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Come to Britain (but only if you’re already famous)

New immigration rules exclude young, gifted artists from beyond the European Union

Michael Craig-Martin CBE, a very influential professor at Goldsmiths, would not have been able to move to Britain as a young artist under the new rules

Changes to Britain’s immigration rules mean that young, talented artists from abroad are officially not welcome to come to the UK: only those who are internationally established should apply for a visa to live and work here. There has been an 85% fall in the number of visas granted to artists from beyond the European Union since the government introduced new rules last year, The Art Newspaper has learned.

In October, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, called 2012 an “annus mirabilis” for creative talent in London, boasting that the capital is home to some of the best artists and designers in the world. But far from being a rival to cities such as Berlin, New York, Paris and Los Angeles, London is fast becoming a no-go area for emerging artists from the US, South America, Africa, the Middle East and Russia.

Arts Council England, which works at arm’s length from the government, is the Home Office’s “designated competent body” that assesses applications for the new “tier one” visa for artists, composers and writers.

Promise is insufficient

The arts council has raised the bar high for applicants, choosing to exclude the criterion of “exceptional promise”. You must be “an established, world-class artist” to qualify, it says on its website. In contrast, the Royal Society will consider applications on behalf of the Home Office made by promising young scientists. The Royal Academy of Engineers also considers applicants on the grounds of their promise.

Young, foreign-born artists wishing to spend the formative years of their careers in Britain are being hit by a government policy to cut immigration in general. The arts council’s decision to exclude the “exceptional promise” criterion for artists, which was quietly clarified in October by the UK Border Agency on its website, effectively shuts the door on emerging artists who want to stay here for more than a brief period.

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request made by Manick Govinda, the head of the Visiting Artists Campaign organised by the Manifesto Club, a lobbying group, reveals that the arts council endorsed 25 out of 58 applications between April 2011, when the scheme started, and September 2012. In 2007, 167 visas were granted to visual artists, writers and composers, 132 of which went to visual artists. The drop in applications is partly because it is now an expensive process: the fee is £816, which is not refunded if you are unsuccessful.

Nicholas Trench, an artist and member of the House of Lords, is urging the government and the arts council to rethink. “The people we need should be at the beginning of their careers. If we’re not careful, Britain will get a bad reputation around the world,” he says.

“After three centuries of artistic exchange enriching artistic practice in Great Britain, there is a real risk that small-minded rules introduced by the Home Office will prevent it happening in the future,” says Charles Saumarez Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The academy has been “badly affected” by the change in the immigration rules, he says. “We were not able to accept an American student who applied to study [here], was offered a place and then couldn’t take up the place. We would also like to establish a programme of visiting fellowships for young architects but are not sure that it will be possible.”

Jude Kelly is another critic of the immigration rules. The artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre describes the decision to exclude the “exceptional promise” criterion for artists as “very harmful”, adding: “[I] couldn’t think of anything dafter.” She says that France and Germany “are much more welcoming to young artists from emerging countries like Brazil, India and South Korea”.

In its response to the Manifesto Club, the arts council says that “exceptional promise is a difficult category to define and test for the arts”. The UK Border Agency’s website gives a different rationale. “To admit such applicants may reduce the opportunities for UK nationals trying to break into this field,” it says.

A spokeswoman for the arts council says: “We are currently reviewing exceptional promise.” She says the body consulted a number of artists and arts organisations when it set the criteria.

The Dublin-born, US-educated artist Michael Craig-Martin, now an emeritus professor of art at Goldsmiths, London, moved to Britain in 1966 to take up a teaching position, which was offered, he recalls, “on the basis of ten slides of my work. As I had no professional experience, there was no way that anyone could have confidently described me as being of ‘exceptional promise’.” Craig-Martin calls the non-refundable £816 application fee “disgraceful”, adding: “It says one thing—only the rich need apply.”

He describes the immigration rules as the “wilful destruction” of London’s hard-won position as an international centre for talented young artists “by people who are happy to bask in the praise the arts achieve”.

The Mayor of London’s office declined to comment. A spokesman

for the Home Office says: “The introduction of the ‘exceptional talent’ route last year was welcomed by Arts Council England and ensures we are able to attract the brightest and the best into the country.” He adds: “The previous tier-one general route was much abused.”

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1 Apr 13
15:11 CET


True. I studied Music in the UK, but was unable to stay after my studies and create there although all my brit tutors and co-artists wanted me too. More so as a visual arts my copyright is protected under the 1911 act, it's rather sad I never had a chance to create in the UK, more so, had to leave just as I understood the culture and was able to express the impression it left in my work...I truly believe that regardless terrorism and the economy Artists should be allowed to travel and work freely in all free lands. Our work as Artists is not restricted by boarders, we are here to serve humanity and to advance knowledge all over the planet. Our travel is part of the rainbow involving the exchange of that knowledge. Kindly reconsider you stand

19 Jan 13
16:45 CET


David Cameron and his ilk, living and acting in fear of the daily mail mindset. keep those "dirty scrounging artists" out. Its not about protecting UK artists ,its about looking tough on foreigners.

17 Jan 13
16:13 CET


This excludes Canada, Australia, New Zealand as well. Artists are resourceful and create their own opportunities where ever they live. The idea that a foriegner would take opportunities away from a national is absurd and narrow minded. You loose out on making contacts going the other way, a foreign artist here meets people and often introduces them to their home countries resources. Remember exchange?

15 Dec 12
17:9 CET


Totally right decision, you can work with UK galleries before you move in, establish yourself than change place to live. In the contemporary world place where you live means little, Internet connects everyone.

14 Dec 12
3:54 CET


It's flattering that so many "emerging" artists from the US, South America, Africa, the Middle East and Russia would prefer to be in the UK but we have enough emerging artists of our own. Try somewhere else.

13 Dec 12
18:48 CET


They seem to want all the praise of having a vibrant and world-class art community without taking any of the risk. To say you just want people after they are world-class shows a total ignorance to where and how exciting art gets created and really just screams of a horribly misguided attempt to force the quick creation of a good art community, without realizing what actually makes it work. I don't know why any artist, after they have become accepted, would want to relocate to a place which unapologetically disregards the value of developing artists

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