The never-ending story of Brexit is seemingly hitting it’s next significant landmark. Four and a half years since Britain officially voted to leave the European Union in May of 2016, the two parties have reached an agreement, which was subsequently accepted by Parliament, regarding upcoming trade and travel guidelines. On Friday, January 1, 2021, these new rules will be instituted, effectively beginning the true Brexit in earnest. This will by no means be the end of Brexit in the news, but it certainly has ended what for many years appeared to be a Sisyphean process. Despite years of run-up towards the new rules however, the art world in Europe will surely see fractured relations due to ill-preparedness.
Leaving aside the political implications of Brexit, the 1,200-page trade agreement aimed, according to The New York Times London bureau chief Mark Landler, to “avoid very disruptive changes, such as tariffs and quotas.” That said, by the new year, the age of restriction-less travel between Britain and the EU, a product of a nearly half-century partnership, will come to a close. And while most goods in the art market are not subject to import tariffs, the new travel restrictions will certainly shake up the two sides’ protocols when it comes to shipping and trading artwork.
Some preparations have been made already by the UK. According to the chairman of the British Art Market Federation, Anthony Browne, the association has spent the last two years in talks with various government departments to make the transition smooth in terms of export licensing, VAT and other trade regulations, including the “cross-border tax system.” Unfortunately, many EU nations have not had the same foresight, and in advance of the new year, the huge influx of art in transport and the newly associated mountain of paperwork has significantly congested the shipping ports bringing new art into the country. Huge delays, increased shipping time, and increased costs, which much of the UK is not financially equipped to deal with because of the lack of infrastructure, are expected.
This could, in the short term at least, mean a slowdown of art acquisitions for specific museums in Britain, which in turn could slowly spiral over time into a decreased cultural education in the art realm if museums are unable to fund major acquisitions from the rest of Europe. Of course it is important for any country to keep local/national art raised high, but a well-rounded arts education involves experiencing the works of as many cultures and nations as possible. Frankly, it is the xenophobia that sparked Brexit in the first place bleeding into cultural education at the highest institutional level. This spiral may sound like a hysterical overestimation, but it is important to stop these things before they become issues, rather than the other way around. To that effect, some auctioneers in both the UK and EU have hired shipping specialists to hopefully curb the congestion, though the majority just don’t have definitive plans in place to word around the restrictions.
Other changes could surely affect the art market in the UK and EU at a more fundamental level. With Britain removed from the Erasmus exchange program (which previously permitted British students to study in the EU), young fledgling artists will in many ways be held back from a fully rounded, international art education, as they will only be permitted to study European art from within the UK. While a new, national version of the program is in the drafting stages, education professionals have little hope for its effectiveness. Those in the industry used to traveling for work may also see increased costs and regulations on their day-to-day life. A global pandemic still in full swing and the potential economic downturn as a result can only exasperate these limitations.
Galleries too have been chaotically affected by Brexit for the last 4 years. Preparations for the potential “no-deal” that almost came to be in early 2019 led galleries like Eva Rothschild’s London-based Modern Art to take initiative and pre-ship art to Italy, while multi-gallery dealerships like Tornabuoni Art closed a London exhibition early to make the same early shipping move, and even made tentative plans to close their London location. Later that year, high-profile gallerist David Zwirner announced plans to counteract Brexit by establishing a presence in the EU with a new gallery in Paris. Fast forward to 2020, and the beloved art gallery of Marian Goodman, one of the longest-running in the world, announced closure directly due to Brexit. After the transition, many could go down the same path, especially the smaller ones unequipped to handle the new costs associated with Brexit.
But what does this mean for the art itself, specifically the new art that will be produced after the Brexit transition has officially concluded? Will specific museums have anything to say in protest? After all, the predominately liberal art world has been mostly anti-Brexit from the get-go, and museums have been making “doomsday plans” for the end of the transition for years now. Unfortunately, museums are in a tricky position. With new restrictions, they will be struggling to maintain the same varied collections they have until this point, and will need government on their side for potential funding. Few will likely be bold enough to speak out.
Which could mean bad news for artists with Brexit on the brain; those who are willing, ready and in the process of creating and sharing Brexit protest art with the world. Artists in the UK who see the harm the last four years has done will of course want to spread that message, but it will be an uphill battle, at least in a professional context. With museums wanting to stay quiet, they may be hesitant to acquire work from such artists to show in any official capacity, which will stifle creators with more limited resources. Artists will be professionally disincentivized from speaking up against Brexit, and thus a cycle of censorship begins.
We cannot let that happen, but there is hope. The aforementioned Marian Goodman Gallery closure will be restructuring to the “Marian Goodman Projects,” a “more flexible exhibition strategy in the city,” which will “respond to the nature of the artist’s practice and reflect the scale and intent of artworks on view.” While certainly a business decision, this artist-first mentality can keep the spirit of protest alive, and hopefully more institutions will follow suit.