At Art on Paper in Amsterdam, the British galleries stayed away this spring. This is usually the sort of small but respected art fair that might attract a peppering of UK galleries, many of whom represent emerging artists. But not anymore. In London, Art Basel, which organises the Masterpiece art fair, scrapped the event scheduled for this summer, principally due to lack of interest from European galleries.
The reason for much of this lack of interest could be found at the DavisKlemm Gallery stand at Art on Paper. This happened to be one of the few stands showing work by a British artist, Julian Opie. Erika Davis-Klemm explained that not only is Opie a significant British artist (with prices to match) but his prints are published in Germany. This meant the gallery could avoid the increased importation costs brought about by Brexit. But while she would continue to work with Opie, she explained sadly, the gallery could no longer work with young British artists. It had simply become too expensive.
Austerity has stripped public services to the bone. Brexterity has done the same to possibility and opportunity.
Brexterity tears the canvas
Brexit, like a wicked fairy’s curse, means nascent British artists can forget about furthering their careers in Europe. It wasn’t always so. In the 1980s, as Howard Hodgkin’s studio assistant, I acquired an invitation to Art Cologne’s most private of private views. Surveying the vast aggregation of art galleries at this, the oldest of the world’s art fairs, Art Cologne seemed astonishing. It offered, it seemed, infinite possibilities.
I had dipped my toes into Europe. With an invitation from Lorenzelli Arte, I uncertainly wove my way through Northern France, my old VW camper-van filled to capacity with work, under the Alps to the Milan gallery. It couldn’t happen now. They simply wouldn’t have asked me to come because, as Davis-Klemm said, it’s too expensive to work with young British artists anymore.
As if to accelerate the damage Brexterity has visited on its citizenry and in one of its more small-minded acts of self-destruction, the UK government declined the EU’s standard offer for visiting artists from third countries in the UK/EU Trade Agreement. This leaves the country, as one senior member of the House of Lords put it to me, in the position of having fewer reciprocal arrangements with the EU on the arts than Tonga. “It’s just simply not consistent with the manifesto commitment to take back control of our borders, and it wasn’t consistent with the idea of Brexit that the majority of people in this country voted for,” said Caroline Dinenage, the minister for the arts, at the time.
That the UK in its dotage has, or ever had, any idea what Brexit meant is obviously open for debate, aside from having something to do with having your fudge and eating it. But whatever its ‘meaning’ was, the government clearly hasn’t managed to ‘take back control’ of anything very much. We watch with incredulity the daily pantomime of Brexiting fails from this side of the North Sea, whether it’s the UK’s empty supermarket shelves, or the thousands queueing for hours if not days, to request permission to enter France. Of course, Britain can’t afford to stamp European passports itself without creating complete gridlock – an irony presumably lost on those itching to seal the borders.
The delays tourists currently face at EU borders echo the chaos Brexterity has brought to the arts. Close reading of the Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU suggests that, during the negotiations, tentative agreements were made on culture and media, but then withdrawn. For example, there are residual passages in the agreement that allow broadcasters to carry equipment across EU borders, overridden a few paragraphs later with clarifications that say carnets will be required. Consequently, those in the media are also now subject to new restrictions, including visa and work permit requirements in many EU countries, and must pay for carnets to bring their equipment with them.
Through the lens of Brexterity
I asked Nick Dunmur of the Association of Photographers what kind of problems photographers were now facing post-Brexit. He said, “Firstly, many have found that their European clients have simply disappeared and are no longer commissioning from the UK, preferring instead to not have to endure any of the difficulties … they might face in transacting cross-border. Secondly, those photographers that continue to travel in and out of the EU for commissioned work are having increased admin time and financial cost for getting carnets in place.”
Performing artists face similar problems. The Carry On Touring campaign has been hugely effective in raising public awareness of the hurdles touring performers now face. Not least through organiser Tim Brennan’s petition, which calls for visa- and work permit-free travel for those in the culture, media, and sport sectors, along with exceptions to the carnet requirements. It collected over 280,000 signatures and Elton John’s support, while no doubt driving Labour’s current policy to secure visa-free travel for musicians and artists.
If anyone thinks the creative sector is economically unimportant, then they need to think again. The Times reports that in 2019, “the creative industries were worth more than life sciences, automotive manufacturing, aerospace and oil and gas combined”, and that the “Creative Industries Trade and Investment Board … wants to hit £55 billion in exports of goods and services by 2025 and £78 billion in 2030.”
Prior to Brexterity, artworks were routinely imported into the UK before being shipped on to other EU countries, at no extra cost. This is because, of the member states, the UK had the lowest VAT rate for art at 5%. Once within the Single Market, the work could be transported to any of the other 27 countries without further VAT being charged. But now, for example, a German buyer in the UK will also have to pay 19% VAT at the German border if he wants to bring the piece home, having already paid the UK’s 5% – a clear disincentive to buying the work in London. How this will affect the London art market in the long term is unclear, but obviously it’s not likely to do it much good.
This is the problem Davis-Klemm is talking about. The tax applies not to work that is sold, but to work that crosses the border. If you want to send work to an art fair in London from an EU country, you must pay VAT at the UK’s border, and then again at your own country’s border when you ship it back. The Art Newspaper quotes Anthony Browne, former director of high-end British auction house Christie’s, and currently the chairman of the British Art Market Federation, as saying that VAT post-Brexit has “caused immense problems because you have two lots of hurdles to jump instead of one”.
While not many will be buckling with grief that a few wealthy art collectors have to pay a bit more tax, it’s important to understand that it is the smaller galleries, along with younger individual artists, who will suffer the most in this not-so-brave new world.
The golden ticket
David Powell, a Welsh artist now living in the Netherlands, describes the prelapsarian era when working across European borders was easy. He felt like he’d won a “golden ticket” when he was awarded the prestigious post-graduate residency at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, after attending the Cardiff School of Art and the Slade. It meant a free studio to work in for two years, an apartment, enough money to live off, and the mentorship of international artists like Jan Dibbets. A show at the Stedelijk Museum followed.
Now teaching at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, he says: “Brexit has severely impacted my sales to the UK and has limited my prospects of exhibiting there ever again.” He adds that his accountant has told him he shouldn’t “touch the UK with a barge pole”, and that if he did, he would have to hire a second accountant to sort out the UK VAT.
But perhaps the saddest thing he had to say, as a tutor at the Dutch Royal Academy, was that there is a “huge lack of uptake by British students, full time or exchange, coming to the Netherlands.” And all of the Academy trips to the UK are cancelled, when “these used to be a regular part of the curriculum.” Again, Britain slams the door on itself, just as it declined the EU’s offer of artist visas. It has also opted out of the Erasmus Programme, which facilitated over nine million student exchanges.
We ‘remainers’ always said it would be bad. And we were derided for fomenting “Project Fear”. But this is worse than we ever imagined. Brexit has become like the man who, in a mad midlife crisis, leaves his wife and family because he thought he’d get a Jag and a girlfriend. Only to find himself in short order, girlfriendless, on the bus to work, and living in a bedsit above the post office.
Just as the ex is unlikely to take him back, the EU is hardly in the mood to welcome us home. But the time has come for grown up conversations to be had. In that context, the creative and media sectors are the lowest of the low-hanging fruits, allowing us to reach the least contentious and easiest of agreements about the effects of Brexterity.
The UK/EU Trade Agreement comes up for review in 2025 – and frankly it can’t come too soon. Since visa-free travel for touring musicians is clearly on the political agenda, the rest of the arts should be too. So a deal on cabotage for instruments and equipment please. VAT on art at the border should be up for discussion in the UK too.
And for heaven’s sake, let’s rejoin the Erasmus Programme.