The news that Madani Younis has left his role as creative director at the Southbank Centre after fewer than 10 months in the job raises questions around Europe’s largest arts centre, its leadership and its real appetite for change.
It is likely to fuel concerns that while many of the UK’s biggest and best-funded arts institutions are eager to talk loudly about increased diversity and the importance of being embedded in their community, they remain less willing to actually walk the walk when it comes to changing themselves. Because real change isn’t just cosmetic, it comes from within.
This is all the harder to achieve when someone with a track record like Younis is appointed, but there is little or no diversity in the upper echelons of management, and when organisations are slow (or unwilling) to understand the changing role of arts institutions in a fast-shifting world.
In London, there is also a game-changing shift of demographics that arts institutions such as the Southbank ignore at their peril: 57% of those under the age of 15 living in London are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Will those youngsters, more than half the city’s population, ever think that our cultural institutions have any relevance for them and their lives when our cultural workforces are so white?
Just as Emma Rice’s swift departure from Shakespeare’s Globe threw up issues of entrenched interests versus the vision of an incoming artistic director, so Younis’ resignation highlights the fact that often arts organisations like the idea of making change until they discover what it might really mean to implement it and who might have to step aside to ensure it happens.
Then, they suddenly find themselves going off the idea remarkably quickly. People get comfortable working in their silos and the existing power structures. The status quo is always a cosy place for those who benefit from it.
When I interviewed Younis just weeks into his role at Southbank, he was realistic about the scale of the challenges ahead, but certainly didn’t sound like a man daunted by the task. He talked passionately of needing five years to implement his vision of an arts centre that was not merely one perched on the river in the middle of London, but that would be deeply embedded in the local community.
He told me: “The great opportunity we have here at the Southbank is we have a national and international reach, but we are also in the borough of Lambeth in south London where some of the most important political moments have happened in this city’s history.
“There is an opportunity to ask ourselves who is it we are serving and look at the work we are making, look at community engagement and make sure that work with young people is our focus. My money is on looking locally and discovering how can we ensure that the Southbank Centre feels like the arts centre for south London.”
This is what Younis did so successfully at the Bush, which he transformed from another new-writing theatre into one that supported artists but also served the diverse community on its doorstep. It became a theatre that created main-stage work of national importance while being deeply embedded in the local community and always guided by the grassroots organisations already working there.
In retrospect, perhaps there were warning signs around the Southbank job title. Right from the announcement of the appointment, the Southbank was strenuously keen to remind journalists that Younis would be creative director rather than artistic director, which was the title of his predecessor Jude Kelly.
The change of title is something that Arts Council England, which invests £18.3 million a year in the Southbank Centre, should have probed more thoroughly and should certainly probe when a replacement for Younis is sought.
The change of title is something that Arts Council England, which invests £18.3 million a year in the Southbank Centre, should have probed more thoroughly
Because from the outside it looks as if that job title was an attempt to reduce sway and vision. If that was the thinking, it suggests that Younis’ appointment was perceived as an opportunity to signal diversity and change to the world without necessarily giving him the resource and latitude necessary to implement it.
Younis is not a quitter. I cannot imagine he would have decided to go lightly. If you invite a radical like him into your building, you have genuinely to make room for that radicalism and give that person the tools and money required to make the change they identify and believe is required.
The Southbank Centre can hardly claim it didn’t know what it was getting when it appointed Younis. He went through an extensive interview process and has a long history as someone who is outspoken and forthright about the need for disruption, if the cultural sector is going to become more democratic and genuinely representative of the entire population.
He has continuously called the arts to account, and he has done it with uncompromising clarity. It can be a lonely place from which to operate, and Younis’ departure – after so brief a tenure – reminds us that while it is relatively easy for arts institutions to signal a desire for change by the appointments they make, it is meaningless if there is an ingrained resistance to actually making change on the part of management and boards.