Growing market logics in cultural policy limits artistic freedoms for the many

Do conflicting rationales within Nordic cultural policy pose new dilemmas for artistic freedom?

Cultural policy in the Nordic countries has historically been closely linked to welfare policy. Public funding of arts has aimed at securing income and social security of artists, to safeguard the possibilities for artists to make a living, have children, grow old, become ill, etc., and produce works of art that are informed by and reflect different life experiences. 

But a shift towards market dynamics and neoliberal logics in cultural policy has tightened strings attached to public financing of the arts and raised new questions of the autonomy of art and artists in society. We see more criteria, accountability, evaluations and fewer risk-willing grants – which narrows the range of art projects receiving funding. Now attention is drawn to the normalisation of the precarity of the lives of artists – which are characterised by project-based temporality and ongoing efforts to deal with economic uncertainty.

While Nordic countries (still) offer some of the most well-established and institutionalised support systems for art and culture, it is worth asking how the possibilities for artistic work differ according to cultural and educational backgrounds, gender, class, geography etc. 

Research shows that public funding is mostly open for an established group of people who are trained in a certain institutional logic and can navigate the system. Newcomers, on the other hand, struggle to get in. In other words: if grant applicants manage to circumvent the system, there seems to be a high degree of freedom for artists. But when the licence to operate is based on narrow criterias, measurable effects, economic efficiency or even prejudice, examples show how certain groups of people or art forms are excluded. This affects the general understanding of who ‘is worthy of’ living and working as an artist and even what kind of art they can do: “When I’m assessed, what they see is a Syrian refugee. What they expect is an aesthetic related to war. They do not expect me to paint a beautiful flower. And they don’t want me to. My white colleagues have a larger window of opportunity to operate in”, says artist and activist Khaled Barakeh in an interview for The Living Catalogue. 

The signals we have collected show potential in developing a differentiated and more community-based approach which can serve a variety of people from different backgrounds and less system-professionalised competencies. One example is the creation of a member-based voting system to select what artists get to exhibit in the local neighbourhood. The question is how the framework of cultural policy could be opened up further? And also how funding structures could be administered on the basis of trust and risk-willingness in order to include a wider spectrum of life experiences and thereby coping with new needs created by current and future changes in society?

Based on 29 signals