The British arts sector: should we be worried?

When I catch up with Graham Sheffield, director of arts for the British Council, he’s trying to make the most of the last few days of his holiday in Samoa. I interrupted his morning coffee by the beach to get his thoughts on how the UK’s decision to leave the EU could affect the arts sector. 

Sheffield is responsible for leading and delivering a global arts strategy and programme across the British Council’s 110-country operation. He joined the British Council from London’s Barbican Centre in 2011, where his success as artistic director placed the programming venue firmly on the international map.

Since then Sheffield has driven the major expansion and rebuilding of the British Council’s arts programme, developed new arts specialists and global digital initiatives, as well enlarged BC’s global network via extended seasons of work in Brazil, China, Qatar, India, Mexico and South Africa, as well as in the Middle East, Gulf and North Africa.

So, Graham Sheffield, should we Brits be worried?

Firstly, as the statement released by the British Council says, we’ve been working with our European neighbours for over 80 years. In some sense, we’ve been going longer than the European Union.

While I think everybody is pretty depressed by the decision to leave the EU, I think what is underneath the statement by the chief executive is that the British Council is built on networks and connectivity. The British Council works for a better world, generally, by connecting artists, educators, scientists, students and young people.

Anything that seems to militate against that philosophy is certainly anathema to us, but given what has just happened, we have to work with what we have.

I’ll be telling my team that what we do now at the British Council is even more important, as some avenues of connection and connectivity have not necessarily been shut down, but have been made more difficult.

Do you believe our decision to leave the EU will inhibit the flow of artists in and out of Britain? Will it be bad for the sector?

I can’t imagine that freedom of movement for artists, arts students and music conservatoire students, as well as the world of culture and creative industries, is going to be easier as a result of this. One doesn’t know at this stage, but I would imagine it is going to be more difficult. The visa regime for non-EU nationals is hardly easy at the moment. We’re also dealing with this mood of fierce insularity that we have to do our best to fight against. The UK will not be cut off, but the mechanics of artists and students coming into the UK and moving around will change. 

How do you think it will affect Britain’s cultural exports?

Europe is just one territory and we will continue to work everywhere else, just as we are doing now.

That is not to underestimate the value of Europe: it is very important to us as we share so many of the same values. We currently work with European institutions such as the Goethe, Cervantes, French Institutes and so on, and we will continue to work with all those cultural institutions. 

In the wider world of culture, and I’m particularly thinking of orchestras, they are so connected with Europe that there could be issues around recruitment. Again, right now, we don’t have enough details, facts and figures to comment fully on what this will be.

Do you think the behaviour of the UK’s politicians and general public – which has been described as ‘disgraceful’ before, during and after the Referendum – will have a negative impact on the British Council’s brand? Are you at all concerned the ribaldry and accusations of racism in the UK will pollute the British Council brand? The British Council, after all, is synonymous with integrity and quality, something the Brexit campaign certainly lacked.

I don’t think it has done the standing of the UK any good overseas. The British Council is as important an ambassador as the BBC and other institutions that carry the word British. 

I was in Melbourne for ISPA and then visited New Zealand: they think without exception that we are nuts. There were quite a few young Brits working out there, who planned to vote to remain in the EU.

Many under-30s voted to remain, so I think it’s incumbent on us at the British Council to counter that isolationism and insularity that seems to prevail right now as much as possible. We can do this through our work, not in quasi-political terms, but in terms of cultural relations.

How do you feel personally about the success of the UK’s #Leave the EU campaign?

It is depressing for me personally and I felt it more so when I spoke to one of my sons who feels that his whole world has been damaged by this result. He is 22, he works in the arts, and can’t understand the decision. 

I feel sorry for him and others like him. The decision also goes against everything I have tried to work for in my 35 years in the business, which has been about connectivity. I’ve only worked for the British Council for five years, but I’ve been involved in international arts and culture much longer than that. It seems so bizarre to cut off one major channel of partnership, communication and exchange.

The Referendum results showed that, for many people in the UK, these sorts of conversations simply don’t matter. Have British arts companies, therefore, failed in their objectives to be more inclusive?

Quite clearly, the majority of people did not vote the way you and I voted. It broadly goes back to the education system and unless you have a proper cultural dimension to education from the earliest days through to leaving school, then you won’t get adults with an appreciation of what a mature culture can bring to the environment. It’s not about staging ‘fancy operas’; it’s about having a culturally mature and sophisticated society that manifests itself in everything from the arts, to design, to manufacturing.

But if this cultural conversation isn’t part of the education system, then people aren’t going to see what it [in this case Europe] can do for society in general or for them as individuals. That’s at the root of it. So we have to keep banging on about it.

That in itself is surely a European philosophy?

It’s a European way of thinking, but it’s also a philosophy we come across that is not European. The world gets it. India and China get it (albeit they all have their own political overlay). Everybody gets it and yet the country that is looked to as one of the most mature and sophisticated and cultural societies with the most to offer the world does not get it – this is possibly the most frustrating part of the result of the Referendum campaign. 

People who are not part of the EU place a lot of emphasis on their cultural infrastructure, and creative talent, all of which are a major contributors to their economies and which contribute to a better society.

How can you conduct diplomacy other than on debate and mutual understanding? That’s the way of the world.

Have the people of disenfranchised Britain been forgotten in the arts?

Possibly. Though one thing that I’ve noticed since I’ve been at the British Council is the ‘arts for social change agenda’ (you can read about it in our latest vision document). This is not part of the old ‘arts for arts sake’ dichotomy, it’s about the fact that artists, now more so than ever before, are engaged with social agendas of one sort or another.

And if that were the case, it isn’t reflected in the Scottish vote – they clearly get this cultural agenda. 

This is surely going to be something of a logistical nightmare for the British Council?

We have to try to reharness everyone’s energies and get on with the job. It’s unclear what will happen in the long run as negotiations still have to take place. We have offices and embassies in Europe, we don’t know quite what our access to funding is through Creative Europe, or what those rules and regulations will be. 

Is there a beacon of hope for the UK arts sectors?

Europe is only one part of the world and there are many opportunities for the UK, and its artists, in many other regions of the world who value their connections with the UK.

We also value these connections and the British Council will do all it can for British artists to find international opportunities: there is a lot of potential in the Far East and the Pacific for example.

We will now work doubly hard to make up for the shortfall in opportunities that may be heading our way. We may be leaving the EU, but Europe will not be closed.