The arts, culture and creative sector in the UK are amongst the most devastated by the results of the vote to leave the EU on Thursday. Leaving Europe does not only have negative implications for trade, attracting talent and for EU funding, but, more insidiously, reverting to apparently splendid isolation strikes at the heart of the value to culture of international collaboration and exchange. Cultural exchange within Europe has become a defining element of how the arts in the UK operate and an industry in itself. The opportunities for European funding through collaboration have led to many productions on art house stages. Associations such as the Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) have become essential networking events for the sector. But this breakaway from Europe offers a pause to reflect on how the UK arts community should collaborate internationally. Freed from the obsession with Europe, could we exchange more globally and meaningfully?
I have oft found myself in international think tanks and conferences to consider cultural policy in privileged surrounds including on one occasion on the country estate of Ingmar Bergman. I chaired a three day session on Trust for IETM in Dublin. Each time, the participants have been largely European culturatti with regular doses of Australians and Americans. The presbyterian in me gnaws at me in these sessions, concerned that we are talking only to ourselves.
International cooperation and understanding is critical for the arts and culture. At this time, when families drown in the Mediterranean or are marooned with a blanket between 6 and no water, that cooperation has to go beyond Europe.
I have no idea how much the UK would have extra for culture in the Brexit fantasy maths scenarios. But lets imagine that its at minimum £5m pa (based on the current €1.46 billion allocated by Creative Europe with admin costs of 20% divided by 28; there are several other funds which could be identified and added to this). The likelihood is that a fraction of this would be allocated to cultural diplomacy just as it is now through the British Council or other government agencies, with international projects taking place in those countries deemed economically and politically important.
But what we really need is for our artists to exchange with artists in countries where we do not understand, in Africa, in the Middle East. Its difficult to imagine artists having that much influence within Westminster’s current democratic system and Whitehall’s control of funds.
While the cultural sector is the most organised its ever been, with the Federation of Creative Industries clearly advocating to remain in the UK, its now apparent that lobby groups and industry bodies are not enough to bring about change or to make our voice heard.
In Australia, where there is PR, artists are seeking to contribute in full through standing for election. The Australian party for the arts reminds us of Plato’s warning:
One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors
Here in Scotland the vote to leave Europe has additional and more profound implications. We want to remain. Our values are increasingly different to those of parts of England and we hope that a solution will be found for us to remain in Europe. But we could benefit also from a wider interpretation of internationalism.
The Edinburgh International Festival was begun after the Second World War to provide ‘a platform for the human spirit’, aiding peace, international understanding through great art.
Scotland needs to work in and beyond Europe, and beyond official cultural diplomacy to create new platforms in this fractured world.