Chris Clarke, The Glucksman
As art museums and spaces across Ireland deal with the impact of COVID -19, it’s easy to forget about Brexit. The urgent need for institutions to keep their doors open, to safely manage audiences, to support and showcase artists, and to make up shortfalls in revenue, has diverted attention toward more immediate concerns. In addition, with the back-and-forth debate on what the Brexit withdrawal agreement might actually look like and how it will affect the arts, a sense of fatigue has set in. What once seemed transformative – even traumatic – barely registers. There are only so many things that can be dealt with at once.
However, it’s important to keep Brexit in mind, particularly given the volatility and vulnerability of an arts sector on the brink of major economic and logistical upheavals. The long-standing cultural relationship between the UK and Ireland is particularly strong, with cities like London and Glasgow serving as a base for many Irish artists and arts workers, with regular exhibitions of UK artists in Irish institutions (and vice versa), and with an ease of exchange and travel greatly facilitated by shared membership in the European Union. Conversely, this close connection can be detrimental to Ireland’s cultural ties to its continental neighbours, with the UK serving as a first (and perhaps only) stop for budget-wary curators visiting galleries and artist studios. There’s no question that Britain boasts a vital and innovative contemporary art sector but its proximity can also overshadow and outshine what’s happening elsewhere. A more European – and international – outlook on Ireland’s part would allow for a much more diverse range of partnerships and practices.
This matters for practical reasons too. To take a fairly modest example, when an Irish arts institution arranges to exhibit artworks from artists, galleries or collectors within the European Union, these are generally able to be transported without any customs charges or conditions. This ease of movement is often taken for granted but becomes readily apparent when looking to borrow works from America or Asia or even Switzerland. In addition to the shipping fees of a dedicated art transport company, there are the additional costs and administrative requirements that come with hiring customs agents, brokers, and revenue officers (who are required to check and sign off on any incoming or outgoing shipments). While these might seem like minor quibbles - and, of course, remain common practice for arts institutions in most non-EU countries - they do impact the operations of increasingly understaffed and underfunded institutions, and perhaps determine whether it's financially viable to show a particular artist's work. In the case of the United Kingdom, this is especially concerning. Most international shippers have warehouses for their consignments in the UK, collating incoming works from various locations there, before re-distributing them on to their destinations. For Irish institutions, then, many shipments have to come by way of the UK and, as such, might need to be designated as non-EU goods entailing all consequent costs and conditions. Again, this isn't to say that such requirements would prohibit the borrowing and exhibition of such artworks (after all, museums here still frequently borrow and show works from outside the EU), only that it would introduce an additional layer of administration, another stack of forms, and a surcharge on shipping budgets. Even with the best intention to showcase British art, these disincentives can add up, and nudge one’s attention towards artists and galleries which remain in the common market.
The upshot of all this is that, even in the event of legislation that allows for a fairly unrestricted flow of goods through the UK (certainly, their conservative government’s ambition to become “Singapore-on-Thames” could easily lead to the proliferation of freeports, whereby artworks can be kept legally “off-shore” and exempt from taxation and customs duties), there might be renewed attention to Ireland's place within the EU. The array of funding grants and collaborative partnerships on offer from European cultural bodies reinforces integration from an institutional level, as does the drive towards the representation of diverse practices and different cultures within contemporary arts practices (or at least beyond Western Europe and North America). The impetus to work more closely, to look harder, and to engage further with artists and institutions within the European Union, consequently loosening the historic cultural connections with our closest neighbour, might therefore also cast new ties towards partners beyond Europe. And, while it’s fair to say that this drive has been a key aim in the Irish cultural sector for several years now, the irony is that it might just be the UK’s unilateral withdrawal from Europe that really speeds the process along. With the UK disengaging, the view to the mainland starts to look a lot clearer.
Chris Clarke is Senior Curator at the Glucksman, University College Cork