Opinion Articles


Back to the 1930s? After Brexit the UK arts sector is longing for links with countries in continental Europe.


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In 2019-2020, UK arts organisations, like many charities and businesses across the country, experienced heightened anxiety over the prospects of a deal between the UK and the European Union, and what the terms of this hypothetical deal might be. As I showed in a report published in November 2020, uncertainty about visa, customs, and funding disrupted the arts and creative industries, and many organisations found themselves unable to plan for Europe-wide projects beyond the end of the “Brexit transition period” in December 2020.

The signing of the EU-UK agreement in late December 2020 only exacerbated the sector’s discontentment with the government and the feeling that the arts and creative industries had been left out of Brexit negotiations. Essentially, the UK government’s deal with the EU means that UK arts organisations will be excluded from most EU-funded schemes and partnerships. The travel of art practitioners and the movement of goods will be restricted, and artists keen to tour in Europe will face expensive fees. They will also need to comply with administratively burdensome applications, including navigating the different entry requirements of each of the 27 member states.

This situation, which is harming the sector’s financial health and its creativity, was avoidable.  Since the referendum, cultural federations and agencies had worked strenuously to raise the government’s awareness regarding the sector’s willingness to continue working closely with their counterparts in EU member states. Even following the signing of the EU-UK agreement, artists and organisations launched petitions and open letters with the aims of securing visa-free EU travel for artists and “a Government portal that provides clear information about the paperwork and access requirements for freelancers to travel and work within Europe.” In the same letter, artists called for the appointment of a Cultural Secretary who could oversee Brexit-related issues.

The UK cultural sector’s experience of being cut off from continental Europe, physically but also in terms of business opportunities and creative work, echoes discussions that took place around the time of the opening of the British Council in 1934. By the early 1930s Britain did not possess an agency overseeing overseas intercultural relations. Instead, it relied on informal and largely uncoordinated networks of schools, artists, and cultural institutions to promote its arts abroad. These private, non-state actors mattered too for Italy, Spain, Germany, the USSR and France, but these countries had also opened ‘cultural diplomatic offices’ within their Foreign Offices in the wake of the First World War with the aim of increasing their cultural power in the world.

Throughout the interwar period, British artists looked across the Channel with envy: they longed for the sustained involvement of the state in matters of “cultural propaganda” – what we would now refer to as soft power – that their counterparts in Spain, France or Italy benefited from. Even in the years following the creation of the British Council, British painters noted that their counterparts in continental Europe received much more support from their governments to exhibit their work overseas. Sending works of art from Britain to continental Europe was also challenging because artists living in Britain had to pay duty when shipping their works to the other side of the Channel, which was not always reciprocal for continental artists exhibiting their works in Britain. In the late 1930s, when liberal countries came together to fight against Mussolini and Hitler’s fascist alliance, British diplomats and politicians admired the strength of French cultural diplomacy that aptly utilised the arts to shape benevolent images of France abroad, including in Britain. This admiration of continental practices was also an opportunity for self-reflexion regarding the lack of a strong British foreign cultural policy towards Western Europe. Until the outbreak of the war, the British Council mostly targeted countries around the Mediterranean basin.

Even when the UK was a member of the EU, British art administrators felt that their counterparts in continental Europe fared better than them because the budgets at the level of local governments and ministries for the arts sector were higher. This sense was exacerbated by the impact of the 2008 economic crisis. The intra-European discrepancy was highlighted by report from the Budapest Observatory (2019) showing that in the UK during the decade immediately following the 2008 economic crisis less was spent on culture than in the early 2000s. In addition, the post-2008 level of cultural expenditure of Eastern European nations, France, and Germany were all higher than in the UK. With cuts for arts funding and a growing anti-intellectual language that pervaded the British media and political arena, UK artists and arts administrators looked with some jealousy at their peers on the continent. And seeing that the domestic budgets for culture in the UK were dwindling, many invested a lot of energy and time in bidding for EU funding and participating in EU-wide discussions.

Brexit and the impact of the pandemic on the arts have pushed the sector to look for new models of engagement with audiences and partners in EU-member states. Certainly the Arts Council England and the British Council will continue to support binational schemes and seasons with European countries such as the Fluxus Art Projects with France; in the context of building a ‘Global Britain’ these agencies have also developed international schemes to reach out to audiences in Asia and South America, for example. But no alternative has yet been instigated to maintain partnerships with EU member state. The sector has long valued cooperation with overseas governments, individuals and organisations, and the framework of the EU has promoted such an outward looking attitude. While the UK arts and creative industries largely remain Europhile and are keen to continue cooperating with partners in EU member states, the government and affiliated cultural agencies must work to ensure that there are programmes and regulations in place that advance, rather than hinder, the integration of UK partners in pan-European cultural partnerships.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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