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The outdoor arts sector has experienced growth over the last decade, but could a no-deal Brexit put the brakes on this? Maggie Clarke and Irene Segura share their concerns.

Photo of two actors holding back a third who, while lying on the ground, is reaching out into the distance in apparent pain.
Company Chameleon

© Tom Arran

On referendum day in 2016 the XTRAX team were in London hosting a meeting of Circostrada, the EU-funded network of circus and street arts professionals. It was poignant to digest the news of the Brexit vote with a large group of colleagues and friends from across Europe. For the artists, producers and promoters at that meeting, the effort to mitigate the impact of Brexit on the outdoor arts sector started then.

Our international colleagues are aware of the threats that Brexit poses and there is a sense of solidarity in spite of perplexing political messages

The UK outdoor arts sector has seen a period of growth over the last decade. As managers of Without Walls, we see hundreds of excellent projects submitted to us for support each year. At the annual showcase events we have been delivering since 2001, we meet promoters, producers and artists from around the world. Our work involves travel around Europe to festivals and meetings and this year our plans take us to Belgium, France, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland. 

The free movement of people has allowed our sector to enjoy the benefits of a pan-European workforce. A multi-lingual workforce, with a web of personal, professional and strategic connections to Europe, makes it easier for us to plan and deliver our work internationally. With little or no text, much outdoor arts work travels well and European festivals are realising the distinctive work coming from the UK. 

Current challenges

The looming uncertainty of Brexit presents real threats to the continued development of this buzzing sector. When securing bookings, UK artists are competing and collaborating with European peers. Alongside the cost and time it takes to travel to Europe, our different currency, language and bureaucracy is already a challenge. Differences in domestic funding systems and cost of living mean that UK companies often cost more than their European equivalents, and generally lack the travel and freight subsidies available to other artists based in Europe.

As EU members, we enjoy the benefits of travel across borders in Europe, making these obstacles more manageable. Any change to mobility could have significant financial and bureaucratic implications for artists touring to Europe, as well as inbound touring. Many artists have reported a noticeable downturn in bookings from European festivals this year, as cautious organisers protect their overstretched budgets from possible increased costs related to a no-deal scenario, as well as the costs of visas, carnets, customs declarations, insurance, vehicle restrictions and taxation, to name a few.

This goes both ways: festivals here thinking of booking European artists have had to consider these potential challenges too, as well as the impact of a weak pound on the cost of paying fees in Euros. 

Confronting Brexit

When confronted with Brexit, all we can do is try to be prepared – and take steps to demonstrate our determination to keep our strong ties with Europe.

For us, part of this is through Platform 4: UK, our strategic programme to support the international promotion and export of outdoor arts. This work starts with partnerships, identifying international organisations that can present a UK focus or support exchange and reciprocity-based projects.

We visit festivals, performing arts markets and sector events in European countries, and host our international colleagues at showcase events (this year with SIRF in Stockton and Freedom Festival in Hull). These showcases ensure that UK artists retain a strong profile amidst the confusion of Brexit and provide a crucial opportunity for international colleagues to look behind the political headlines in their own countries, and talk to UK practitioners who are dealing with the Brexit reality.

Our international colleagues are aware of the threats that Brexit poses and there is a sense of solidarity in spite of perplexing political messages. We are trying to harness this goodwill and identify the practical challenges to which we need to find solutions. Many of the answers will be determined by government negotiators and are out of our hands. 

Guidance and preparations

For artists and companies exploring the potential implications of Brexit on their European touring arrangements, you can start with Arts Council England’s online EU Exit guide that addresses funding, touring and employing EU nationals. The gov.uk site also offers a page for the creative, cultural and sports sector.

However, the practical implications of what no deal would mean are impenetrable – and the value of researching many eventualities that may not come to pass is hard to assess. Challenges relating to the movement of goods, people, changes to regulations and inspections at borders, insurance, vehicle licences and taxation remain speculative. The best advice for companies looking to tour would be ensure that additional delays and expenses related to such eventualities are covered in contracts, and when setting budgets, allocate additional contingency funds.
Until we know the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, all we can do is sign up to the various notifications offered by gov.uk, follow the news and plan ahead, while staying connected with friends and colleagues in Europe. We will continue to look beyond Europe for opportunities and our showcase at SIRF features a spotlight on East Asia. 

But we should not sugar-coat it. Brexit could damage the opportunities available to the sector in the UK – and the lack of clarity to date is already doing so. We need to use the resourcefulness the arts sector is known for to resist the damage and push our political representatives to protect the mobility of artists and creatives between UK and the rest of Europe. We will all be poorer, literally and creatively, if it is not protected.

Maggie Clarke is Director and Irene Segura is Project Manager: International Relations, both at XTRAX.

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Photo of Maggie Clarke
Photo of Irene Segura