Brexit, NI, and the Cultural Sector
Back in March, Margret Henry, CEO of Thrive attended the Creative Industries Federation Brexit Conference in London, hoping to get some insight or answers as to how Brexit will affect arts and culture in Northern Ireland. Here’s her take on the day:
“Why, I hear you ask, was someone from an audience development agency attending a conference on Brexit? Well firstly, I happened to be in London that day anyway and I was conscious that I haven’t seen any gathering of the cultural sector in NI or in RoI about the implications of Brexit, although organisations have been feeding views to the Department for Communities. Secondly, I know from the work we do that audiences here cross the border for cultural experiences all the time and so the ongoing debate about the border post-Brexit is as important for arts organisations as it is for the business or agri-food sectors. Finally, our experiences in having the EU Capital of Culture designation removed from the UK bidding cities encouraged me to give up a few hours to hear what was being said by the UK and European speakers.
The Creative Industries Federation is the national organisation for the UK’s creative industries, cultural education and arts. Watching from afar I’ve been impressed with the level of access they have and the efforts they’ve put into advocating for the creative industries especially around Brexit. They have produced a number of reports and the conference was designed to bring together senior politicians, cultural leaders, and business people.
Arts and Culture were at the forefront of the debate
I’d expected the speakers to be more creative industries – advertising, gaming, architecture and film-making - rather than arts and culture. But in fact, the arts and culture voices were equally as strong and visible in the discussions as the complexities around Brexit were explored.
The politics of it all was addressed by national journalists and some of the politicians attending. The view was – it’s hard to know what will happen! The vote in Parliament on whatever deal is done which is scheduled for October is seen as the next big milestone. But there were so many different scenarios around that from the deal getting passed to triggering a General Election that no-one was nailing any colours to the mast. One comment that had a ring of truth was that Brexit has been a job creation scheme for journalists – it’s an ill wind...
We heard from MPs including Suella Fernandes who is part of the Department for Exiting Europe, Rt Hon Hilary Benn, chair of the Exiting the EU committee, and Rt Hon Ian Blackford SNP Leader at Westminster. Their positions were as you’d expect but it was worth seeing them all engage with a creative industries audience and recognise the challenges the sector faces while appreciating the massive role arts and culture play in ‘soft’ diplomacy and relationship building.
Losing the creative talent mix
Amanda Levete spoke eloquently and movingly about how her architectural practice, based in London, was going to lose many of its EU staff members and lose the mix of cultures and richness of diversity that has made her practice not only successful but a great place to work. She is concerned that the UK is losing its reputation for openness and tolerance and that this impact on Brand Britain will affect her doing business outside the UK. I could hear echoes of what she was saying among many arts organisations who work with artists from all over Europe to create innovative events.
It’s not just about trade and what we can extract, it’s about culture and society. It’s about the exchange of talent and knowledge and respect for each other’s nations. - Amanda Levete
It’s important to say that the conference tried to balance the views of both Brexiteers and Remainers and it was stimulating to hear people within the cultural sector advocate for Brexit and rehearse their arguments.There was no lack of passion from artists and cultural leaders on both sides of the debate. Diane Banks, who owns and runs a Literary and Talent Agency, put forward the idea that Brexit would open the UK up to artists in the rest of the world which would be a good thing for creativity and audiences. Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director and lead principal dancer, English National Ballet, strongly rejected this idea.
A european view of Brexit
As well as those working in culture in the UK, we also heard from those across the EU - namely Catalonia, Romania and Brussels. They too expressed fear at losing access to the UK’s cultural practice and innovations (which are often seen as leading the way by those in the rest of Europe). They were concerned that maintaining successful artistic partnerships with UK organisations would become very difficult and involve even more bureaucracy. They thought the decision not to award the European Capital of Culture designation to the UK was a mistake and they said there was reticence about involving UK-based organisations in Creative Europe partnership projects. But… they wanted to find ways to work around these challenges and advocated looking at other models of visas and tariffs to allow artists to continue to work across Europe and share learning.
Creative Europe Project: Future Artist Maker Labs, NerveCentre, Derry-Londonderry
The final panel of the day mixed business and cultural leaders who spoke about their attempts to scenario-plan for Brexit while being unsure exactly what the deal would be. The issue of movement of staff and artists, and access to the best skills was more pressing for some than others who were already moving operations to mainland Europe. The devaluation of sterling was seen to have insulated organisations to a certain extent from increasing costs of suppliers but this was unlikely to continue for much longer. Shona McCarthy was on this panel, from these shores, but now running the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which is truly an international event in terms of artists, staff team, and audiences. So Shona and her team are actively planning around the risks and implications of Brexit.
The missing voice from Northern Ireland
Seeing Shona speak reminded me of something that had been bugging me all day. Where were the views from NI and RoI creative industries? The Irish border issue had been referred to and as we know it is proving a hard circle to square but yet no-one from the island of Ireland featured to bring this to the conference. The SNP MP who was there talked about how he was working with the Greens and Plaid Cymru in Westminster on Brexit matters but I heard no mention of the involvement of NI MPs in these discussions.
I spoke to John Kampfner, former CEO of the Creative Industries Federation and Katie Banahm the Head of Events about this afterwards. They assured me that they had tried to get views from this side of the Irish Sea but to no avail. They also said they are keen to engage with organisations here to join the Federation and want to hold an event in NI very soon. I suggested that maybe a return to Brexit with some of the speakers from today but crucially cultural, political and business voices from NI and the Republic would be vital and they are keen to develop that idea.
So Brexit – no answers, lots of questions but a clear need for the creative and cultural sector to talk about their fears, concerns, and opportunities, and work with organisations locally including TheatreNI and nationally like the Creative Industries Federation to get those issues raised and heard in the weeks and months ahead as we move towards a deal or no deal."