Will a hard Brexit spell disaster for London's cosmopolitan art scene?
Source:theguardian Author:​ Jonathan Jones Date: 2017-01-23 Size:
At London’s Frieze art fair last autumn some friends from Vienna……

Two visitors to the Frieze art fair, 2016.

At London’s Frieze art fair last autumn some friends from Vienna and Lahore took me to the Deutsche Bank VIP lounge. There we ate – what else? – micro portions of fish and chips, an ironically British gourmet snack in surroundings that stressed the global nature of the art economy.

Now the postmodern canapes are going cold in London’s art world, as the terror of a hard Brexit sends chills through some of the most sophisticated businesses in the capital.

A survey of galleries represented at the London art fair has found that 49% believe the best way the government can help the art trade cope with Brexit is by preserving free movement of people and goods. Hopes of any such market liberalism are fading fast as the prime minister puts control of the UK border high on her agenda and Britain is to leave the European single market.

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The art market’s anxiety that it will be damaged by any restriction to free movement may seem to fly in the face of more bullish claims for its post-Brexit future. Last autumn, leave campaigners were claiming that London does far more art business with the rest of the world than it does with Europe, and freedom from EU controls could be a great thing. “Now is the time to eliminate or reduce the regulatory burdens that have piled up over recent decades, adding costs and compromising London’s competitive position,” enthused art dealer Anthony Browne. Well, such opinions easily get an airing in certain sections of the British press.

There is even some evidence of a patriotic boom in historical British art: last year a long-forgotten self-portrait by the 17th-century British artist William Dobson set a £1m-plus auction record. The most unexpectedly potent factor in revitalising Britain’s art market may, however, be the fall in the pound’s value since the Brexit vote, which means London’s galleries can offer bargains to international art collectors.

None of that seems to reassure the 49% of art galleries convinced that free movement is a crucial benefit of the EU. The survey confirms my own impressions from conversations with art world professionals who clearly think the closing-down of Britain will be a disaster. And these people understand money.

No business in Britain is more intricately international than the art trade, a specialised industry so completely globalised that going into a big gallery can feel like entering a VIP airport lounge or perhaps a space station. Interns from everywhere, dealers who may be in Dubai today, Los Angeles tomorrow, and masterpieces from all over the planet all make London’s art trade a cosmopolitan wonder.

It is also a stonking success. In the 1980s London had only a few art dealers, most of them around the Cork Street area in the West End. Only Anthony d’Offay played an important part in the global contemporary art scene with his representation of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Jeff Koons. The explosion of artistic creativity in London at the end of that decade revolutionised metropolitan galleries, with Matt’s Gallery, Maureen Paley and White Cube among those leading the way. By the time Tate Modern opened in 2000 London was in the midst of a surge that has made it one of the world’s artistic capitals, with every major world gallery seeking to get in on its booming business.

The likes of Michael Gove might well ask: So what? What good does all this elitist contemporary art do for ordinary British people? And is it not harmful to Britain’s true cultural identity, making us worship giant bums when we should be looking at Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral?

Sculptures in the grounds of the Hauser & Wirth gallery at Bruton, Somerset.

I don’t always get the deepest of aesthetic satisfactions from art fairs and the like, but consider this: if you live in deepest Somerset and want to see interesting art, you can, because the international art dealership Hauser & Wirth runs a rural gallery and art centre in Bruton that puts on top-quality exhibitions. It is about to open one by the respected British 20th-century sculptor Elisabeth Frink. Hauser & Wirth Somerset also has a public garden, restaurant and bar, and with talks by leading intellectuals (Germaine Greer will speak about Frink) provides the area with a full-scale cultural hub. Thus the global art market is directly enriching Somerset.

The vogue for art sustained by the rise of the London art market has also energised galleries and festivals in Liverpool and Manchester, and sustains the Scottish art scene. Free movement is obviously essential to this most worldly of businesses. The paradox is that it is precisely the parts of British life we can be most honestly patriotic about that Brexit will smash. Since its “cool Britannia” takeoff in the 1990s, London has now kept its status as a world cultural capital for 20 years. That is a much longer period of artistic eminence than it enjoyed in the 1960s. It is in fact the most spectacular age of global eminence in art it has ever enjoyed. We are rubbish at football but good at art – and selling art.

Brexit could make it harder and harder for globalised London successes like the art world to shine. Everything will become smaller, narrower and uglier in a prejudiced future forged in the name of independence. Theresa May might be talking up a “global Britain”, but the general mood in the wake of the Brexit vote is that we are against outsiders, and also against London, our most important national asset. This could end up being a very little Britain indeed.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern