Why COVID-19 and Brexit Are a Toxic Combination for the UK’s Arts

Editor’s Note: the Artsology Blog has always been a personal blog, sharing my own observations and enthusiasm for art, music, and general creativity, as well as some occasional arts news. Speaking of news, considering that Artsology is based in the New York City metropolitan area, the blog generally slants towards the local and national, but I received a guest blog post submission that I thought would be of interest as it extends our reach of topics outside of the U.S.

This post comes to us from Peter Markham, who is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organization of immigration lawyers based in the Greater Manchester area in the United Kingdom. Considering that I am seeing and experiencing how COVID-19 is affecting the arts in the NYC area, I think it might be of interest to our readers to see how it is affecting the arts in other parts of the world. With this as my introduction, let’s get on to Peter’s piece:

August, 2020: The arts and culture sector looks set to be one of the hardest hit areas in the UK as a result of Covid-19. However, throw in a host of new obstacles soon to be created by the UK’s departure from the EU in the next few months and the struggle for survival will become even tougher.

It’s thought that the number of tourist visits made to the UK from overseas could drop by 59 percent for the remainder of 2020, largely in part due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and people’s anxieties in traveling to the UK during this time of crisis. The impending recession that the UK is now bracing for is equally likely to see domestic visitor trips plunge too. But for the arts sector encompassing museums and exhibitions, a dramatic decline in tourism is likely to translate into huge financial losses.

As the UK begins to tiptoe towards normality what with pubs, shops and cinemas starting to open while attempting to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the picture for performing arts remain bleak. COVID-19 coupled with a recession on the horizon has worried many UK theatres, with most expecting severe financial hardship by 2021 and therefore a swathe of job losses. Already, theatres have announced they will be cancelling their Christmas pantomimes – the ‘bread and butter’ of their income that helps productions to stay afloat throughout the year.

Sadly, music performers are facing the same conundrum with many UK venues finding the prospect of social distancing to be the circle that simply cannot be squared. Such buildings aren’t built for spaced out attendees – and fewer seats translate into far less revenue. As a result, high profile musicians such as KT Tunstall are referring to COVID-19 as an “extinction level event” for the sector.

Yet new visa rules and a plethora of other immigration-related regulations that come into effect in January 2021 is only piling on the pressure for the arts and culture sector. In just a few months’ time, British artists will lose their Freedom of Movement to perform across the continent – and vice versa for EU talent seeking to perform in the UK. It goes without saying that the UK music scene has long been a beneficiary of free movement and the single market with the EU, but it doesn’t help that the alternative is costly red tape, bureaucratic paperwork and visa complications for touring crews.

Let’s take as an example, a small, relatively unknown UK rock band. Up until the restrictions come in, they’ve had the right to spontaneously jump in a van packed with their gear and supporting crew to drive across to Germany and perform for a week with minimal administrative interference. But as of 2021, they will need to apply and pay for carnets for their merchandise and equipment and a visa per each member of staff and per each EU state they plan to perform in. For the middle-of-the-road band that is yet to ‘make it big,’ the cost alone is enough to deter them from the opportunity.

EU entertainers who want to perform in the UK are likely to face similar issues – only they will need to apply for one UK Visa rather than one per each country of the continent. However, the options available are limited. The UK Visit Visa would cover a performer for up to six months, but they cannot enter paid employment during this time.

Alternatively, the Permitted Paid Engagement Visa appears most favorable: it allows artists to be paid and perform in the country for up to one month, but still they require a formal invitation from a UK-based agency or organization. There is also the Temporary Creative Visa which allows performers to work in the UK for 12 months – but again, they would need a UK sponsor and at least £1,000 in savings on top of that. For the vast majority of performers who live ‘hand to mouth’ gigs in self-employment, the savings requirement could see them refused entry.

Museums and art galleries also face a very uncertain future. These are institutions that have already seen their budgets cut in recent years, but the new visa rules, lack of tourism and COVID-19 could see even more cuts. It’s possible some museums will struggle to remain commercially viable and may have to introduce entrance fees as a result. One report by the Creative Industries Federation estimated that UK museums would only lose 9% of their usual takings, however, this figure has been fiercely challenged by the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) as being totally unrealistic with a 50% drop, it says, being more likely.

Art dealers and galleries will further face real challenges created by Brexit. In 2021, shipping artefacts to and from Europe will be more expensive and more complicated. There is fear bubbling under the surface that London may lose its position as Europe’s biggest art market.

Yet as musicians call for a unique Musicians’ Passport with the EU, there is no such alternative or campaign to protect other industries that are of equal importance to the UK economy and its rich cultural identity. In the face of mass uncertainty, the UK’s beloved arts and culture sector has been left in the dark.

It appears every section of the arts industry is being battered and from all sides. If the consequences of Covid-19 were not serious enough, then Brexit could be the final nail in the coffin. Existing as an artist has come with a level of uncertainty since time immemorial. As things stand at the moment, it’s hard to see how future talent will feel a career in the arts is sustainable or even worth embarking upon.

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