How will Brexit reshape culture and the arts in the UK?

Olivia Bridge marks out what we know, and what we don’t know, about the impact Brexit will have on the arts and culture industries of the UK.

The countdown to Brexit (and Brexit Fest) has begun. With little over six months to go until we reach the deadline for Article 50, the British public share the anticipation with parliament as we brace ourselves for the probability of a no-deal scenario. It seems we’re all aboard a sinking ship that’s too late to abandon and simultaneously save face. So, we’re sticking at it. Free movement will definitely end come March 2019 and we aren’t any closer to knowing what the repercussions of divorce really holds.

In a bid to ease anxieties, the UK government released its White Paper to map the UK and EU’s future relationship. However, the paper was met with criticisms from both sides of the pond and political spheres. Clearly, appeasing no one is a more desirable route than attempting to please a monumentally divided nation. To the surprise of many, the document barely touched on immigration. Although the Home Office has assured current EU migrants living and working in the UK will be granted Settled Status if they apply before 2021, as for the future, we are none the wiser to where we were in 2016.

However, the unsung casualty of Brexit falls onto the culture and arts industry. If museums and galleries thought austerity was its biggest threat, a tsunami of funding cuts and staffing shortages await just over the horizon.

One of the prevailing problems Brexit imposes is depleting staff numbers. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 4.6% of employees in art institutions are non-UK nationals. The Creative Industries Federation believes this percentage is an underestimate since some large national museums are home to workforces in which 15% are European. In archaeology alone, 60% of staff originate from the EU.

Recruiters fear a drought in their talent pools post-Brexit. Creative brains in the top end of the industry are already turning away from the UK. The pros of relocating elsewhere in the EU outweighs the glum and stale prospects of sticking around in the UK, prospects that hint at a loss of EU funding, job uncertainty and an insecure immigration status. The late Martin Roth, who was German director of the Dresden State Art Collections, curator at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, museum director of the world’s leading museum of art and design Victoria and Albert Museums (V&A) and an altogether world class precedent in both UK and EU art and culture spheres, quoted Brexit as a “personal defeat” and his motivation to resign before his untimely death in Berlin last year. Tate’s curator Sheena Wagstaff as well as Chris Dercon have similarly abandoned their posts in the UK for more fruitful prospects across the Channel. In the last six months alone, many leading cultural organisations have expressed their hesitance to hire from the EU in anticipation of immigration changes that could change overnight in the event of a no-deal.

The UK has long benefited from free movement as exhibitions shared audiences, collections, ideas and expertise. Yet without easy mobility across the EU and the UK, the culture and arts industry face a severe skills gap, staff shortage and damaged worldly reputation. To exacerbate these fears, the UK government has decided the current immigration and visa system for international migrants is fit for European citizens after Brexit.  The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned against this very decision in its report ‘Open and Controlled: A New Approach to Immigration After Brexit’, evidently to no avail.

If the government fails to implement an appropriate visa system, future EU citizens will require a Tier 2 Visa. The problems with this visa for the creative, culture and arts sectors are obvious: Tier 2 Work Visas dictate that applicants must earn £30,000 as a minimum. Most museum attendants, assistants, technicians, conservators, artists and curators fall short of this income threshold, meaning many valuable creatives would be ineligible to work in the UK. Even those at the top end of the industry that marginally reach past the salary boundaries will have further obstacles to overcome: Tier 2 Visas are capped annually at 20,700. Migrants – from all professions and walks of life – will then be competing for a visa before the cap is reached, with priority being given to the highest earners. Historic England predict the UK will require somewhere between 25% and 64% more archaeologists before 2033 just to keep in line with demand. This goal will be entirely unreachable with the cap and salary requirement still in place.

Aggravating matters, museums and galleries might be forced to increase their exhibition prices for visitors just to cover the immigration costs and sponsorship licence fees necessary for their European staff. Not only will institutions face driving their already depleting visitors away, but many will be put off from hiring from overseas entirely. The glaring deterrent for managers is that they will need to apply for a Sponsor Licence which is both an administrative and financial burden, not to mention incredibly complex to navigate.

According to the Museums Association, over a third of museums face staff disruptions across the country. Relying on homegrown talent is not an option either since students are continually dissuaded from taking up a relevant degree or course. Unprecedented high tuition fees and unpromising job prospects post-graduation are exacerbated by increasingly low and stagnant pay for employees working under the arts and heritage umbrella. Universities such as Birmingham, Bangor and Manchester have been driven to make severe cuts to their archaeology departments due to a plummeting decline in interest.

One of a dwindling number of positives for the industry is a devalued pound will serve to increase foreign tourists to the UK, including British museums, art galleries and heritage centres. However, a further pound dive could mean local councils face the impossible task of filling huge funding holes. It is not uncommon for councils to sell their treasures, artefacts, artwork and sculptures to rich oligarchs abroad to plug the gaps; Croydon council sold their ancient Chinese ceramics for £8 million, Northampton council sold off an Egyptian sculpture for £16 million and Bury council sold LS Lowry’s A River Bank for £10 million. Since the government has demonstrated very little commitment to preserving British culture and arts, industry-wide professionals fear the arts will be the first to feel a tightened purse.

Clarity around immigration after the UK departs the EU is desperately needed. It is needed to save art centres, museums, touring exhibits and the highly valuable and knowledgeable staff members who accompany them. A failing immigration system only serves to paint a bleak picture of a cultureless, dull and colour-blind Britain. Art is multilingual and borderless. Without it, the UK will be at a great, great loss.


Olivia Bridge is a writer and political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.