Sunday, 22 February 2009

Top artists battle UK visa clampdown

Antony Gormley is leading major arts figures in an attack on security controls which prevent star international performers from entering the UK

Leading figures from the art world, including Antony Gormley and Nicholas Hytner, have launched a campaign to reverse stringent visa controls which they claim are preventing top foreign musicians, actors and artists from visiting Britain.

They say that immigration laws introduced last year are restricting artistic freedom and have called on the Home Office to review them.

One example they give is that of the virtuoso Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who cancelled what was to be his second performance in this country at the Southbank Centre in London when he could not provide the documents required for his planned visit in April.

"This country has always been a hub, an airy place where people from all over the world could come and express themselves in art," said actress Janet Suzman, one of the signatories of a petition calling for the Home Office to look at the rules again. "This legislation stamps on all that with a clunking, hobnail boot."

The visa legislation has tightened up the requirements for all professionals travelling to Britain from outside the EU in order to perform or take part in an arts event. Artists must now not only show proof of their identity, including fingerprints, but also show they have an established sponsor happy to take full financial responsibility for them and to vouch for all their activities while on British soil. Small organisations must pay a fee of £400 to become an official "sponsor", while larger groups must pay £1,000.

"It can't really be what government wanted," said Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, "but what we have now is this totally unintended effect. We still have plenty of cultural exchanges with artists across the EU, and even within the Commonwealth, but the real excitement of the last decade has been the growing number of performers coming from other countries and developing direct relationships with smaller venues and companies. It is of huge benefit here, and one hopes it is of benefit to them too."

The petition is signed by prominent artists, including Antony Gormley, 2004 Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, the artistic director of the Royal National Theatre Nicholas Hytner, Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and the artistic director of London's Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly.

"I feel the wider arts community has no idea yet how badly this will affect their relationships with international artists," said Manick Govinda, of arts producer and promoter Artsadmin, who is spearheading the campaign to change the regulations. He argues that the new layers of bureaucracy pose real problems for non-western artists from the developing world. Kurdish Iraqi artists invited here by Adalet Garmiany, the director of ArtRole, have been told they must travel 900 miles to Beirut and stay for three weeks to apply for the correct documents.

"This effectively criminalises these artists," Govinda said. "If you invite a professional performer to this country, they are not going to expect you to want to know where they are going every day. It is the smaller arts venues and festivals that will be hit most, but all of them will find this very difficult."

Govinda added that, while previous immigration hurdles were never simple for visiting artists, they were at least surmountable. A letter of invitation was needed, along with a statement about the visitors' plans and an indication of how much they would receive in living expenses while on these shores.

A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "We want the United Kingdom to stay open and attractive for creative artists. But at the same time we are determined to deliver a system of border security which is among the most secure in the world.

"It is only right that those that benefit from the great cultural contribution migrants bring with them play their part through our system of sponsorship in ensuring that the system is not being abused.

"All migrants, not just artists, seeking to come to the UK to work or study, except for the most highly skilled, will require a certificate of sponsorship," he added.


Home Office Curbs Non-EU Artists

By Manick Govinda

First published in the Feb 09 issue of a-n Magazine:
An earlier version also published in the Feb 09 issue of Blueprint Magazine

As an arts professional committed to the principles of internationalism and cultural exchange I am both dismayed and disgusted by the new UK Home Office regulations that will further curb our invitations non-EU artists to collaborate with, experience, or make work in, the UK. The Home Office’s UK Border Agency, has introduced a points-based system for employers and charitable organisations who wish invite non-EU migrants into the UK. Its website describes the new points-based system as “the biggest shake up of the immigration system for 45 years.” In order to invite a non-EU professional, British organisations will have to “sponsor a migrant.”

To become a sponsor companies and charities will have to complete an on-line application on the UK Border Agency website. Various certified documents will have to be submitted, and there is the compulsory fee to pay the Borders Agency of £400 for small organisations and £1000 for large. Should you want to invite a skilled worker under tier 2 of the system, this will set you back £170 for each certificate of sponsorship (required by the migrant) or £10 if s/he is a temporary worker.

Aside from the bureaucratic and financial hassle, the 130 page document reveals a massive degree of control on skilled and temporary migrant workers that polices and regulates their day to day activity. For example, all sponsors will be required to hold photocopies or electronic copies of passport and ID card details, recruitment practices would need to be submitted and the migrant must be qualified at the equivalent of S/NVQ level 3 or above. Such documents might be easy for, say, a US or Canadian Artist to obtain, but if you’re coming from Cameroon or Pakistan, I have a strong feeling that such documents will be beyond the costs for most artists, and difficult to obtain due to lack of the relevant technology. Adalet Garmiany, director of ArtRole, informed me that the Kurdish-Iraqi artists whom he intends to invite would have to travel 900 kilometres to Beirut in person to apply for such documents and may have to stay there for about 3 weeks to receive them.

All non-EU invited artists will have to apply for a visa in person and supply biometric data - electronic finger scans and a digital photograph. Tier 2 Skilled workers would be required to hold a high qualification, have strong professional experience, the ability to speak fluent English (preferably studied in an English speaking country) and be in demand because of a shortage of local skills in the UK.

The past system was by no means a border free journey for artists, but usually a letter from the company inviting you, outlining why you’ve been invited, what you’ll be doing and how much your subsistence or per diems will be, was sufficient for the invitee to get permission to enter on a tourist visa. Applying for a visa was by no means easy, but a number of different routes were available for artists. This was how international artists’ residencies by organisations like Gasworks were organised.

Tier 5 temporary workers will need to show that they readily have access to a minimum of £800 of their own money and that they have no recourse to public funds. Does this apply to artist-in-residence or international fellowship schemes funded by Arts Council England? There is no clarity.

Whether one believes in immigration controls or not (I for one believe in complete freedom of movement across states and countries), the arts and creative community seem to agree that the new system is restrictive. The National Campaign for the Arts (NCA) undertook a quick survey of its members in July 2008 receiving 53 responses from its membership of 325. A 16% response rate may not be quantifiably significant, but of those who responded 76% had hosted artists from outside the EU in the last 2 years, and 81% said the changes to the immigration regulations would affect their work citing increase costs, increased legal hurdles and increased administrative tasks as extra burdens. However, only 2% stated that they would work with fewer non-EU artists in the future.

What is evident is the lack of a popular campaign against these draconian measures that’s curbing the freedom of international creative and artistic flow into the UK. The NCA alerted the Home Office about the detrimental effects to the arts sector, “which the proposed changes posed in terms of costs and procedures”, and took part in a “sector specific task force to inform immigration policy”. However, it did not mobilise a protest from its 600 strong membership to object to these hugely restrictive measures.

It seems obvious that the new points based system is designed to keep certain types of people out, while the UK is happy to export its expertise across the world, without the same level of humiliating procedures. Many small, unincorporated, autonomous arts projects will have a tough job of getting the necessary documents to invite non-EU overseas colleagues to the UK. Artists who want to collaborate, support each other and explore collective work will lose their flexibility and freedom to choose whose they work with internationally. It also means that individuals will lose their autonomy unless its regulated and validated by the likes of The British Council, Visiting Arts, The Design Council and other official bodies of representation.

So what action should artists’ and arts professionals take? As a member of the Manifesto Club, I’m trying to organise a petition to the Government to express a collective objection to this regulation. Secondly, more evidence and case studies needs to be compiled, reported and communicated to a range of media to raise further public awareness and objection to these draconian measures. If anyone is interested in discussing these tactics further, please contact me on the following email:

Manick Govinda is Head of Artists’ Advisory Services and Artist Producer at Artsadmin. He is a member of London Mayor’s Cultural Strategy Group and is a non-executive director and commissioning editor for a-n: The Artists Information Company.


Manifesto Club:
National Campaign for the Arts:
Visiting Arts:
Home Office UK Borders Agency:




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