What does the vote to leave the EU mean to artists and what are the challenges that lie ahead? As a membership organisation representing 20,000 artists and visual arts professionals across the UK, a-n’s recent EU survey was a chance to get a sense of how Brexit might affect visual artists.
Completed by 1,399 respondents between 9–30 July, and including 452 written comments in addition to answers to a series of multiple choice questions, the response from members was overwhelmingly one of dismay about the result.
Many cited a philosophical commitment to the arts as an “inclusive and outward-looking” profession and there was considerable concern about potential legal changes in areas such as freedom of movement, and import and export taxes.
A majority expressed anxiety about how this will affect their art practices, with the uncertainty making it difficult to plan ahead. Others stated they were already considering a move – or return – to mainland Europe. Some respondents expressed their intention to apply for an EU passport.
Not everyone was in the Remain camp, however. A small minority of comments expressed positive support for Brexit, citing the belief that it would bring greater independence and open up opportunities in non-European parts of the world.
The aim of the survey was to get a quick European snapshot of the shape and character of a-n’s members, including what passport respondents held. The answers reveal that 93% have a UK passport, with 14% holding an EU passport (not including UK) and 8% having a passport from a country outside the EU. The vast majority studied in the UK – over 95% – but nearly 10% studied in another EU country at some stage, reflecting the level of educational exchange between the UK and mainland Europe.
Impact on artistic practice
The survey reveals high levels of anxiety about the impact of the vote on all the issues relating to artistic practice, whether as an artist or arts organiser. 46% fear a negative impact on both exhibiting and selling opportunities, and 43% think Brexit will result in a drop in income, with only 15 people – 1.10% – thinking Brexit would have a positive impact in these areas, and 24% answering “don’t know”.
Changes to freedom of movement, and potential import and export charges, were cited as of huge concern, with anxiety about whether this would lead to greater bureaucracy and expense regarding visas and taxes.
Given that 53% of respondents travelled to mainland Europe in the last year on work-related business, these types of changes would clearly be significant.
One member commented: “I regularly work abroad, and Brexit will affect my business in a very bad way. I know how it is to operate outside the EU, as I have worked in Norway as well as Switzerland in the past… The paper trail will be endless, and the middle men will have a field day…”
Another major concern is the potential loss of European funding which has benefited 27% of respondents in the last 12 months. This includes the funding of projects, professional development, commissions and work offers.
Said one respondent: “20-25% of my income is earned from EU money, in the fields of both art and science. I remember when the borders were opened for free trade and movement, it made a spectacular difference to the lives of artists and what we could participate in on a cultural and educational level.”
EU specific opportunities
Some fear that they will be excluded from applying for EU specific opportunities such as residencies and exchanges. Members consider these opportunities to be enormously enriching for your own work and development, and that of the UK arts sector generally.
“I took part in a wonderful EU-funded, EU-wide residency programme early in my career,” a member comments. “This allowed me to exhibit alongside many high-calibre emerging artists from other EU member states. It was a formative experience.”
The survey suggests there has been an immediate negative impact for the visual arts, both financially and in terms of the withdrawal of opportunities. A number of respondents report price rises in the cost of importing necessary materials (for example, for making glass work and jewellery) which have increased as much as 25%.
The falling exchange rate means a rise in the cost of participating in European art fairs, with some galleries canceling their participation. Others cite the cancellation of exhibition opportunities from European partners.
“The impact of Brexit has been immediate,” says one respondent. “Within the first week of the vote I had a project cancelled due to the commissioning body deciding that, as the project would have been funded by an EU scheme, they needed to focus limited resources on areas with more chance of success and less uncertainty.”
A curator reports that the vote to leave is “setting all projects back about 18 months.”
The comments and data gathered by the survey will help to inform a developing Brexit strategy for a-n, with the results prioritising areas where a-n can help with information and support.
Director Jeanie Scott says: “We’re grateful to our members for responding so swiftly to this – the results largely mirror the kinds of conversations I’ve had with members in recent weeks.
“There are a range of concerns, but I’m also hearing a strong imperative for collective action, activism and solidarity too, which is good.
“There are such high levels of ambiguity in our current political landscape, and there will be for some time, that long-term planning and decision-making is going to be difficult for everyone.
“Ongoing conversations with our artist community will help us shape what will have to be an evolving strategy in relation to Brexit, along with positive lobbying for the fundamental rights and necessities of artists in making a livelihood from their practice.”