BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 17 MAR 20

‘Perverse Situation’: How the UK’s New Immigration Rules Will Hit the Art World

For many, talk of wage thresholds and points scored for speaking English will be anathema to a cultural scene defined by its internationalism

BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 17 MAR 20

‘Huge step backward’, ‘perverse situation’, ‘negative effect’: responses from artists and curators are filled with a combination of despair and gritted-teeth anger, as the art world tries to gauge the impact of the UK Government’s recent policy statement on a new points-based immigration system, to be implemented from January 2021. For the Turner Prize-winning German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, currently based between London and Berlin, talk of wage thresholds and points scored for speaking English are anathema to a cultural scene defined by its internationalism. He told frieze: ‘This will create a considerable barrier that could deeply affect interesting and successful artists who, in an art world where income is distributed very unevenly, happen to be full of merit but not wealthy.’ Tillmans adds that the country ‘has benefited from attracting free-spirited people who came without a clear goal and purpose, who only discovered what their place in society might be whilst in the UK’.

The new post-Brexit system eschews such openness. Instead, the end of free movement from EU countries means the route for self-employed workers has been closed, and those wanting to move to the UK need a job offer at an ‘appropriate skill level’ from an ‘approved sponsor’, with a wage of GB£25,600 or above. (A minimum level of GB£20,480 will be acceptable in special cases.) While Home Secretary Priti Patel talks of ending a culture of low-paid unskilled work done by EU migrants, the reality for many involved in contemporary art is a culture of skilled yet nonetheless low-paid employment or freelance work. The nuances of art’s unconventional networks and in-kind support are not part of the picture.

At the artist-run Birmingham gallery Eastside Projects, director Gavin Wade says he can already foresee the impact the proposed immigration system will have. New artist-curator traineeships at the gallery, for example, have attracted applications from EU countries and as far away as South Africa. But, since the salary is £14,508 for a four-day week, overseas candidates ‘wouldn’t get past the points system’. The biggest and most immediate impact on arts organizations, however, is likely to be in relation to exhibition and residency programmes, where the current ‘Tier 5’ temporary-worker visa required for non-EU citizens will be extended to everyone. Katrina Brown, director of Glasgow’s The Common Guild, believes that the proposed system will ‘have a hugely negative effect, making it both more of an administrative burden and more costly to invite artists, speakers and others from EU countries to contribute to our programmes’.

mixrice, ‘Migrating Flavours’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Eastside Projects, Birmingham

The Home Office maintains that the UK will continue to attract ‘world-class artists, entertainers and musicians’ and that immigration rules ‘already permit performers from around the world to take part in events, concerts and competitions without the need for formal sponsorship or a work visa’. The reality for many arts organizations – and particularly for those unable to meet the eligibility criteria to be a sponsor – is of an opaque system that is already inconsistent and often appears dysfunctional. Claudia Zeiske of Deveron Projects in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, has long argued for a fairer and more transparent approach, previously describing the current visa system as ‘catastrophic’ for the art world. She believes it can only get worse. ‘We have been working with the Tier 5 system for overseas artists for years, and it has always been hit and miss. This new system will certainly be more complicated and more costly. Many organizations simply do not have the stamina or capacity to take this forward.’

Skinder Hundal, director of Nottingham’s New Art Exchange, expresses a view shared by many when he says that the organizational burden created by the new system will undoubtedly influence whether artists feel inclined to exhibit in the country. He talks of ‘additional costs’ and the need for ‘longer lead times’ when working with European artists come 2021. ‘This alone might prevent or deter artists from coming to the UK. Ultimately, any post-Brexit system implemented will affect the fluidity and exchange of skills and knowledge.’ It’s a view echoed by Clymene Christoforou, director of Newcastle-based D6 Culture in Transit, currently leading on the Creative Europe-supported Contested Desires – a ‘transnational project exploring our shared and contested colonial heritage and its influence on contemporary culture’. She says: ‘The message being sent with this immigration system furthers our artists’ and partners’ perception of the UK as a problem child. When there is such a richness of activity and opportunity across the continent, why would European partners choose to work with the UK and why would professional artists and arts managers choose to find work here?’

Jasmina Cibic, ‘The Pleasure of Expense’, 2019, performance documentation at Cooper Gallery, DJCAD. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Sally Jubb

The London-based Serbian artist Jasmina Cibic has similar concerns. ‘As a UK-graduated European artist with 20 years of professional experience in this country, I would be eligible for only about 10 of the 70 points required to enter the UK,’ she says, describing ‘the absurdity of packaging artists into the same points system with other professions, which have fundamentally different functioning structures.’ She talks of the UK losing ‘much of the amazing artistic production that has been delivered as a consequence of the exchange of ideas and critical thought that British art universities have been creating for years’.

Others in the art world are more coded in their assessment of the proposals. At Artes Mundi, the international art prize held biennially in Cardiff, director Nigel Prince believes that ‘the specifics of the point system don’t appear to create extra difficulties’ and that when introduced it will be ‘more a case of extending the way in which we work at present’. He adds: ‘It would, though, create more challenging circumstances regarding recruitment in the future and in how this might affect reach, connectivity and experience within the organization.’ Liverpool Biennial director Fatoş Üstek, while conceding that the new system ‘may well lengthen’ the process for artists’ visa applications, displays steely resolve in the face of such difficulties. ‘We are prepared to take on this challenge in order to support participating artists,’ she says, before mentioning the Creative Europe-supported Perennial Biennial, ‘a new European network of organizations facing the challenges of understanding how to act locally and globally simultaneously’. The other organizations are Bergen Assembly, Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, and the Berlin and Riga biennales.

Are there any benefits to be found in this new era of point scoring and form filling, any sign of a ‘Brexit dividend’? Accidentally, perhaps. ‘The only positive outcome is that it spurs us on to think of more creative solutions as to how to exchange and think together,’ says Hundal. ‘Our mission of creating a world that’s collaborative and inclusive is more important than ever before. This moment strengthens our purpose.’

Main image: Terminal 5, London Heathrow Airport, 2008. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt