LONDON — Most capital cities are lucky to have one arts complex with a year-round, culturally diverse program of international artists in live performance, music and visual arts.
London has two.
Over the past decade, the Barbican has been on a steady rise. But the rival Southbank Center is within three months of a June 8 grand re-opening that may see it return to pole position.
The hoopla surrounding the Barbican’s two-week 25th anni season was a case of justifiable celebration. Ever more adventurous and increasingly self-produced programming has led to rising attendance and box office. In 2005-06, 928 arts events attracted 770,000 people, an increase of 70,000 from 2004-05, while direct income rose from £12.8 million ($24.7 million) to $27.4 million.
Better still, the March 3-4 weekend marked the completion of the venue’s renovation. Since 1995, when John Tusa was appointed the Barbican’s managing director, he has overseen a $67.6 million revamp without interrupting the arts program. Renovation included not only the concert hall, two theaters, two galleries and three cinemas, but also all six floors of public spaces and entrances.
Restructuring, rebuilding and relighting has transformed the brown-themed, labyrinthine interior from something resembling a dingy airport to a far brighter, more welcoming environment.
Tusa, who extended his contract in order to oversee the redevelopment, is swift to praise his artistic director, Graham Sheffield, and the individual directors who have erased preconceptions of the Barbican as a mere receiving house.
Themed programming has been key: film seasons supporting art exhibitions; or events in the theater season being programmed alongside connected concerts and talks.
“Between 70% and 80% of what goes on here is under our direct artistic and editorial and management control,” Tusa says. “That’s what gives the place its flavor.”
“Even the most experimental and innovative parts of our program have a set of internal checks and balances, because people share ideals and standards.”
Around the time Tusa was taking over at the Barbican, across the river, the Southbank Center was heading into a decade of uncertainty.
The arts center comprises the Royal Festival Hall, which opened in 1951, and additions of the neighboring Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery. The site’s much-needed redevelopment was trapped in negotiation with funders and developers for years, largely because of national arts funding strategies and priorities beyond the center’s control.
When Australian Michael Lynch took over as executive director in 2002, the logjam began to clear.
“It just seemed sensible,” says Lynch, “to go with the master plan by architect Rick Mather, which looked at trying to do things incrementally, rather than trying to rethink the entire 21-acre site in one fell swoop.”
Although Lynch has long-term goals, the recent focus has been the two-year redevelopment of the landmark Festival Hall, the 2,890-seat venue that generates 65%of the center’s business. For the past two years, it has been closed for refurbishment.
“We have 99 days to go before reopening,” says Lynch. “We still have £7 million ($13.5 million) to raise, but every lottery-funded arts project in this country has been fund-raising up to the last minute.”
Lynch is looking forward to an artistic future considerably more secure than at any point since his arrival. Contemporary bands and artists aren’t booked years in advance, but world-class classical orgs such as the center’s four resident orchestras all plan up to five years ahead, so rebuilding uncertainties have made programming a challenge. To increase the producing side, last year Lynch appointed Jude Kelly as a.d. As part of a boldly diverse program including a festival of music and performance curated by former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, Kelly will direct a six-week revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Bizet revamp “Carmen Jones” in the remodeled Festival Hall.
Both the Barbican and the Southbank Center see themselves as being in benign competition with each other. Lynch is buoyed by his venue’s ideal location on the Thames.
Both Lynch and Tusa, however, remain cautious about the future. Tusa points out that his annual grant budget has fallen by 9% over the past 10 years. And the Southbank is reopening at a point when the estimated cost of the U.K. hosting the 2012 Olympics rises almost daily. With literally billions being siphoned into that, it’s not just the two flagship culture complexes that are nervous about the future of arts subsidy.