Cultural policy News United Kingdom

UK visa system discourages artists from visiting and museums from asking

Government to review rules by end of June before parliamentary debate

Peers in the House of Lords and leading cultural figures are lobbying the Government to reform the UK’s visa and immigration system. They say “stringent” visa policies are harming the country’s “soft power” (the ability to encourage and attract rather than enforce). The points-based system is particularly damaging for the UK’s museums, which are struggling to invite leading artists, curators and researchers to visit and work with them.

The Government has until the end of June to review the rules, which can be problematic for non-EU artists and curators who wish to stay in the UK for longer than one month. A full debate in the House of Lords is due to follow in July or after the summer recess in October. Lord David Howell is also campaigning for annual debates on Britain’s soft power. “We need to enable great artists and leading cultural figures to move freely from country to country,” says the Conservative Party peer.

Academic institutions are also suffering because of the UK’s policies. Potential members of staff and researchers are being denied visas, while increased costs and a complicated application process are putting students off. Currently, international students are included in migration figures; the British Council is calling for them to be separated.

“Alongside student visas, delivering a flexible, affordable, fast and effective service for visitor visas for international artists, sportsmen and politicians is key to the UK’s soft power,” says a spokesman for the British Council. “Needless bureaucracy and red tape should not be allowed to jeopardise important intercultural engagement.”

The latest campaign to reform immigration rules has been addressed in a report on soft power published on 28 March by the House of Lords and headed by Lord Howell. It is not the first time the UK’s visa policies have come under fire. In 2011, around 100 cultural figures including the directors of the UK’s main museums wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, asking for non-EU artists to be removed from the rigorous points-based system. Their letter came after a slew of high-profile cases involving artists, writers and musicians who were either denied entry to the UK or poorly treated by visa officials, including the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and the US rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

In 2012, the rules were changed, allowing non-EU artists to work for up to a month in the UK without applying for a tier-five work visa. Those wishing to stay longer must still apply through the points-based system. “There has been a significant improvement, but artists and curators on our three-month residency programme are still subject to the ever-changing rules,” says Aaron Cezar, the founding director of the Delfina Foundation in London. Applying for a tier-five work visa is costly (upwards of $340 for each artist) and the process can be unpredictable, Cezar says, noting how, last autumn, two curators applied with very different results. “The Turkish curator experienced no problems, while the Indian curator was refused,” he says.

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