Between insecurity and hope: What Brexit means for culture | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.03.2017
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Between insecurity and hope: What Brexit means for culture

Nine months after the Brexit referendum, Prime Minister Theresa May is triggering a two-year countdown to Britain's exit from the EU on Wednesday. Here's how it could impact culture.

June 24, 2016 brought a rude awakening for many. The results of the Brexit referendum couldn't have been tighter: 51.9 percent of British voters decided the UK should withdraw from the European Union.

Many people in the cultural scene were shocked, while others were excited by the results. Nine months later, wounds have been healed, with pragmatists, such as the director of the German Cultural Council, Olaf Zimmermann, and the head of the Goethe-Institut in London, Angela Kaya, publicly offering a confident perspective.

Olaf Zimmermann (Imago/J. Heinrich)

Director of the German Council: Olaf Zimmermann

Zimmermann urged quick negotiations with British cultural institutions to maintain the island's ties with Europe: "We need a special program for bilateral cultural exchanges," he told DW. Great Britain must become an associate country for EU cultural funding, to allow collaborations with British cultural institutions, he explained. "We must lay the foundations for this now."

Making the best of the situation

Angela Kaya, director of the Goethe-Institut in London, described the views in the cultural scene as "ranging from fatalism to optimism." She has met individuals and institutions that aim to make the best of Brexit, whereas others see themselves as such an integral part of the European cultural scene that they can't imagine how things can possibly go on post-Brexit.

Angela Kaya, director of the London Goethe-Institut (Goethe-Institut London/Carolyne Locher)

Angela Kaya heads the London Goethe-Institut

A combination of shock, motivation and fears for the future can be therefore be felt throughout the country's cultural institutions.

The insecurity is also an economic one. The cultural industry, which includes film, the art trade and the TV industry, contributes 84.1 billion pounds (97 billion euros) to the British economy. Europe is England's most important export market in the cultural field, according to a study by Creative Industries Federation, an independent body of cultural institutions and businesses in the UK.  

Access to this market is threatened through Brexit. A lot of money is also at stake for cross-border cultural projects: Brussels has invested 1.46 billion euros ($1.58 billion) in support of international arts and film projects in the EU between 2014 and 2020. The EU program "Creative Europe" is Europa's cultural funding program, Katharina Weinert, counselor for the Creative Europe Desk Culture told DW. Additionally, further billions are in invested in structural support.

Will Brexit disrupt EU co-productions with Great Britain? No one knows for sure, as Brussels still needs to decide on this. It, however, appears realistic that the EU will let its funds for British-European theater, film and art projects run dry after the completion of Brexit.

Before the referendum, nearly 300 British artists and culture experts wrote an open letter expressing their concerns on this matter, which was published on the front page of the daily "The Guardian."  

"Britain is not just stronger in Europe, it is more imaginative and more creative, and our global creative success would be severely weakened by walking away," read the letter signed by prominent artists such as director Steve McQueen, authors John le Carré and Ian McEwan, architect David Chipperfield, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and sculptor Anish Kapoor. Their letter pointed to major films that have been made with the help of EU funding.

A cartoon about Brexit by Axel Scheffler (Axel Scheffler)

The day after: A cartoon by London-based German illustrator Axel Scheffler

Nevertheless, the head of the Goethe-Institut in London, Angela Kaya, is confident that cultural cooperation will continue. "We will find ways," she told DW. She sees, for example, bilateral British-German or British-European contracts for specific cultural and educational aspects as a possibility.

Brexit as 'signal against culture'

Referring to the upcoming Brexit process, at the recent opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition "Collecting Europe" about European theater history, the institution's new director, Tristram Hunt, ironically urged visitors to run see a European theater from the inside before it's too late.

Hunt is just as unfavorable to Great Britain's exit from the EU as his predecessor, the German Martin Roth - who even decided to leave the direction of the famous London institution after the referendum.

The new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, who's also German, didn't feel he had to go that far. He came to replace Neil MacGregor, who is now leading the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, in the reconstructed City Palace. Fischer remains cautious in his assessment: "The exact nature of relations between Great Britain and the EU in the future remains to be seen," he said.

Photographer and Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans (Kat Slootsky)

Photographer and Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans

Before the referendum, Roth had publically spoken against Brexit: "For me, Europe always gave hope for a peaceful future, based on sharing, solidarity and tolerance," he told DW in June 2016. The London-based German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who had created a series of posters backing the Remain campaign, also told DW he saw the possibility of a "domino effect in Europe."

Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss director of the Serpentine Gallery described the situation as "a feeling of no longer being welcome" in an otherwise so tolerant British society. London-based German illustrator Axel Scheffler, creator of the famous children's books character Gruffalo, was also shocked by the results.

Eckart Köhne, president of the German Museum Association (Badisches Landesmuseum/Foto: Uli Deck)

Eckart Köhne, president of the German Museum Association

Other experts on this side of the English Channel have expressed their apprehensions: "It's a signal against culture," said Eckart Köhne, president of the German Museum Association. He fears that it will be more difficult for German museums to obtain funding for cooperation projects with the UK. He also sees stricter customs regulations as a barrier to artwork loans between institutions.

The musician and producer Brian Eno appears to have at least found something positive about Brexit: "Actually, in retrospect, I've started to think I'm pleased about Trump and I'm pleased about Brexit," he told "The Guardian," "Because it gives us a kick up the arse and we needed it because we weren't going to change anything." 


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