With the country’s Leave date postponed for a third time, we explore the issues that the art industry must contend with in a post-Brexit Britain.

Movement of Art and Trading

Probably the biggest area of concern for all UK industries regarding Brexit is the impact it will have on trading. For the art industry, the focus is on the predicted increase in costs for borrowing, lending and shipping art and artefacts. Currently, works of art are zero-rated for tariffs on EU imports and, therefore, aren’t subject to import tax. However, the prospect of hefty EU import taxes once the UK has left has already begun disrupting exhibition programmes. In anticipation of the previous March and October deadlines, galleries and museums closed exhibitions early to transport borrowed works back to their home countries to avoid potential multi-million pound re-import bills. 

There is also a likely wider disruption to the symbiosis of the art market. Dealers and commercial galleries with branches across Europe are used to transporting artworks in and out of the UK to show them to collectors, display them at art fairs, or move them between venues. At the moment, countries within the EU charge different rates of import VAT on art and the UK’s is the lowest at five per cent. Dealers in other EU countries often take advantage of this by bringing works into the EU via London before moving them within the bloc without incurring further charges. If a no-deal Brexit were to occur, this free movement would end and anyone importing art to the EU from the UK would incur a greater charge. Therefore, the UK would lose out on this trade loop to EU countries offering a 6 or 7 per cent rate.

Beyond the financial side, there is anxiety amongst some museums registrars – the people responsible for the safety of artwork –  that valuable works of art might become damaged at customs, due to increased waiting times and new procedures. 

In a report revealed by the Sunday Times, the government expects there to be “significant” disruption at ports for up to three months in the event of a no-deal. It also showed that “EU exit fatigue” – due to the extension of Article 50 – has left the UK less prepared now than it was on the original leaving date back in March. 

Simon Sheffield, the executive chairman of art shipping firm Martin Speed, told The Art Newspaper that he is “very concerned” about the ports, in particular the Dover to Calais route. He said: “Neither Dover nor Calais is prepared for a hard border or disorderly Brexit. Three months is optimistic; I suspect the disruption will last much longer.” Perhaps closer to the six months that Arts Council England has estimated for reduced access in their No Deal Brexit guide, published at the start of the year. 

Still, whatever the length of disruption, long waiting times at the border increases the risk of damage to objects. This could act as a deterrent to potential lenders, as well as any export licenses that might come in, or the new need for visas for couriers and curators.

Market Share

With these issues in trading, the UK stands to see a reduction in its share of the art market. In particular, London risks losing its position as Europe’s largest art market, and second internationally only to New York. Many are looking towards France – Paris specifically – as a potential new gateway for trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

Yet, while the Brexit forecast is pessimistic for the artistic community, some are facing it with an attitude of resilience; they see art as bigger than any current issue and believe it will continue to be produced and to thrive regardless. In London, the creative economy is valued at £52bn. A sixth of jobs there are creative, and these jobs are growing at quadruple the rate of the rest of the economy. 

Justine Simons – London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries – wrote in The Arts Newspaper: “We can’t escape the evidence that points to our growth, inward investment and jobs market being hurt by any form of Brexit, but we know London is resilient, diverse and innovative—ingredients that will help us thrive.”

Dr Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist, goes further suggesting that Brexit is “a golden opportunity”. In her research she highlights the dependence of Europe on the UK – without the UK the EU art market value would drop from a third of the market share to 13 per cent. For McAndrew, Brexit is an opportunity for the UK to break from “the EU’s top-down mould and regulation,” giving a chance to modify and create a new legal regime for the art trade.

It also offers an opportunity to build stronger relationships with non-EU countries. Munira Mirza, argues for the inclusion of “culture in future trade negotiations, an element the EU always excluded because of the concerns of other member states who had much smaller creative sectors than ours.”

There is, however, a London-centricity to much of this talk of resilience and opportunity. Antonia Cundy highlights that the “cuts will be felt mostly in the UK’s smaller and poorer towns and cities.” She points out these places won’t be able to justify their increased costs as they can’t “generate the larger financial return and visibility that the capital has to offer.” 

Financial Losses and Reduction in Visitors

In an interview with artnet News, Alexander Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art in Oxford, explained: “Major loan exhibitions are expensive undertakings and their financing is a constant challenge… the additional resources that will be required in the wake of Brexit will mean fewer and less ambitious exhibitions for the UK public.” For example, the Ashmolean’s current exhibition, Last Supper in Pompeii, features artefacts from Italy, and has been enabled by the free movement of goods within the EU.

According to Sturgis, “Brexit will inevitably have an impact on the bureaucracy, time, and costs involved in receiving loans from EU museums and private lenders, and so will make exhibitions such as Last Supper at Pompeii more expensive and difficult to mount”.

If this becomes the case, it is likely that visitor numbers will drop. Particularly, if once free museums and galleries are required to introduce or increase entrance charges to survive financially. This problem will be exasperated for UK organisations who have previously received funding from EU schemes, such as Creative Europe and the European Regional Development Fund, but will no longer be eligible unless Brexit negotiations lead to their inclusion in the withdrawal agreement.

In a statement released in February, the Museums Association spoke of their concern for the prospect of museum closures, reduced opening hours, staff reductions – in particular retention of EU staff with specific areas of expertise, and a drop in European visitors.

The Association said: “The UK’s museums sector is already in a fragile financial position after a decade of austerity and could struggle with the substantial financial losses that could arise from loss of earned income, philanthropy and public funding in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”


Still, there is a bigger discussion to be had beyond trade and finances – one about culture, about what British art is. 

The potential for the country to become further divided post-Brexit is clear: it was only a few days ago SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said an independent Scotland was now “within touching distance”. The possibility of an independent Scotland raises the question: what will happen to the British national art collection? During the last independence referendum, the Scottish government claimed £1.3tn of UK public assets in line with Scotland’s population of 8.4 per cent, but no art was included in the calculation. This assumes that Scotland would be happy with the art currently in their country at the point of independence. However, there is ground to suggest that they should claim back more of the UK’s collection, just as there is ground to suggest other places in the UK might ask for some pictures to be returned.

Many working artists have spoken out against Brexit. At a live auction in May, an exhibition of thirty artworks was held called ‘The United Artists for Europe’. The pieces were donated by leading contemporary artists from all over Europe with proceeds going towards cultural projects supporting heritage preservation across the continent. 

Others have taken a more literal response with their work. For the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Banksy submitted a piece titled Keep Ou. In the piece, the words ‘KEEP OUT’ are emblazoned on a shuttered EU airport customs passage. The ‘T’ in ‘OUT’, however, is missing, with one of Banksy’s well-known stencilled rats using it to break open a padlock holding the shutter down.

This isn’t Banky’s first jab at Brexit. For last year’s RA Exhibition, he produced a work resembling a Vote Leave placard from the EU Referendum. The twist with this piece was that a heart shaped balloon covered the word ‘leave’ transforming the sign into reading ‘Vote to Love’. Then two years ago, a mural showing a star being chiselled from the EU flag appeared on a derelict building near Dover’s ferry terminal. Banksy had planned to update the piece on the day we finally leave to show a crumpled flag on the ground, but the mural was painted over. 

Not all artists are anti-Brexit, however. A collective called ‘Artists for Brexit’ aims to represent artists who voted to leave the European Union, but previously felt unable to vocalise their support. The group believe art is supposed to have a global attitude, but that remaining in the EU – an artificially constructed political trading bloc that favours EU immigration over non-EU immigration – limits this. They point out that the ‘Europeanness’ valued by so many anti-Brexit artists does not come with being in the EU – even if leaving it may be seen as a rejection of European identity. Indeed, their website says, “it’s simply a fact that very little of our shared cultural heritage with Europe arises out of the existence of the EU or has been much shaped by it. Rather, it has been nurtured over many generations by Europeans who for the most part did so before the existence of the EU.”

The group also sees Brexit as an opportunity to better the UK’s creative programmes. They argue it will allow us to manage our entire cultural budget to therefore allocate funds more fairly across regions without EU “strings” attached. Moreover, they say: “We could simplify the arts funding application process and direct funding more appropriately, focusing on rebuilding the connection between the arts and the British working class, or linking with developing countries to create partnerships that have perhaps been overlooked in the past by shaping a fairer system of access and work that does not favour EU artists over non-EU artists.”

Ultimately, Brexit could be a chance to get the government to take the sector more seriously – for its social and educational roles as well as its economic and artistic values. However, with Johnson’s appointment of Nicky Morgan as the Head of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – the former Education Secretary who once discouraged students from pursuing the arts in education – the optimistic potential Brexit offers for arts in the UK seems limited.


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