As the spectre of a no-deal Brexit looms, public interest is focused on possible food shortages, plummeting currency values and the prospect of a hard border in Ireland. Faced with these unknowns, the potential impact on art appears unimportant. Who’s concerned about trips to the theatre when tabloid headlines predict the declaration of martial law? However, the economic and cultural value of Britain’s creative sector should not be underestimated; these industries form the second fastest growing portion of our economy, contributing £249 billion to the UK in 2016 alone.
In January 2017, the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA) published a letter from its Chair, Samuel West, urging members to contact their MPs and ask that any support for triggering Article 50 be made conditional on a set of six “assurances” for the arts. Meeting these demands, West argued, was a “vital” step in “safeguard[ing] the future of UK audiences and artists.” Almost four years later, revisiting the NCFA’s message illustrates the dismal lack of progress made towards protecting the UK’s booming arts sector.
West argued that to function effectively post-Brexit, “UK Arts organisations must continue to have access to the Creative Europe programme,” an EU-funded body which has awarded €89.5 million to UK based arts and culture projects since its launch in 2014. Currently, Creative Europe funds awarded to UK beneficiaries are guaranteed until the end of 2020 – except in the event of no-deal, which would see all funding to projects involving the UK cease. While the government has promised to cover any money awarded to British organisations, this solution ignores the fact that most Creative Europe projects occur in collaboration with another EU member state. These “co-operation projects” are effectively doomed in a no-deal scenario, as the government has only guaranteed the portion of funding allocated to British participants and not the full amount awarded by the EU. To place this into a local context, Glasgow based organisations alone received €749,677 for co-operative projects in 2018.
In their official EU Exit Guide, government-funded body Arts Council England encourage creative organisations to “consider [their] reliance on commercial or philanthropic income.” This statement, coupled with the establishment of their Catalyst project, which allocates public money to arts organisations seeking “to attract more private giving” signals the government’s preferred solution to the impending funding crisis: a move towards an arts industry reliant on private donors. This position is particularly worrying given the funding scandals currently rocking the theatre world. This month, cultural institutions including the Roundhouse, Old Vic and National Theatre were revealed to have accepted over £7 million in donations from the Sackler family, philanthropic titans whose fortune derives mainly from the sale of OxyContin – the drug considered largely responsible for igniting the US opioid epidemic. Furthermore, climate change activist group ‘Culture Unstained’ have published evidence exposing the widespread influence of the fossil fuel industry on UK theatres, prompting the RSC and National Theatre to abandon partnerships with BP and Shell respectively. The willingness of apparently respectable institutions to accept this dirty money does not bode well for the government’s vision of a privately funded arts sector.
The NCFA letter also sought assurances that EU nationals employed in the UK would be allowed to remain post-Brexit. Slightly more progress has been made on this front, with the establishment of a settlement scheme, although Home Office figures indicate that roughly a third of EU citizens living in Britain are yet to apply. Speaking on the 10th of October, Security Minister Brandon Lewis offered no sign of empathy for EU citizens caught up in the debacle, stating that “the immigration rules [regarding deportation] will apply” to individuals who do not register with the scheme by its 2020 deadline. While the potential loss of talent from throughout the EU will have disastrous consequences across all industries, the cultural sector, which employs roughly 131,000 EU citizens and relies on international collaboration, looks set to be heavily affected.
Brexiteers often laud the vote to leave as an opportunity to nurture British talent, a message that contrasts strongly with the Conservative government’s approach to arts education. A 2018 survey of UK secondary schools found that nine in every ten admitted to cutting back “on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject,” while the Chief of Ofsted has been quoted suggesting that for working class students, arts subjects conflict with a need to have “options that could take them to university or vocational education.” Indeed, facing high tuition fees and rising costs of living, pursuing a career in the arts appears increasingly risky and the proportion of students selecting creative GCSE subjects has fallen to the lowest level in a decade. This begs the question: with a lack of home-grown interest in the creative industries, who will fill the vacuum left by the loss of EU workers?
West’s letter also encouraged supporters to seek assurances that Brexit would “not add administrative burdens to the movement of artists and art in the UK.” In the event of a no-deal, Britain would immediately lose access to tariff-free trade within the single market and customs union, and EU laws which protect against copyright infringement would cease to apply. Brexit will also have a heavy impact on touring, a core source of income for arts organisations. The government has released official advice on touring after a no-deal Brexit which identifies eight new hurdles facing organisers including the loss of European Health Insurance and the need to apply for visas and work permits within EU states. These bureaucratic obstacles will also impact the flow of art into the UK as companies are unlikely to select Britain as a project base or tour destination when they could bypass this red tape altogether by working within the EU.
Interviewed by The Stage in 2019, West was less than optimistic about the success of his lobbying campaign, describing the probable impact of Brexit on the UK arts scene as a “tragedy.” As this column progresses, I hope to chart the individual issues facing the British arts scene in more detail and attempt to find reasons for hope for the future of creative work in the UK. Ultimately, I wonder, in the face of governmental failure to act, is the British arts scene resilient enough to overcome this current crisis or are we, as West suggests, simply “sleepwalking” irrevocably “into a nightmare?”
[Roisin O’Farrell – she/her]