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A step backward: The Brexit future for diversity in the performing arts sector


Diversity and creativity have long been intertwined. Practitioners have argued for the benefits of different cultural experiences in the performative arts—across the music, theatre and dance industries for centuries.

Despite this, the UK’s arts scene is still heavily steeped in inequality. This February, Arts Council England published a report on diversity within the UK arts sector, which found that the performing arts in particular is still highly dominated by white, middle-class performers. 

Lack of diversity

While diversity schemes have been rolled out across the industry, the black, and minority ethnic (BME) community is still hugely underrepresented in it. 

According to Arts Council England’s 2017-18 diversity report, BME representation in the creative sector’s workforce has risen by 21% in the last two-three years. While this increase is encouraging, BME individuals still only made up 12% of the overall workforce at the release of the report. 

Free movement and cultural exchange

Historically, free movement has aided the UK’s performing arts and creative sector hugely, promoting the easy exchange of not only people, but also ideas. 

For decades performers, theatre-makers and artists have flocked between cultural hubs in Britain, France, Germany and beyond to attend events, study, receive training and meet like-minded individuals. 

Now, with an end to free movement on the horizon, budding creatives will be limited, with access from and to the UK restricted. 

This scenario will not just result in a loss of European artistic talent and influence within the performing arts, but also British creatives being unable to attend workshops, training, auditions or rehearsals in Europe as easily. This promises creative and cultural stagnation. 

Skills and talent shortages

As well as a lack of diversity, there are also skills shortages across several sub-sectors in the arts. For instance, the dance industry relies upon talent from the EU and further overseas; with highly skilled ballet and contemporary dancers officially in shortage in the UK. 

If a role is officially classed as ‘in shortage’ by the government, it is placed on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL). This process signifies that the role cannot be filled by domestic talent alone, and that the UK officially needs to recruit migrants to fill it. If a role is included on the SOL, this relieves some of the pressure for UK employers looking to recruit for that role, as well as for overseas migrants who want to apply for the role. 

This May, the Migration Observatory Committee (MAC) released a report which investigated skills shortages across various sectors and industries – included in this was the arts sector. 

Performing arts roles which were included in the MAC’s report were listed under three categories: ‘actors, entertainers and presenters’, ‘dancers and choreographers’, ‘musicians’, and ‘arts officers, producers, and directors’. 

The MAC assessed each category, and then made recommendations based on information it had received from stakeholders, industry professionals and think-tanks about whether or not a role ought to be listed as ‘in shortage’.  

Its report concluded that every performing arts category (or “SOC code”) should be included on the updated SOL – apart from ‘actors, entertainer and presenters’.


While this is somewhat good news for encouraging diversity in the industry, the report’s failure to consider the implications of the end of free movement is concerning for the performing arts sector. 

After Brexit (in the event of a no-deal or hard-deal scenario) EU nationals will subject to the exact same visa regulations and costs as other migrants. This means that European performers will no longer be encouraged to choose Britain as their professional base. To work, even in a temporary role, they will need some form of Work Visa and this is restrictive and costly. What’s more, if they want to bring g their children or partner with them, or apply for British citizenship, they will need to pay upwards of £3,000 and jump through even more hoops. 

Why go through this ordeal when they can take on roles in other major European cultural hubs, like Paris, Berlin or Brussels, bring their families, and settle for free?

Brexit is set to decrease diversity and difference in an industry which is already heavily dominated by white, British, middle-class people. 

The impact of ending free movement must be assessed and combatted by the UK government and British councils. Not only is diversifying the arts an important step for equality measures, and for the satisfaction and culture of the general British public, but the sector also generates £40 billion for the UK economy per year. Jeopardising its ability to thrive would be detrimental for the future of the UK, risking its ability to retain its status as a cultural world leader. 

This article has been written by Luna Williams, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service. IAS is an organisation consisting of immigration lawyers positioned throughout the UK. IAS provides advice and support for employers in the UK, overseas professionals applying for work visas, and legal aid support for asylum seekers and other vulnerable individuals.