The visual arts face serious challenges

Echoing previous research, a sobering new report on the impact of Brexit on the visual arts. Early last year, a firm The Artists Information Company and Contemporary Visual Arts Network England (CVAN) commissioned BOP Consulting to investigate how visual arts workers have been affected by post-Brexit regulations redefining our interactions with Europe.

Based on interviews with 25 visual artists and visual arts professionals, International Connections: The impact of the UK’s departure from the European Union on the visual arts sector [hyperlink] highlights issues ranging from rising transport costs to loss of access to European networks and development opportunities.

Julie Lomax, CEO of The Artists Information Company, says: “International work is back and we all benefit from it – as evidenced by member Sonia Boyce who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and six selected British artists for the Lyon Biennale.

“It is a testament to the high quality of UK artists and their work, and to the resilience of UK arts organizations overcoming the barriers documented in this report. Imagine what we could do with a little help. Let’s make it easier for our artists and arts organizations to work internationally so they can continue to benefit me, you and the UK.

Artists and galleries have taken a big financial hit

The average loss of income for a visual arts worker during the pandemic was just over £7,000. This financial blow has been compounded by the fact that trade between the UK and the EU is no longer subject to the free movement of goods. As Harry Beer of The Sunday Painter – a commercial gallery representing 12 artists – puts it, “it’s at least 20% more expensive to ship”. In addition, our sector must manage a complex set of post-Brexit procedures governing EU trade.

Transporting works of art to and from the EU has become complicated and expensive. Artists and galleries have the unenviable task of choosing between losing some of their competitive advantage in the EU market by raising their prices to cover rising costs or absorbing these new expenses and seeing their profit margins squeezed. Existing guidance on new procedures and costs for importing and exporting goods does not accurately reflect the processes visual arts organizations must now manage.

The experience of Hollybush Gardens, which represents international artists including Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, provides a good example of the new financial and administrative burden on small arts organisations. Gallery co-owner Lisa Panting says, “It’s easier when you have ax million in revenue, and you can go to an expensive tax lawyer. It’s more difficult when you’re a small or medium-sized business.

For the first time, Hollybush Gardens expects to have to consider where visual artists and artworks are based when developing their exhibition programme. In December 2019, the gallery returned many works of art to the EU to ensure that its EU-based artists would not face huge costs of re-importing their works in the future. This resulted in a reduction in the stock available for sale for the gallery.

Impressive volume of documents required

Hideyuki Sobue, a Japanese artist based in the Lake District, has experienced delays in importing his work to the UK from Paris due to the sheer volume of new shipping documentation requirements.

Many of his peers face similar difficulties and he fears that these costs and complications will discourage visual artists from participating in exhibitions in the EU. “A lot of artists and galleries, or art managers will be discouraged from broadening their horizons.”

Simple tasks such as ordering paint online are now very complex and an additional layer of unseen work and expense falls on an already precariously employed workforce.

Artist Giles Round says, “Buying something on the internet should be as easy as buying socks, so it’s a two-day thing with back and forth emails, setting up all these accounts etc. I had to pay more because they put an administration charge on all their UK orders taking longer.

And it’s not just independent traders who are having trouble. The Whitechapel Gallery, established over 120 years ago, has stopped selling books online to EU customers as a direct result of shipping charges.

Loss of European networks

Another important challenge is the loss of access to EU institutions and networks. As the Center for Cultural Value recently highlighted, networks play a key role in supporting the cultural sector through crises and helping to build resilience and solidarity.

Clymene Christoforou, executive director of visual arts producer, D6: Culture In Transit, says: “It’s not just about losing access to funding…we’re seeing fewer British faces and voices in positions across Europe outside of funding and outside of the political sphere.Within civil society, the British voice has been marginalized.

As existing connections between Newcastle and Nicosia disappear, new networks are emerging as organizations find new ways to engage with Europe. D6, for example, has set up a sister NGO in Cyprus to ensure the future of its work.

D6 initiates difficult conversations about European colonialism like Contested Desires, a transnational cooperative project that addresses colonial heritage and its influence on contemporary culture. Christoforou says “D6EU was not something we would have chosen to do, but we are now very excited about opening new doors and new avenues of collaboration”.

Call to action

CVAN, as a founding member of the Visual Arts Alliance, specifically calls for a series of actions to be taken:
● New funding models to help visual artists and organizations engage in creative and economic exchanges between the EU and the UK.
● Knowledge exchange opportunities to share best practices on post-Brexit international exchange work.
● Support for pilot projects such as Arts Infopoint [] facilitate the international mobility of artists.
● Corporate investment in visual arts SMEs to provide new opportunities and profile international work.
● Industry representation on advisory bodies such as the National Advisory Group on the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
● Accessible government advice for artists, scholars, museum professionals, exhibitors and businesses working or exhibiting in the EU.
● Appointment of a commissioner for freelancers to defend the contribution of these artistic workers to the UK economy.

The dual impact of Brexit and the pandemic is unprecedented and requires such urgent action from the arts, funders and government.

Şenay Camgöz is Communications and Campaigns Manager at the Contemporary Visual Arts Network.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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