inclusive arts and culture. The biggest challenge is digital. There’s so much choice in London but even more if you just stay at home with your device. My background was in television and I was at the very popular end with the big Saturday night live shows. I love congregations of people and bringing people together. I’m an evangelist for the fact that you can’t substitute the live experience and communing with other people. During Covid we streamed concerts in empty auditoriums but it’s just not the same. We’re very social animals. These things are what makes a society cohesive.

Do you feel a potential change of government later this year is likely to have an effect on Southbank funding?

I really do hope so but there are so many demands on the public purse. I do think that there’s a lot of positive energy around both potential new governments in terms of trying to figure out imaginative solutions to the capital issues. We produce the best writers, the best technical teams in the world; we ought to be celebrating and preserving that. We can’t let our pre-eminence be diminished by a lack of funding. We have got to properly fund grass roots organisations and free public spaces like ours. I’m realistic though and clearly there needs to be a root-and-branch look at it. I would be really disappointed if the current decline continues.

What advice would you give to creatives from non-privileged backgrounds who want to get their work staged at the Southbank?

Make sure you get somebody to film your work. We look at a lot of show reels. Come to Southbank and look at what we’re putting on and see how you could fit in. Chat to our team here, who are very accessible, and think about the fact that this is a mixed-arts venue. We’re not a theatre. We’re not an opera house. We present a lot of art in very different ways.

What’s the dream booking for the Southbank that you haven’t yet made?

Beyonce. I just can’t imagine anything more exciting than standing in the Royal Festival Hall, listening to her and dancing!

Visit southbankcentre.co.uk; veuveclicquot.com

Read more: Are celebrity art collectors actually good for culture?