The first quarter of 2020 had lovely weather but abruptly pitted the funding system of Finland’s cultural sector against an overwhelming challenge. The coronavirus pandemic spreading worldwide quickly showed us just what a constricting effect it would have on society at large. The music scene in particular soon found itself in a situation not seen in Finland since the Second World War. Public concerts, festivals and opera performances had to be cancelled, and even after circumstances eased up later in the spring, they had to be heavily restricted. And there was more to come: now, towards the end of 2020, Finland has once again had to confine music to virtual platforms, casting a dark cloud over the future prospects of live music. At the time of this writing, the second wave has still not peaked.
Many people seem to think that this nightmare has to end at some point – particularly all the musicians who are tired of waiting. Audiences miss musicians, and musicians miss their audiences. Music is not really music without a living connection between performer and listener.
As of October 2020, it was estimated that by the end of the year, the pandemic will have caused losses amounting to c. EUR 250 million to the music industry in Finland. Freelance musicians are living on a shoestring, and the small amounts of relief available do not match the normal earnings of a full-time professional musician. People have had to recalibrate their standard of living and renegotiate their loans and other financial commitments to cope with the current situation. To be fair, society has been as accommodating as it possibly can be.
But the scariest consequence of the pandemic are the mental stress and cumulative financial impacts caused by this ever-lengthening state of emergency. So far, it has been politically expedient for governments to borrow heavily to keep the wheels of society turning during the crisis, but in 2021 we can expect to see an emerging public debate about balancing the resulting record-breaking budget deficits. When that day comes, the cultural sector in Finland will have to fight even to retain its existing level of funding, never mind increasing spending in the arts.
By international comparison, Finland is excellent at supporting the arts. Not only the central government but also local authorities, NGOs, corporations and wealthy private foundations provide generous financial assistance to cultural activities. To be sure, Finland is not the only culture-friendly country in the world, but to have a system of grants heavily geared towards supporting individual artists is a rarity. In many other countries, subsidies are paid to organisations from which the funding trickles down to freelancers.
Support for the arts in Finland is periodically criticised for not being supportive enough, and many merited artists are of the firm opinion that they have not been sufficiently favoured with grants of an appropriate size and regularity in the course of their career. The most heavily criticised item is the number of supplementary State artist pensions granted per year; this is because artists in earlier generations tended to have a hard time earning an employment pension. These days, fortunately, grants are considered income that contributes towards pension earnings and social security.
Finnish politicians always politely listen to the concerns voiced by artists’ organisations and promise improvements, but keeping those promises repeatedly proves difficult, despite all the good intentions enshrined in each successive Government Programme. After all, culture does not rank at the top of the list of demands on the public purse.
Those who were fortunate enough to receive a grant to support their artistic work in 2020 can count themselves lucky to have evaded the worst of the financial distress. Those who have already been awarded a grant for 2021 can also consider themselves relatively safe. Orchestral musicians and music teachers with permanent employment relationships have been able to breathe a sigh of relief, at least as long as their employers do not need to resort to layoffs. As the pandemic draws on, local authorities in particular are facing unpleasant employment decisions. Further down the line, the forthcoming major overhaul of social welfare and health care services in 2023 will no doubt place an additional burden on local government finances.
In the music sector, the people hardest hit by the pandemic are the self-employed musicians, composers, arrangers, producers and event organisers. Because of the coronavirus, special grants totalling more than EUR 19 million have been allocated to the Finnish music industry, but it is not enough. There has been a heartrendingly high number of applicants for aid, compared to a normal year, including many who have never once in their career even applied for a grant.
Every cent has been welcome, but we are still waiting for the central government to provide concrete additional support for the culture sector, which has been sidelined by other industries in the competition for support. Some self-employed people have of course been able to sign up for unemployment benefits, but the problem here is that many self-employed musicians have designated themselves as entrepreneurs out of practical necessity over the years, and entrepreneurs are legally not eligible for unemployment benefits.
In the course of my career, I have been an expert consultant in arts funding at home and abroad for 20 years. As I am now gradually leaving my duties in Finland for younger talent to take over, I have found myself contemplating aspects of our grants system.
State artist grants are governed by the Artist Grants Act, which emphasises the importance of professional competence and success. Peer reviewers are familiar with their respective fields and can best appraise where applicants are at in their careers. Evaluations must be objective; the evaluators’ own aesthetic preferences must not guide their decisions. All approaches must be given legitimacy, and new phenomena must always be examined. After all, gold nuggets can be found in the most unexpected kinds of terrain.
The Act requires the decision-makers to award some grants to young and emerging artists. Therefore, evaluators must actively and continuously monitor the most recent developments and trends in their fields.
I believe that in Finland every talented artist has been able to gain an artist grant at crucial stages in their career in order to be able to focus on their work. This focus is actually enforced by the stipulation that an artist grant recipient must not have a ‘day job’ for the duration of the grant. The most ingenious feature of State artist grants is their tax impact – there is none. Artist grants are exempt from tax and do not count towards taxable income and therefore have no impact on income tax. Artist grants are not huge, but their relative effect on the recipient’s income is greater than it would appear.
Every so often, there is a debate in Finland on introducing an artist salary. This would be a radical reform, and it would render it more difficult to define artistic competence. With a view to the principle of equality under the law in a Nordic democracy, everyone with an occupational title in any branch of the arts should be entitled to an artist salary. The terminology is also problematic: a fee is a one-off payment for a commission or service, but a salary is compensation for work done in a continuous employment relationship and involves employer responsibilities such as supervision, the provision of facilities and equipment, and the payment of social security contributions. It is difficult to imagine where such employers could suddenly be found. The most critical change in this scenario would the loss of tax-exempt status, which would represent a drastic takedown of a benefit that was fought for long and hard back in the day.
Our culture is young, but the roots of our talent go deeper than we think. We must dare to take conscious risks in arts funding in the future. Artists who have been forced to apply for support during the present crisis have had to come up with innovative ways of practicing their artistry in their project plans. Many of these ideas are daringly forward-looking and will remain a valuable resource even after the crisis has passed.
The coverage of grants should be extended to cover younger artists and a wider range of artists who have proven their capability. After this crisis, we must ensure that this passing shadow has not deprived us of any of our future stars. Support granted is always a demonstration of trust, and with trust an artist is able to produce the best that he or she has to give. When this happens, all will be well again.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Kimmo Hakola by Kaapo Hakola