Arts and culture in a time of upheaval

Interview with Eline Sigfusson
Is there a Nordic way of looking at the field of cultural policy? There are many organisational similarities between the Nordic countries, and this also applies to the underlying principles and traditions of cultural policy for public funding of art and culture. The cultural ministries and arts councils were structured in more or less the […]
Arm's length principle
Center-periphery
Cultural policy
Funding
International
Sustainability

Is there a Nordic way of looking at the field of cultural policy?

There are many organisational similarities between the Nordic countries, and this also applies to the underlying principles and traditions of cultural policy for public funding of art and culture.

The cultural ministries and arts councils were structured in more or less the same way when they were developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially, the Nordic cultural agencies had more independence as government bodies at arm’s length. Nowadays, the arts council secretariats interface with both the ministries and the arm’s length bodies, and the ministries have tightened their control of the arts institutions. Thus, the institutional structures in the Nordic countries are comparable in some respects, making it possible to understand how the influence of cultural policy has changed from a Nordic perspective.

Another shared characteristic is regionalisation. Several Nordic countries have looked for ways to decentralise resources in recent years. This has been partly successful, as the increasing importance of local involvement and local cultural policy demonstrates. But there are some dilemmas, since the concept of quality changes when decisions are made locally. And many arts institutions would prefer to continue referring to and receiving funding from the national art councils, since government funding is a status indicator and a form of certification. This causes constant friction. The government won’t let go of its money, but the decisions on artistic quality should be made with regard to regional or local conditions.

For many years, the Nordic countries shared a clear international focus. But the political interest in international collaborations on art and culture is waning – possibly with the exception of Sweden’s focus on issues of freedom of expression for artists and other arts professionals. Here, more is invested in international bodies such as UNESCO. However, it seems like no new national ideas on international cultural policy are being created. And perhaps this would have to be initiated at a local level, if it is to be redone.

»We want to transcend borders and encourage international collaborations on grounds other than national belonging.
(...)
We believe that the Nordic arts scene has the potential to pioneer the development of deep and durable networks that are naturally borderless and global.«

What is the Nordic Culture Fund's capacity and ambition with regard to policies for handling art and culture?

To increase its contemporary relevance, cultural policy needs to evolve. Today, it is constantly one step behind. We want to help promote such development by investing resources in getting more knowledge, supporting arts policy research and creating forums for regional, national and Nordic discussions. Cultural policy in the Nordic countries is in dire need of dialogue with itself and a more horizontal orientation, that is, across sector boundaries. Cultural policy today is primarily a matter of distribution of funding. Many artists and arts institutions have even begun to see cultural policy as an impediment to artistic development. Reforms and new support schemes more often come from the reasoning of financial policy than from that of cultural policy. Knowledge-driven development of ideas is lacking. The Nordic Culture Fund could contribute substantially here.

The Fund's strategy emphasises a strong global focus that is different from the concept of international collaboration.

For historic reasons, the global perspective comes naturally to the Fund. The Nordic Culture Fund was founded just after the Second World War, as an autonomous organisation with a mission to operate internationally in and outside the Nordic Region. Our organisation is not politically directed. When we refer to a global focus, we mean the globalising potential of art and culture. Art and culture almost always have a local perspective, but good art projects often have the capacity to link the local and the global.

When we highlight this as a special focus, it is because borders mean less and less in our environment and the projects we support. We have found that we’ve reached a form of watershed, where the models that formerly characterised international initiatives are less relevant. Thus, nation branding is not as pertinent in the new world order and in the current context. Perhaps we should look at other ways of doing things? As separate nations or Nordic region, we are no longer bearers of the narratives about ourselves; instead we are influenced in new ways by the challenges of other countries. The Sustainable Development Goals of the UN have become increasingly central to art and cultural life and demand personal accountability, reducing inequality, the development of new concepts of quality and a return to the rights perspective, artistic freedom and free movement for artists.

We want to transcend borders and encourage international collaborations on grounds other than national belonging. Internationalism is defined by borders between nations and is therefore more limited than globalism. It’s actually inherent in the word itself: inter – national. The global perspective is more borderless, and a more united and dynamic way of seeing the world. We believe that the Nordic arts scene has the potential to pioneer the development of deep and durable networks that are naturally borderless and global.

What are the crucial issues for future cultural policy?

There is a deep frustration in the cultural world today, over increased control, higher demands on efficiency, commercialisation, globalisation and a fragmented public sphere. To gain an overview of the current situation, we need a perspective on how cultural policy has evolved – and changed. The relationship between politics and the arts is vital. It’s often described with the term “at arm’s length”. We claim that arts and culture are not politically controlled, and yet we constantly see examples to the contrary. Is “arm’s length”, in the way it is currently practiced, really the best guarantee for a free arts scene?

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