James’ Brexit Arts and Culture Reader


Brexit – and the debate that surrounded it – was profoundly cultural. Not necessarily in the sense of music and art etc. but in the ways that people express themselves and how they make sense of the world. Art and the arts are a big part of that. I’ve put together this un-ordered mini-anthology of links to various media that take a cultural stance on Brexit and what it all means:

Me, me, me

Unapologetically: my own OpEd in The Stage set out why I think Brexit signals that the UK is in a culture war. (Other Stage OpEds of mine are available from the merchandise stand, including one on the Culture White Paper, the Arts Council’s latest shift in strategy, and the fate of the Taking Part Survey).

My betters

Earlier this week I was at the recording of a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row – Brexit: The Cultural Response which is available to watch/listen and the debate may still be simmering on twitter via #culturalresponse

John Lanchester in the London Review of Books told the story of how we got here, and how globalisation’s discontents aint gonna get no satisfaction from this.

Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books spins out an autobiographical take on all this.

Why the romance of Brexit bloomed in Philip Larkin’s industrial suburbia

Lauren Collins in the New Yorker interviewed a bunch of people at St Pancras International including a couple of wrinkly Brexiteers on their way to see Les Mis for the umpteenth time. Hopefully they’ve thrown themselves in the Seine by now.

Mary Beard was on BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View reflecting on what Brexit means for our public discourse and the fate of experts.

There was a debate on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters (skip to 13m30s) which focused on Brexit and its effect on classical music.

The Guardian harvested a list of illustrious culturati to set out the way that the arts hit back at Brexit: ‘I feel nothing but rage’.

Apollo canvassed opinion on what Brexit means for the art world. Headline: ‘concern and dismay’.

Again in Apollo, Robert Hewison wrote something which looked to the future of the cultural sector, post-Brexit.

Rosie Collier in the New Statesman had an article which brought together the practical funding and artistic consequences of Brexit, with a couple of European voices.

David Jubb (artistic dir of Battersea Arts Centre) blogged beautifully and tenderly about the divide that Brexit has exposed and what the cultural sector might want to do to heal the wounds.

Richard Evans (the chair of the Association of Independent Museums) blogged about his reaction. He ponders that perhaps not much will change?

Rufus Norris (artistic dir of National Theatre) explained to the BBC he was a bit sad about Brexit, to say the least.

Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian asked what’s the point of culture in Brexit Britain? He spun back to the opening ceremony from London 2012 to answer the question.

In a similar vein, artist Mahtab Hussain and Skinder Hundal, Director of New Art Exchange, blogged for The Arts Council about how art makes space for empathy and understanding.

Lauren Wingenroth wrote in Dance Magazine about three ways Brexit could hurt dance (spoiler: talent, finance, cultural exchange). Wingenroth was following up Ismene Brown’s piece in The Spectator in advance of the referendum that canvassed opinion from some big dance cheeses.

Isaac Kaplan in an Artsy editorial said that We Won’t Know Brexit’s Real Impact on the Art Market for Years.

Fergus Linehan, the Edinburgh’s International Festival director spoke to the Herald about the “fright” of the Brexit vote.

Emma Sumner for a-n talked to Polish artists, curators and visual arts professionals.

Lloyd Evans of The Spectator was at the Edinburgh Fringe and reported that luvvie anger over Brexit is palpable at Edinburgh, in particular in the routines of comedians. He thinks it might be because they no longer get access to EU dosh.

Also at Edinburgh, John Kampfner (CEO of the Creative Industries Federation) wrote a piece for The Scotsman which looked inward to the sector, seeking resolve from them/us and reassurances from the government.

Norman Lebrecht in Standpoint magazine asks Is There A Bright Side To Brexit? His answer pongs a little bit, with its ‘British Jobs for Britishers’ tone, but ultimately he thinks the UK arts sector is tough enough to withstand Brexit.

Tony Butler (exec dir at Derby Museums) blogged some reflections on museums and Brexit. He returns to some familiar rebalancing arguments, and a call-to-civic-arms for museums.

Playwright Atiha Sen Gupta explores how theatre can confront Britain’s post-Brexit racism in the Independent, as she does with her play Counting Stars (at the evergreen Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17 Sept)

Lillian Edwards from the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy wrote a mournful piece in SCRIPTed called Brexit: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Stephen Follows, in typically encyclopedic style, thrashed out on his blog what Brexit might mean for the UK film industry.

Something a bit different here… An endeavour called New Narratives has 10 Pledges and it’s inviting architects, designers, planners, artists, creatives to come together to work out how to respond to a Post-Brexit world. For me, this combines the clarity  of Old Man Yells at Cloud with the charm of the Men’s Rights Activist brigade. But please, make up your own mind.

Institutional responses

The Museums Association: highlighting funding and cultural consequences of Brexit.

The National Museums Directors Council released quite a strong political statement in response to the vote.

The Society of Antiquaries (think art history/archaeology/museums types – many academics) invited responses from their fellows and followers. The results make for interesting reading.

The Council for British Archaeology: Post-referendum archaeology

a-n, the visual artists organisation, did a quick survey of their members in July about Brexit. The results suggest the impact has been ‘immediate’

[There must be more of these]

A trio (and a bit) of sociological responses that I like

Stian Westlake (research director at Nesta) blogged about Brexit in the context of our ‘intangible economy’ and how Brexiteers are struggling to cope in it.

Likewise, Eric Kaufmann (prof of politics at Birkbeck) has pointed out that Brexit was a marker of a divide in culture and values in this country.

I found Will Davies’ (senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths) analysis of why people might vote for Brexit, despite it being an act of reckless self-harm, rather compelling.

I feel there might be lessons in the recent work of Arlie Russell Hochschild and that’s where my attention is headed between now and the US presidential election.

A few final reflections on all this

On the whole the arts world is mad and sad about Brexit. Many have said that “the arts” are “out of touch”. Twas ever thus, non? And maybe this isn’t a bad thing. I think people in the arts can still be completely in touch and remain angry that people have voted to do this stupid thing.

My one genuine persistent head-scratcher is that I  don’t understand how, even if you hate muslims or foreigners, or want more sovereignty and control, or want to be listened to, or want investment in your community, specifically, voting to leave the EU helps achieve this. None of the vox pops or interviews seem to have invited/forced people to walk us through that logic.

As of 17 Sept I am closing the file on this page. Thanks to everyone who put things my way. Apologies it still lacks non-UK and non-English-language stuff.


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Theatre 2016 – a few reflections


I was going to pitch this somewhere and reach a wider audience, but I’ve not published much on this site and there’s no harm in driving a little traffic my way for a change…

Lady Lanyard

Lady James has spent the last couple of days at the Theatre 2016 Conference. (Give me a drop-down menu and I WILL USE IT.) I was there to listen and learn. I’m not a theatre industry insider. I work as a researcher and consultant across a wide panorama of cultural sector niches. I’m a jack of all niches. Lady Jack of all niches.

I thought the conference was good. The speakers were unrelentingly engaging and pretty diverse. I saw plenty of new faces, new to me at least. I hadn’t ‘heard it all before’. Content and commentary from the conference is all over the web. I’ll spare you the details here. Naturally, there were a few technical and logistical hiccups. But on the whole I think the organisers could call it a success.

One little footnote to the conference sparked my attention. And I only know about it because of the parallel life I have on social media. I want to talk about a curious and righteous incandescence that emerged about the cost of attending the conference, and how that made it exclusionary. It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it did interest me, and it’s unlikely the organisers, sponsors or partners will deign to ‘feed the trolls’, well-intentioned though they may be.

I arrived at Theatre 2016 on day one, just as Dan Rebellato was wrapping up his presentation on new research into the hopes and fears of people in the theatre profession. We then heard from a few sector leaders about their own hopes and fears for theatre in 2016. Alistair Smith (editor of The Stage – for whom I occasionally write deprecating policy commentaries) said that ‘people’ were the source of both his hopes and his fears. For Alistair, hope came in the form of enthusiasm, passion and overall good cheer that his colleagues and contemporaries radiate every day. However, this ‘vocational’ approach to the work-life of the sector also contained the bases for Alistair’s fears: the ease with which people can be exploited (and permit that exploitation), the sometimes inward-looking and circular nature of the labour market, and the risk of a general lack of perspective.

And so it came to pass that the people problems began to surface… by day two of the conference a little rumbling on social media had grown in energy to form a substantial little twitterstorm. By the end of the day, toys were well and truly out of the pram, hashtags were hijacked, petitions were launched. Why? Because the conference cost over £400 to attend. Let me get straight to the point and explain why I think this is a slightly ridiculous thing to complain about:

£400 is pretty standard for a multi-day industry conference.

Getting inside the Museums Association conference will cost you £495. The Arts Marketing Association conference costs £672 to attend. I could go on and on and on. You can do the calculations yourself on how much it costs to put on such things. And if the organisers want to risk a financial loss, they are surely entitled to a profit if it succeeds. Anyway, Theatre 2016 was hardly a Theatreland Bilderberg or a Dramaturg’s Davos. This was David and Mari (BON Culture) scraping together contacts, friends, funding and sector bodies to devise something new, something unusual. Why the rage?

The theatre world comprises a extremely diverse bunch of people with an even more diverse set of worldviews. From multi-millionaire impressarios who will dash across the Atlantic to shaft the poor, to countless ultra-leftie types who stoke revolution through every bit of devised street theatre. The extremes are easy to mock on a lazy friday night, but a sector-wide conference needs to try and speak to all points along this spectrum.

And, the thing is, I didn’t pay £400. I paid £234. I quite reasonably expected the tickets to be subject to a Flash Sale. And indeed they were. So that’s when I got mine. This made it rather cheap for an industry conference. This leaves only two questions: was it exclusionary in any way? And was it good value? Let’s take these in turn.

For me, it was not exclusionary. I have more than £234 in the bank. Whoopie doo. Did the price tag put off anyone else? Of course it did. No money = no ticket. Excluded. This is a shitty position to be in. We’ve all been there. The challenge for us all is how to bring down the cost of this thing and balance the content to keep the capitalists and the socialists happy. Not everyone wants to spend a day discussing the theatre in some Occupy-style encampment with organic recycled mung beans complaining about Big Panto and the Musical-Industrial Complex. Nor is there any reason to make this a flashy retreat for the theatre 1%.

We freelancers are acutely aware of the value of our time. We need to be smart in how we spend our money. We need to be confident of returns on any investments in ourselves. If you are lucky enough to have £234 to spend (admittedly more if travel and accommodation are involved) I guess it’s still possible to think it’s an offensively large sum of money for a two-day theatre circle-jerk. The cry was that the cost excluded independent artists and freelancers. If you are an independent freelancer and have nothing set aside for training and development then you are going to have a tough time making a success of your business. Admittedly, I didn’t rinse every ounce of value from the two days, I got a bit distracted engaging with an avalanche of sexy Twitter spambots (who caught wind of a trending hashtag). Some rather sub-optimal freelancing, there. For someone else it might have yielded some fruitful collaborations or new bits of work. For me, I thought on the whole, the conference did deliver at least £234’s worth of value.

Okay. Enough. Line drawn. Let’s be generous. Let’s think about opening up Theatre 2017. Livestream the whole thing? Go ahead. But that’s going to cost more money. Offer more concessions and bursaries? Sure. But that cranks up the price for everyone else, or taps into the taxpayer’s wallet should the Arts Council get more involved. None of this is lowering the cost. Maybe the sponsors could be leaned on for more cash? I’m short on imaginative solutions here.

The conference was organised with the tagline: “for everyone who cares about the future of theatre”. Seems like a sensible thing to suggest if you have tickets to sell. BON Culture certainly helped create a sense of FOMO. Looks like it worked, for good or ill. With Theatre 2016, this fledgling consultancy took a risk. Their qualified success is to be welcomed, but from a distance it was perhaps a painful thing to witness. I’m still not entirely sure why. But I’m all out of words. See you at Theatre 2017.


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