Keeping talented artists out of the UK

Post by Manick Govinda, head of the Manifesto Club visiting artists campaign…

The myopic immigration cap is still having a damaging effect on the UK’s cultural life, not to mention the economy, people’s personal and social lives. The UK Border Agency’s piecemeal offer to save the UK from cultural and intellectual isolation was to introduce 1,000 visas to award non-European Union nationals with exceptional talent in the arts, sciences and humanities who wish to stay in the UK for 3-5 years.

Professional bodies would assess and endorse applications to this route and in the case of the arts, Arts Council England has taken on this task – at no extra cost, with no additional resources given to it.

I, and many other representatives from British Council, English PEN to name a few attended the consultation on this at both UKBA and Arts Council England, and made it clear that artists with promise and potential would not get a look in through this route, which has been further exacerbated by the removal of the post-study work visa, meaning that talented performing and visual arts students would not be able to take up opportunities in the UK to flower and grow into strong artists.

I thought that Arts Council England listened to this and relaxed the Home Office’s rather narrow view of exceptional talent, which prior to consultation was based purely on income level (ie, high) and recognised awards (ie, nobel laureates). So, yes applicants no longer have to be earning huge amounts of money or have a £50,000 award! But if you are a young talented artist who has yet to emerge into a successful artist, then it seems that spending £800 to apply under this route could be a complete waste of time and money.

The case of the US artist Steven Levon Ounanian provides a sad example. He graduated with an MA at the UK’s Royal College of Art in 2008. We at Artsadmin awarded him an Artists’ Bursary in 2010 in recognition of his unique voice and talent as a live/media arts-maker.

Ounanian was one of seven bursary recipients for emerging artists in the field of Live Art awarded from a very competitive open application process where we received around 250 submissions from artist who live or work in the UK.

It was unfortunate that he had to leave mid-way through his bursary support because his visa had expired and he couldn’t renew. Ounanian made a huge contribution to the Live Arts sector, not only through his convivial and engaging work but also to debates, workshops and collaborating with other artists.

He applied for the new Tier 1 exceptional talent visa recently. Artsadmin wrote a letter of endorsement for him, signed by our Director Judith Knight MBE. Four weeks later he was told that his application was unsuccessful and his application fee of £800 is non-refundable. Arts Council England didn’t recommend him on the grounds that he didn’t show enough evidence of international acclaim.

Since this route was introduced in Spring 2011 it is not known how many applications have been received nor how many visas have been granted. I have a feeling that because not many artists know about the scheme and might be put off by the stringent criteria, there may not be much interest, combined with the increasing hostility which the state is fostering through its anxiety inducing anti-immigrant policies and surveillance.

I am dismayed that Arts Council England is firmly an out-sourced arm of UKBA restrictions on international cultural relationships. It really should have put up a stronger fight than this and recognise that if a recognised funded arts institute like Artsadmin cannot be trusted to endorse a talented young artist who we completely believe has great promise, has a unique voice and makes an important contribution to the UK’s cultural life, then it is actively colluding with Home Office paranoia and anxiety that migrants, and in this case, migrant artists are a problem, taking opportunities and work away from UK artists. This outlook is protectionist, flies in the face of internationalism and ultimately makes us all the more poorer.

Let’s remember where TS Eliot, Anish Kapoor and the Scissor Sisters proved their talent in their early years – certainly not in their homelands but in the cosmopolitan buzz of the UK’s cities. And besides do we want to live in a state-approved society where everyone has to be licensed to do something in society?

If anyone else is in a similar situation, please let me know by posting to me via the Manifesto Club FB page:


    Since posting the unfortunate case of artist Steven Ounanian being refused a Tier 1 exceptional talented visa, the artist got in touch with me quoting the exact wording of the reasons for refusal:

    “An endorsement from Arts Council England has not been recommended because of insufficient evidence of Exceptional Talent in a relevant field. More specifically because your appearances/exhibitions were insufficient or not acceptable. Whilst taking into account the comparatively limited opportunities for showing Live Art, Panel’s view was that the applicant was still at an emergent stage of his career and insufficiently demonstrates the required extensive international presence to qualify for this route.”

    Ounanian also mentioned that “I talked to an immigration lawyer in the UK about my case and she brings up some points you may find interesting. The issue, as I come to understand it, has to do with the home office criteria for entry which includes exceptional promise. The Arts Council reason for refusal stated that “the applicant was still in an emergent stage” which according to the Home office’s criteria for artists (exceptional promise), is not proper grounds for refusal.

    The full spiel:

    In terms of your refusal, I think there is an argument that the Arts Council guidance is ultra vires. The Immigration Rules on Tier 1 (Exceptional talent) state
    “245B. Purpose
    This route is for exceptionally talented individuals in the fields of science, humanities, engineering and the arts, who wish to work in the UK. These individuals are those who are already internationally recognised at the highest level as world leaders in their particular field, or who have already demonstrated exceptional promise and are likely to become world leaders in their particular area.”

    In contrast to the guide for the sciences, the Arts Council guidance does not distinguish between internally established artists and those with potential. There is an argument that, because Parliament was happy with the Immigration Rules which envisaged those with potential being permitted to enter under the guidance published by the endorsing bodies, the Arts Council guidance is unlawful in that it only provides for established world leaders.”

    Could this be a case of Arts Council England overstepping the line and actually being more draconian than the official UKBA guidelines? Have the sciences and humanities taken on such a stringent take on the UKBA guidelines? It seems not.