We have written an open letter about the nationalistic branding exercise that is Festival UK* 2022, which is now open for signatures.
We call on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Neil Mendoza, UK government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, and Martin Green to cancel Festival UK* 2022 and repurpose its £120 million budget for sector transformation, led by the most marginalised cultural workers.
As migrants working in the arts we know that our creativity doesn’t have a nationality. As Migrants in Culture, we work towards and advocate for culture without borders. There is no such thing as ‘UK creativity.’
We think it’s a missed opportunity, that Festival UK* 2022 disavows its origins as an idea of Theresa May ("Just as millions of Britons celebrated their nation's great achievements in 1951, we want to showcase what makes our country great today") in the context of Brexit.
Festival UK* 2022 could have been an opportunity for the UK’s cultural sector to recognise the cognitive dissonance that allows it to fabricate false-narratives of ‘openness’ and ‘optimism’ while at the same time mandating passport checks and making precarious migrant workers redundant. We do not need a festival claiming to ‘bring people together’ while the government’s Hostile Environment forces people apart. We do not need a festival that seeks to whitewash the UK’s endemic racism using our cultural capital.
We’re not calling for the shaming of individuals and organisations who will have to accept this money to survive. But we ask the cultural sector to join us in acknowledging and discrediting the narrative that Festival UK* 2022 is a great opportunity that should be uncritically embraced and legitimised by our involvement as artists and arts workers.
We don’t think that the world is divisible into binaries of positive and negative, good and bad, leavers and remainers. Brexit is a distraction and so is this temporary injection of cash in exchange for ‘creative’ soft power. We believe that in an accountable and ethical arts ecology, Martin Green, Chief Creative Officer of the Festival UK*2022, should reallocate the festival’s £120 million budget towards an equitable recovery for the arts and cultural sector, led by Black, POC, migrant, disabled, queer and working class leaders.
We need to collectively demand a sector that stops privileging the imagination of white, middle class, heteronormative, non-disabled British citizens in positions of institutional power. We want a sector that no longer continues to replicate models of wider social and economic injustice. We want to see a cultural sector capable of envisioning and supporting a future where people aren’t criminalised for where they are born; where everybody has enough wealth to enjoy and practice the arts; and where our ability to survive a pandemic isn’t contingent on class, race or national origin.
Just because the word Brexit isn't mentioned doesn't mean it’s not about Brexit. Festival UK* 2022 originated when the Conservative government ‘found’ this money against a backdrop of austerity. As cultural workers we need to question why and how they found this money. Alongside the Hostile Environment, the ‘Festival of Brexit’ is part of Theresa May’s legacy. Why is Festival UK* 2022 not acknowledging this?
The declared aim to ‘showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world’ is impossible, because there is no such thing as ‘UK creativity’. Creativity is not national - we as migrants in culture have multiple nationalities - How does UK creativity differ from our other creativities?
We reject the use of culture as nationalistic branding. The festival’s aim to help ‘attract new inward business and investment’ means that cultural workers are compelled to act as ambassadors for UK soft power in order to access this funding.
We do not need a festival claiming to ‘bring people together’ while the government’s Hostile Environment forces people apart. A large scale and temporary public art project can’t be unconstrained by the structural inequalities amplified by political decisions.
We call on all cultural leaders to address the cognitive dissonance within the sector and to stop invoking ‘the power of art’ to justify this latest example of a new conservatism.
If the aim is ‘be open’, will Festival UK* 2022 refuse to comply with Hostile Environment legislation and not check people’s passports for work permits? Will it lobby the government for fair migration reform? Will it be open to culture workers and scientists who are in indefinite detention and those who have been made redundant during the pandemic?
As for the Festival’s other two values: ‘Optimism’ and ‘Originality’, this would mean: All of us, not just some of us. Instead, a forced positivity will create a smokescreen of ‘celebration’ and ‘renewal’, whilst European freedom of movement is being revoked, limited leave to remain is destroying lives and the Life in the UK test continues to misrepresent the British Empire.
The approach of Martin Green CBE, Chief Creative Officer of Festival UK* 2022, is to neutralise and depoliticise links to the origins of the festival as set out by Theresa May. His strategy has been to legitimise the £120 million budget with a seemingly open and collaborative process. He’s recruited a diverse and respected group of creative advisors. He’s buffering against criticism from the political right because he’s focusing on ‘STEAM’ and innovation, not art or culture. He’s making it easy for organisations and people who desperately need the cash to get involved.
The illusion that art can ‘magically’ make something good out of bad money is tempting, but toxic, and the politics of ‘take the money and run’ is no longer a valid strategy.
Who decides how this budget will be spent and distributed? What are the salary structures? Ethnicity pay gaps? We do not need a festival. We need redistribution. And a first step towards this is transparency. Which is why we are asking questions.