Reflections on Scandinavia II
Posted on September 26, 2013
It is here that I reference my experience in Scandinavia, where I spent a summer moving through Sweden and Finland meeting curators, academics, policymakers, businessmen, artists, and mostly importantly, the Scandinavians. The Scandinavian model is internationally revered in its successful implementation of the social welfare system; a system that brings about virtuous cycles of trust in its communities apart from the nuts and bolts of the system that involves high taxes on citizen’s annual incomes to fund systems such as national education, healthcare systems, and strong maternity packages, to name a few. The nations share an entangled history of overlapping geographies and languages, travelling along tangents but ultimately carving out their own respective independence. It is precisely this acute combination of shared histories, geographies and cultural influences that allow for comparison and critique. Despite the many similarities, Sweden and Finland stand far apart in the state of their art markets at present day.
It is upon immersion, research, and more cross-referencing of interactions, speeches, and ideas that I may begin to draw out the key differences between the Swedish and Finnish models — studying the various governmental policies in its success and failures under the umbrella of the revered social democracy, and from there hypothesize reasons for Sweden’s ‘success’. It is also through this cross-reference that I shall draw out the Singaporean element, wherein we see a nation straddling the very dialectic that exists between the Scandinavian duo.
Logic in artistic processes x Logic in institutional goals
I first met Magdalena Malm in Stockholm. The current Director of the Public Art Fund of Sweden allowed me to better understand the workings of the Scandinavian model and, more specifically, the Swedish model; how her company, Mobile Art Production, came to birth within the Swedish economy, its values, all that it managed to achieve, and, ultimately, her work over at the Public Art Fund in Sweden.
Magdalena’s work and philosophy is of prime example for this discussion for it encompasses the ‘schwung’ that exists within all policy formation and arts and cultural production. Magdalena comes from a perspective of community, being born and raised in a system that has accorded her with most rights and privileges and has chosen to give back to the Swedish society the best way she knows how.
Questions of ‘what is missing in this nation’ and ‘how do I reconcile that’ recur throughout her speech on her work and it is from this similar philosophy that the Mobile Art Production (MAP) was born. MAP and the work that Magdalena engages in all follow the philosophy of finding that common ground between the logic in artistic processes and the logic in institutional goals.
Magdalena had found a language for her to directly bridge the 2 logical processes: she works with the initial curation and together with her business consultant, presents that to large private corporations in a way that allows them to see common ground and mutually beneficial relationships from being invested in the project. From MAP to the work she does in the Public Art Fund of Sweden, Magdalena works along such philosophies and consistently cultivates mutually beneficial relationships between the artist and the supporting institutions, be it public or private.
This system of having artists search for financial sponsors is definitely not unique to Scandinavia or anywhere in the world in particular. Rather, what is unique to Sweden in this case are the laws that protect the autonomy of the curator and, more intrinsically, the trust that permeates the system to produce overall wellbeing for all. Magdalena mentioned that the Public Art Fund in Sweden exists independently from the ministry and the state. As such, it is illegal for the ministries to intervene in any work that she is involved in, according her with full freedom to lead the organization in whichever way she deems best. Such laws clearly reflect the trust the state has placed in its people. While this all sounds highly idealistic, the virtuous cycle has manifested itself in Sweden, proving it to be a working and living example of the system.
Magasin 3 also functions as a prime example of a system that supports unique but vital organizations. As a gallery that is not-for-profit, Magasin 3 brings in a slew of highly curated work from a variety of international artists, tastefully released to the public for viewing in its very own gallery space. I was impressed by the quality of the artwork throughout the gallery where Felix Gonzalez Torres and Ai Wei Wei chose to exhibit over the usual established government-run art spaces. The smaller space and its compact team allow the gallery to work with a more compressed calendar, efficiently bringing in quality artists with less bureaucratic processes. The question is: how? It seems that Sweden, in all its financial and economic stability, brings with it many wealthy individuals who are interested in the arts. Johannes Falk is a great example of someone who is both financially and artistically literate and most importantly involved in supporting the production of the arts. Speaking to curator Tessa Praun, the gallery owes much of its success to its very own Swedish population where private individuals chip in to the sustenance and growth of such spaces. It is precisely such individuals who make projects like Magasin 3 possible with its unique dynamic of financial comfort and ease with its highly qualified directors and curators; and with the establishment of Magasin 3, allowing for the exposure of great art pieces for public consumption. The virtuous cycle that is almost too good to be true seems to be of abundance in Sweden.
Finnish cultural production
The art production markets in Finland take on a different and more conservative dynamic, with its less international economy being a large factor in this issue.
Finland may be seen to be less capitalist in its economic sectors, leading it to be less open to international forces and more reliant on the Eurozone and on its own resources. As such, artistic production in Finland is often less of a luxurious process when compared to Sweden.
Jan-Erik Andersson, one of the most prominent Finnish artists of today, speaks of the difficulty to make art in a nation that is less outward looking. Jan-Erik mentions that the Finnish private art market is underdeveloped, making it necessary for most Finnish artists to have to go abroad at some point of time. The lack of an established private art market is indeed a double-edged sword where the low barriers to entry make it easy for the entry, but often leads to an uncompetitive playing field that severely lacks in resources for growth and work.
Sweden plays into the same picture inhabiting the opposite of this interaction. To have a missing private art market in Finland allows for a relatively easy start up process for the budding artist; competition is rare and space is abundant. Titanik gallery is a great example of the few systems in place that supports the birth of young artists, to facilitate networking before the artists venture off to conquer new territories. However, ultimately, artists do have to move out of Finland to compete and fight for opportunities and resources. To have an already established art market such as that in Sweden makes it much harder for a budding artist to make his mark. Competition is stiff and the barriers are high, but that also means that at the end of the day, the victors are here to stay.
Cross-referencing and analysis
Differences between the Swedish and Finnish models lie mostly in the areas of the private and the investors, where Sweden sees a more global outlook to their economy and is utilizing it’s capitalism in ways to enhance and support more arts and cultural production. Finland, on the other hand, seems to struggle with this alternative method. This very dialectic accords a fresh perspective toward home; it does seem as though Singapore, with all its financial wealth and established private art markets, encapsulates the very problems that Finnish artists seem to have. The case for effective policy and support systems is necessary to break down this unique dynamic. My positive experiences with the system of social democracy in Scandinavia come with the necessary acknowledgement of the fact that the vital element of homogeneity is missing on our little red dot. The circumstances upon which their policies function and succeed are indeed different.
At the end of the day, the measurement and model that we work towards should not be anything but our own. Every nation and community is unique to its own history and cultural make up. While we should draw upon successful models, they should always be taken into perspective. The arts are a vital part of life, and the Scandinavians do lead a culturally rich life centered on great design and art that brings about overall satisfaction and happiness. This in itself is worth looking to, but, as always, should be pursued insofar as to support the organic growth of such similar systems in Singapore by Singaporeans. Only then will such a system be sustainable in the long run and truly be ingrained into society.
Magasin 3 is currently curating and running We Think Alone by Miranda July