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Why Remaining in Europe is the Right Choice for UK Arts

This article was written by Libby Penn, Group Managing Director at Spektrix. You can follow Libby on LinkedIn Pulse to read more of her thoughts on leadership, arts management and the tech industry, 

Remain or Leave, the UK arts industry will go on. But with so many organisations still getting to grips with austerity, the timing couldn’t be worse.

After a major injury, there are three stages of healing. First comes the pain and shock of inflammation, then comes repair as the body begins to rebuild. The final stage is remodelling, when new tissues are made fighting fit by slowly returning to normal activity. Seven years into austerity, the UK arts industry is still at stage two, where the risk of re-injury is most severe. The possibility of an exit from the EU multiplies that risk.

British arts organisations benefited from a level of state funding that has now gone and may never return, so they have taken a hard look at how they operate and reorganised – sometimes painfully – to strike a new balance between subsidy and revenue generation; between purely creative and purely commercial objectives.

Maybe that rethink was overdue. Every day I speak to someone new in the industry about how they are finding new ways to drive audience development and income generation. These organisations are focused on securing a better future for themselves, over which they have more control.

Time and breathing space for more arts organisations to do the same is essential to the industry’s future, but after the body blow of recession, getting us back to full health will require stability in the state funding mechanisms (and levels) that remain in place, and access to key markets for the art we make.

We don’t just create, curate and perform for local audiences. We export art to a huge European market hungry for our output – and under the current trade and political arrangements, we do it brilliantly:

  • Theatre is a vital draw for tourism, accounting for billions of direct and indirect spending by tourists each year
  • The UK is the second largest exporter of television in the world
  • Britain is home to the second-largest design sector on the planet
  • More than 1.6 million people in the UK work in the cultural and creative industries, worth around £71.4 billion to the economy

With that much heft in the global marketplace, a Brexit campaigner might ask, why not go it alone?

The answer is because EU membership has been a significant factor in that success. The EU funds us, subsidises us and promotes us. The Creative Europe programme alone has strengthened UK film exports to Europe and supported UK cultural organisations to the tune of £76 million in promotional activity and direct funding. In this sector, the acclaimed London International Festival of Theatre and luminaries such as Mike Leigh have benefited from EU support for live productions. Europe is also our second-largest export market for music. New tariffs and trade barriers after Brexit would cut into profits and hold back smaller artists from promoting their music in Europe.

Is it worth risking all that? I would argue it would cause greater, unnecessary pain with unintended consequences. For starters, some £8.7 billion in social and regional development funding that the UK will receive as an EU member from now to 2020 would be lost. If you consider the transformative impact that European City of Culture designations had on Liverpool and Glasgow, the potential losses are hard to ignore.

What really worries me, however, is the impact of losing EU backing on the myriad smaller, local beneficiaries. EU membership helps ensure that the arts are supported in those places where the London media are unlikely to see it.

Some say European laws on state aid limit the amount of industry aid that government can provide. Does anyone really buy this, or believe that the past two governments were stopped by Brussels from providing more cash support for the arts?

And then on the creative side there is the accusation that EU cultural policies favour support for European narratives over anything explicitly ‘Made in Britain’. I’ve never come across it as an issue holding back our arts industry, or dampening enthusiasm for our exports. Has anyone lost an EU funding application for being too British? Even if there were such a bias, it would be best dealt with by lobbying and diplomacy, not departure from EU membership. That sort of measured approach will be much harder to engage in if we’re a foreign government trying to influence those within from without. But that seems to be what’s on offer from the leave campaign.

At least, I think so. Leave campaigners seem a bit muddled about what the alternative model for the arts would be if we do give up EU membership. We keep hearing that we can mimic the trade, treaty and political relationships with the EU that other non-members have. It could be we would emulate Canada’s approach, or Switzerland’s. We might pursue a new free trade agreement or we might stick with the current single-market membership – though without input into the rules and regulations that come with it. Until there is clarity on the alternative, the Brexit on offer looks like a recipe for more pain and uncertainty in the arts industry.

One other aspect of Britain’s success in the global arts market is the role that foreigners – and EU nationals in particular – play in our industry. We are a centre of excellence for the arts and that means we attract a lot of talent from the Continent. Creative cross-pollination makes for richer UK output. The current anti-foreigner bias in British politics is already threatening to push some of those people out of the country.

Continuing to look outward and seeing ourselves as a leading part of the larger European arts industry is the way forward. Realising the benefits of EU membership and the protections it offers for our arts organisations just seems like common sense.

This article was originally published in The Stage.