In 1979, Judith Knight co-founded Artsadmin, an arts organisation that enables artists to create without boundaries, producing bold, interdisciplinary work to share with local, national and international audiences. We spoke to her about cultural identity and what the cutting of ties with Europe may mean for Britain's arts sector.
'the arts really should transcend national identities'
How significant a role do you feel the arts play in articulating Britain's identity around the world?
Well, of course the arts do articulate Britain’s identity and have been used as ‘soft power’ around the world for many years. But, in general, I think the arts really should transcend national identities and be seen as an opportunity to collaborate and show how diverse people, communities, nations and continents can work together and understand each other better.
Given the state of the world at the moment, that is more than urgent! There is much more artistic collaboration taking place on mainland Europe than there is between the UK and the rest of Europe – Brexit will only make this worse.
Brexit is seen by its proponents as an opportunity to reclaim, or reconstitute, a national identity. Do you see opportunity, or are you more pessimistic?
I’m much more pessimistic. I think many of those who say they want to reclaim a ‘national identity’ seem to be under the illusion that this country is still the centre of the British Empire and that everything was ‘better’ then, or post-war in the 1950s! Artists and arts organisations need to be constantly enriching the art we create and produce, and I think the only way we can do that is by looking outwards and opening our eyes and minds to inspirations and ideas from across Europe and the rest of the world.
What role, if any, do you believe negotiators and policymakers expect the arts to play in this process?
I’m not sure if they expect the arts to play any role in this process – and I’m not sure if many working in the arts community would want to! The Creative Industries Federation found that 97% of its members opposed Brexit, not just because it will hit the arts community financially, but also because most would reject the very idea of reclaiming the sort of national identity as personified by Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees Mogg! Of course Theresa May recently flagged up the idea of a Festival of Brexit. I can’t imagine there will be many takers!
What do you think the main economic consequences to the arts in Britain will be post-Brexit?
Of course it depends on what finally happens, and I still hold out a tiny glimmer of hope that Brexit may never happen. A no-deal would be disastrous, but any sort of Brexit will affect almost all aspects of society, certainly not just the arts. For the arts, it is possible we will lose access to Creative Europe, the EU’s cultural and creative funds, which is serious enough, but even if those funds were replaced by the UK Government, the issue is much more about losing our forward-thinking and outward-facing approach to Europe and the rest of the world. It will be more difficult for our artists to tour and travel in Europe; and it will be more difficult for us to invite artists and companies into the UK. We are enriched so much by having an international focus, ideas, skills, collaboration, inspiration, and by trying to create a better world – and indeed better art – together. How is it possible that we are closing the door to this?
I’m also concerned that many people will be worse off, so that may mean that audiences are also affected. There are reports such as Arts Council England’s report on the wide-ranging challenges for the arts and cultural sector in the face of Brexit and Creative Europe Desk UK has created a comprehensive publication about the impact of EU funding on the cultural, creative and audiovisual sectors, highlighting the monetary and non-monetary benefits.
Photo: Hugo Glendenning
Does contemporary British art and culture offer hope in the face of the nativist sentiment which drove the Leave vote?
I hope so! It is a bit of a cliché, but I think most artists really do think and work across barriers and borders, and they ask audiences to do the same. I hope they can continue creating projects that are inclusive and engaging for all, and reject ideas of insular nationalism. The artists I know and regularly work with understand that there is only one planet and ‘we’re all in it together’ (unfortunately this phrase was also used by the very person who instigated the wretched referendum in the first place!).
If we have any hope improving the state of the world, we have to keep the doors open, maintain and develop relationships with and understand people right across the world. For example, in one of the projects we produce, Empathy Museum by artist Clare Patey, audiences are invited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and to hear their stories. We collaborated with the Migration Museum in Lambeth earlier this year to highlight 20 stories of migrants who had come to the UK – from a Nigerian barber to a Syrian dentist.
How will organisations like Artsadmin be impacted by the withdrawal?
We’ve just been working on a risk assessment actually, and of course there are serious risks.
We employ (and treasure) several staff from EU countries whose future here could be uncertain, and we receive funds from Creative Europe for various collaborative projects with European partners and peers. Again, the money is important but the long-term collaborations even more so.
We tour artists’ projects to Europe, to 19 different cities in the EU last year, and these touring opportunities could diminish because of increasing costs and bureaucracy, reducing income for the artists and Artsadmin itself.
We invite EU artists into the country, and this could be more difficult because of visas. And above all – again – collaboration, cooperation, international relationships are – and have always been – essential to our work and our values from the moment I set up Artsadmin in 1979. Without the strong relationships we made over the years right across Europe, we probably wouldn’t still be here!