Friday, May 22, 2009

working 'gainst the clampdown

Circumstances this week cause me to focus on a clampdown happening in the UK - where over-zealous immigration officers are applying jackboot tactics to enforce some commercially wrong-headed, culturally xenophobic, new policies.

And, here the story begins:

Top artists battle visa clampdown

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The Observer, Sunday 22 February 2009

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.

Top artists battle visa clampdown

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Your letters

The Observer, Sunday 22 February 2009

End pernicious controls on artistic freedom

As professionals committed to the principles of internationalism and cultural exchange, we are dismayed by new Home Office regulations which will curb our invitations to non-EU artists and academics to visit the UK. All non-EU visitors now must apply for a visa in person and supply biometric data, electronic fingerprint scans and a digital photograph.

The Home Office's 158-page document also outlines new controls over visitors' day-to-day activity: individuals must show that they have at least £800 of savings, which have been held for at least three months prior to the date of their application; the host organisation must keep copies of the visitor's passport and their UK biometric card, a history of their contact details; and if the visitor does not turn up to their studio or place of work, or their where-abouts are unknown, the organisation is legally obliged to inform the UK Border Agency.

We believe that these restrictions discriminate against our overseas colleagues on the grounds of their nationality and financial resources and will be particularly detrimental to artists from developing countries and those with low income. Such restrictions will damage the vital contribution made by global artists and scholars to cultural, intellectual and civic life in the UK.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery; Antony Gormley, artist; Eddie Berg, artistic director, BFI Southbank; Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery; David Lan, the Young Vic; John E McGrath, theatre director; Malcolm Purkey, artistic director and acting CEO, Market Theatre Foundation, South Africa; Nicholas Hytner, the Royal National Theatre; Nicolas Kent, Tricycle Theatre; Brett Rogers, director, the Photographers' Gallery; David Barrie, director, the Art Fund; Jeremy Deller, artist; and 49 others

End pernicious controls on artistic freedom

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