Home Magazine Brexit vs The Art World - Where Are We Now?

Ever since June 23, 2016, when the United Kingdom held a referendum and voted itself out of the European Union, it seems that there is one word prevailing among all others - uncertainty. At this moment, one month following the supposed “divorce date” on March 29 and months ahead of the next one on October 31, not even those in charge of the negotiations can say they know what they are doing or what the future will look like - let alone the rest of us. As the deal continues to not be reached both domestically and internationally, industries including the art one are trying to prepare for whatever outcome Brexit brings. While artists tackle the topic regularly in their work, the focus remains on the market and a solution that must be found in any case scenario.

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The disbelief and shock similar to the one brought by the last Presidential elections in the US was almost palpable in the UK upon the revelation that nearly 52% of its people did no longer want their country within the European community. With an unbelievable number of people googling “what is eu” the morning after suggested the beginning of something very ugly already, and it would seem that the 6 million people who have thus far signed the “Revoke Brexit” petition have little to hope for. The Withdrawal Agreement just got a third hard ‘no’ from the British MPs, potentially leading up to a ‘No-deal Brexit’ which would cut all ties between the EU and the UK effective immediately. 



The Importance of the UK for the Art World At Large

According to reports hailing from the UK, those handling the Brexit are as of yet not doing much (if anything at all) to soften the blow that the British culture sector will endure should there be no deal. Among the relationships formed between the EU and the UK since 1973, the cultural one is of an immense importance; The United Kingdom is the third largest exporter of cultural services and goods in the world. In the 2019 Art Market Report released by UBS and Art Basel, it was revealed that, despite Brexit, the UK regained its position as the second-largest art market, taking up 21% of the global share and another 66% within the EU Art Market Share.

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But what the UK means for the cultural development on a more comprehensive scale goes well beyond and means so much more than plain numbers - think of all the renowned museums and galleries based there, the exhibitions, art fairs, auctions, biennales and festivals taking place there, artists and art professionals coming from there or finding their life’s calling there. Of course, the United Kingdom will by no means cease to exist and will still be there after Brexit, but for the cultural workers inside and out of its borders the rules of the game may have to change in a multitude of ways, and possibly for the much worse.


Frieze art fair in London


The Burning Questions

While the issues concerning money and the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland draw most of the attention from the politics standpoint, the most critical topic that the EU and British officials have in common with the arts sector is the one regarding the freedom of movement and residency. A change in the fate of the EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa could cause serious damage to the cultural landscape in the country. “We have to be able to continue employing people from the EU, to ensure the richness and complexity of our cultural offer,” said Nicholas Serota, previously the director of the Tate galleries and now chair of Arts Council England. With the immigration rules already being hard on the non-EU nationals, their application to all non-UK residents would shake the structure within many art institutions; according to The Arts Council England’s report, up to 15% of the workforce in some large national museums are EU employees.

It is not just the movement of people that is at stake however, as the questions of VAT and the border-crossing of artworks for example are the ones seeking answers as well. Experts warn that possible rising costs, import procedures (which currently do not exist for EU imports) and paperwork delays could directly affect exhibitions and art fairs, and even drive people away from participating in the first place. For now, their advice is to patiently plan well in ahead and propose that the items and people involved in such events and institutions be exempt from the standard handling, should one be implemented. In 2017, organizers of Frieze art fair in London also released a series of recommendations in order to “maintain the best possible conditions for the art world”. Director Victoria Siddall shared these views with the Creative Industries Federation, in coordination with UK-based galleries. In fact, the propositions include maintaining the current rate of VAT (5% - the lowest rate in the EU), as well as free circulation of artworks between the EU and the UK.

Another potential problem could be with the EU funding meant for UK organizations. The aforementioned Arts Council and its partners, for instance, receive significant amounts of fundings from abroad, including the EU, and schemes such as European Regional Development Fund and Creative Europe are in place and functioning across the continent. While it would seem that the government will fund those which already have EU support, others should “consider its reliance on commercial or philanthropic income through visitor numbers, donations or corporate hire”, in case of a no deal Brexit.

Right now though, with still no final decision on the Brexit matter, no one is actually able to make any sort of contingency plan and has to rely on assumptions and expert advice - at least until the next set date. 


Wolfgang Tillmans' photograph for the Remain campaign


The Art of Brexit - How Artists Are Dealing

Naturally, as it is in art’s nature to be aware and responsive to socio-political issue of its time, many British and Britain-based artists have taken upon themselves to express their views on the nerve-wrecking matter.

Even before the Brexit referendum took place, German-born but Britain-based Wolfgang Tillmans created a series of posters in favor of the “Remain” campaign. His photographs came with writings such as “It’s a question of where you feel you belong” and “What is lost is lost forever”. Speaking of posters, more of them are to be erected in form of billboards across Britain, courtesy Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger.

Another famous name, Jeremy Deller, is signed among the Brexit opposers, notably through the one-night “European Party” held in November 2017 and featuring t-shirts designed by Deller and containing the phrase “Fuck Brexit” in variations. Recent artworks by Gavin Turk, Bob and Roberta Smith, Grayson Perry and Martin Parr also reflect upon the issue, and so are the pieces within numerous group exhibitions held across the land - more recently, the “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Show at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art.

But perhaps the most impactful reference of Brexit in visual arts so far is the one made by Banksy. The notorious (and anonymous) street artist used a building in Dover, an important coastal city just across continental Europe via the English Channel, as his canvas to paint a mural of a worker chipping a star off the European Union flag. Like almost all artworks created by Banksy anywhere in the world, this one also made headlines but also a very strong point. Subsequently, he also reminded us of an artwork he created ten years ago, featuring a group of monkeys taking over the British parliament. We can be sure to expect even more from Banksy on the subject in the very near future!


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