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British Art Scene Feels Brexit Bite

The National Gallery, London (Alamy)

7 min read

The art industry is calling on ministers to reduce post-Brexit red tape that is leading to the cancellation of exhibitions and delays of over a month for pieces heading to Europe.

The UK left the European Union in January 2021, and since then the creative industries sector, which is worth around 6 per cent of the economy, has been one of the industries most acutely affected by the decision by Boris Johnson's government to replace membership of the single market and customs union with a more distant trading relationship with Europe.

The new financial and practical hurdles facing performers trying to play shows on the continent, particularly young and up-and-coming acts with fewer resources, are well-known. The number of UK bands touring the EU this summer is estimated by the Best For Britain campaign group to be down nearly a third on pre-pandemic levels.

But the impact Brexit has had on the visual arts – on major exhibitions, cross-border trade, and the career opportunities for British and European artists alike – is perhaps less well-known.

Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum who was previously a Labour MP and shadow secretary of state, said that barriers to trade created by Brexit were contributing to ongoing "pressure" on London's status as a global art hub.

"For collectors, the free and easy movement of goods between countries, there is now friction in that," he said in an interview with The House Magazine earlier this year.

For Artiq, an art agency based in Clerkenwell, central London which specialises in leasing and selling art to clients in the UK and abroad, post-Brexit paperwork has put pay to the seamless movement of art that it once enjoyed. Now, moving pieces to and from the continent is a time-consuming process involving multiple invoices and customs declarations, with shipping delays sometimes lasting up to six weeks, according to CEO and co-founder Patrick McCrae.

"Red tape is slowing down import and export and adding more costs at customs. We need to make trade easier, not more difficult, given the international nature of the art market, if British businesses are to remain competitive on the global stage,” he told PoliticsHome.

The UK arm of Sotheby's, a major international art broker, said this week that its profits had fallen by nearly a quarter last year, adding that the UK's exit from the EU was "adversely affecting" its ability to move art to and from the EU. Sotheby's accounts showed that the import of art and antiques to the UK had fallen 18 per cent in 2021 and a further 16 per cent in 2022, The Art Newspaper reported.

The decision to cancel this summer's Masterpiece art festival in London is seen as an example of the detrimental impact post-Brexit paperwork was having on the industry in the UK.

Organisers of the festival, which was due to get underway in late June, said new red tape was partly to blame, telling Sky News that the number of galleries based in the EU which had applied to participate in this year's showcase was down 86 per cent compared with 2018. Another London summer art festival, Olympia, was also cancelled due to insufficient dealer interest.

Paula Orrell, Director at the Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN), said Brexit-induced costs were exacerbating high energy bills and inflation, forcing many British galleries into making cutbacks - with negative consequences for audiences and artists alike. 

"They are doing longer runs of exhibitions, and fewer exhibitions with artists, meaning there are fewer platforms for artists to showcase their work," she explained to PoliticsHome.

A spokesperson for London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the city is seen worldwide as a "global capital of culture and creativity" and is "home to world-class creative industries", but that its internationally-renowned art scene was being put under strain by the impact of Brexit.

"It's quite clear that Brexit is having a detrimental effect on our world-leading creative industries – at a time when we can least afford it," they said.

Khan has called for the UK to rejoin the EU's single market and customs union, and wants City Hall to be given the devolved powers to set its own visa policy for London's particular needs.

Around 40 per cent of Artiq's 40-person team is non-British. This includes a small team covering the Italian market, who lived in the UK before Brexit and were able to secure leave to remain. However, the UK's post-Brexit visa regime for the creative industries, which industry figures argue is more stringent compared with sectors like tech, means it would be much more difficult and costly for the company to recuit staff from Europe in 2023. 

Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A

“It would be harder, more time consuming and more expensive than before. This doesn’t just knock my own business’ competitive advantage, but that of the country too," said McCrae.

McCrae and other industry figures are urging the Home Office to expand the Global Talent Visa to make it easier for UK art businesses to recruit staff from abroad. The visa grants a "leader" or "potential leader" in sectors including arts and culture a simpler and less expensive route to taking up jobs in the UK than they would otherwise face, but currently the visa excludes a range of roles in the art sector like consultants, advertisers and collectors.

The hurdles to mobility are affecting the movement of people the other way, too.

According to Orrell at CVAN, post-Brexit restrictions on how long UK artists can spend working in EU countries, undertaking projects and developing their craft, have led to a significant fall in the number of British creatives taking up lengthy residences on the continent, undermining the "critical" professional networks which help them build their profile.

"You can go for 90 days as a citizen, but to go for a more sustained period of time to work is hugely problematic. The time, the cost, the whole process – it’s just disabling,” she told PoliticsHome.

Prior to Brexit, the EU's free movement of people rule meant it was much easier for British people to live and work in the bloc for as long as they want, and vice versa.

Labour MP Kevin Brennan, who sits on the culture, media and sports committee, said the UK must push for closer ties with the EU on creative industries when their Brexit trade deal, known as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, is reviewed in mid-2026. Brennan has taken a particular interest in the post-Brexit barriers and costs facing touring musicians, but says the hurdles facing the visual arts are part of the same failure to protect creative industries.

“We need exchanges of culture, performance and people with our nearest neighbours – it’s a good thing in itself, and is an area that the UK is very, good at it," he told PoliticsHome.

“As net exporters of culture, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

This shrinking global talent pool for UK art businesses comes against a backrop of industry concern about decreasing numbers of young British people pursuing creative careers.

The number of students taking arts GCSEs has fallen 40 per cent since 2010, while research has found that pupils feel they do not receive adequate information about opportunities in the creative industries. Despite being one of the fastest-growing parts of the UK economy, the creative sector still suffers from a lingering reputation of being an overly-competitive, precarious and low-paid career option. A 2018 survey found that a quarter of parents would "actively prevent" their children pursuing a career in the creative industries.

"If the creative sector is to reach its full potential, we need to be able to access the best talent both here in the UK and abroad," Artiq's McCrae told PoliticsHome.

"A solution to hiring professionals from other countries for art businesses would go some way to addressing this, and it is imperative that the government puts funding into an awareness campaign that demonstrates to young people in education that they can have a financially viable and enriching career in the creative industry to continue to change perceptions.”

A government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We’ve transformed the immigration system to encourage the best and brightest to come to the UK, including recognising the immense contribution the creative industries make to our rich culture, boosting our economy and generating jobs.

“Goods imported into the UK for a short period of time, such as artwork, can also use a simplified process and be brought in without paying customs duty or import VAT.

“We will continue our close dialogue with the creative and cultural sectors to ensure that they have the support they need to thrive.”

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