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Balancing stability and freedom – Continuity in transition in the funding of art music in Finland

by Kare Eskola

Funding of the arts is a hot topic in public debate in Finland just now. We invited five people thoroughly familiar with music funding to sit down and talk about how the funding of art music in Finland could be maintained on a stable basis. Bureaucratic though their titles may sound, they expressed themselves with clarity and addressed issues relevant for music professionals, consumers and decision-makers alike.

Art in general and classical music in particular has traditionally been subsidised out of public funds in Finland. In the past, culture played a major role in shaping the identity of a young nation, and the success story of Jean Sibelius channelled a great deal of cultural goodwill towards classical music. As the tax-funded welfare state emerged after the Second World War, public funding for music in Finland came to be allocated to orchestras, basic music education and government grants. Box office revenue, corporate sponsorship and private donations are less important in Finland than, say, in the UK or the USA, for political as well as historical reasons. (See also Hanna Isolammi's article on the report of the Finnish Cultural Foundation from 2015.)

Now that the welfare state is being overhauled in a changing world, new needs are being considered in the shared, institution-driven music funding framework. We invited five people thoroughly familiar with music funding to sit down and talk about how the funding of art music (classical and contemporary) in Finland could be maintained on a stable basis. These experts were: Johanna Selkee, Special Adviser at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities; Helena Värri, Executive Director of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras; Hanna Susitaival, Head of Planning at the Arts Promotion Centre Finland; Kalle Korhonen, Director of Funding at Kone Foundation; and musician, composer, conductor Jaakko Kuusisto.

“The greatest need for reform in Finnish art music funding is in the independent sector, outside the major systems,” says Jaakko Kuusisto, launching the discussion. His views have weight for two reasons. Firstly, he is such a prominent and wide-ranging musician that he was recruited to chair a working group discussing the reform of major government funding systems. Secondly, his above insight points to the still existing demarcation line in Finnish music, separating freelancers and independent companies from official operators with regular government support.

Rahoitus Yhteiskuva 2
Music funding experts interviewed for this article. Kalle Korhonen (top left, photo: Ilkka Saastamoinen), Hanna Susitaival (top middle, photo: Harri Mäenpää), Johanna Selkee (top right, photo: Kuntaliitto), Jaakko Kuusisto (bottom left, photo: Petra Tiihonen / Alias Studiot), Helena Värri (bottom right, photo: Maarit Kytöharju).

The government grant system: engine of stability

From the very first, the conversation of the professionals gravitates towards the interface between the government grant system – a uniquely Finnish scheme – and the independent sector, and with good reason: orchestras maintained by local authorities and subsidised by the central government are the most visible and permanent structures in classical music in Finland. Its counterpart is the more agile and freeform independent sector, which is supported on a discretionary basis and discontinuously by the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, local authorities and foundations.

The government grant system was devised in the 1990s to support orchestras and theatre companies, and with increasing pluralism in the field of the arts, it has been revised amidst huge political pressures through the work of two working groups and tenacious legislative preparation. The relevant Act will be updated next year, and it will retain the core of the system, the principle whereby if a local authority provides high-quality art, the central government will reimburse more than one third of its cost. However, the aforementioned demarcation line will probably begin to erode as the central government begins to award grants to minor operators for shorter periods while also evaluating the quality of major operators more regularly. Still, the mutual incentive for cultural funding that is built into the government grant system is likely to survive across political shifts in government, according to Johanna Selkee, Special Adviser at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities:

“It is easy for local government decision-makers to comprehend that when they get regular government grants from the central government, it is worthwhile to invest matched funding out of local public funds as well. That is why orchestras funded on government grants eat up the majority of the music budgets of major cities. But there is no law saying that you have to have an orchestra in particular; it is the local authorities themselves who want to do that.”

“The government grant system does not determine which orchestra plays what repertoire where,” Jaakko Kuusisto adds. “Those decisions are made by the local authority, which qualifies for government grants if they fulfil the criteria given.”

The government grant system has lent stability to Finnish concert music, along with certain knock-on effects. Helena Värri from the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras explains: “A network of professional orchestras that is quite large relative to our population has transfer effects on basic music education and on chamber music. This fosters accessibility, equality and effectiveness.” (Read also: Orchestras embrace social responsibility by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen.)

Jaakko Kuusisto notes that there is an obvious reason for why Finland has such an extensive network of orchestras: “Any time when someone from abroad marvels at Finland’s large number of orchestras, I tell them to look at a map. Having an orchestra in Oulu does not do much for the people of Jyväskylä! Music is thriving in Finland because talented children have the opportunity to listen to, study and make music regardless of where they live.”

Having said that, we need to acknowledge that the government grant system has its downsides. Much of the music that has current topical relevance and is therefore necessary is created in the independent sector. “The purpose of the government grant reform is to dispel some of the stagnation by getting government grant funded institutions to work more with independent operators,” says Värri.

But however agile the government grant system may become, it is not the best possible source for support for all kinds of art music in Finland, Jaakko Kuusisto points out.

“The government grant system is enshrined in law, and its specifications are unreasonably detailed and miscast from the perspective of many music makers. That is why it is important to have grants for the independent sector too. We do not have a systemic problem – we have a resourcing challenge.”

Oulu Sinfonia 2019 C Harri Tarvainen
The Oulu Symphony Orchestra receives government grant.
Photo: Harri Tarvainen

Local government culture budgets vary widely

From the point of view of a Finnish citizen, access to culture is ultimately not determined by the government grant system but by the Act on Cultural Activities in Local Government, which requires local authorities to offer and provide cultural activities according to local circumstances. The Act is written in such non-specific language that local authorities are basically free to do whatever they like in respect of classical music, for instance.

“It is ironic that the central government does not allocate funding to the implementation of such an important Act,” says Johanna Selkee. “There is about one euro per resident of central government culture funding earmarked for this purpose.”

Major cities have a culture budget amounting to about EUR 150 per resident on average, but the budgets vary widely, and it is more expensive for a small local authority to provide cultural activities than a large one which can qualify for the government grant system. And because local authorities differ so widely from each other, their culture funding should also.

“Culture is a personal service for local residents, so its funding should be decided on close to home,” says Selkee. She notes that Finnish local authorities are beginning to realise the importance of culture for regional economies:

“Culture is increasingly being seen as an attraction factor whose economic impacts spread far beyond box office revenue and payroll.”

Grants as harbingers of free creativity

At the national level, discussion of funding focuses on the government grant system, because it has a volume substantially greater than, say, the grants pool available to the Arts Promotion Centre Finland. Perhaps this is why individual grants have not been discussed so much in recent years.

“Paula Tuovinen, the Director of the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, has been advocating for an artist salary, but I represent the other common view that the current grants system in Finland is not that bad,” says Hanna Susitaival. “It is a catalyst for free creativity, and artists have only a minimal reporting requirement on grant usage.”

Artist grants awarded by the government-run Arts Promotion Centre Finland, on the basis of the law and of peer reviews, foster the same sort of continuity, regional relevance and professional approach as the government grant system, but the target grants, development programmes and other constantly evolving forms of support for the independent sector constitute the most agile system available to the central government for boosting or catalysing value shifts in the field of culture. It is not a massive instrument; if we compare it to the government grant system, we find that the state supports stability ten times more than it does freedom. (Read also Kimmo Hakola's column All is well in the land of ample grants? – Musical life before and after the crisis and Pasi Lyytikäinen's column on a composer's livelihood in Finland.)

This is where private grantmaking foundations are needed. They are independent funding providers for arts and sciences, born out of the cultural goodwill of the civil society and generally viewed as an anarchist opposite pole to the central government in the sphere of arts funding. This image draws a smile from Kalle Korhonen, Head of Research Funding at the Kone Foundation:

“In the academic world, foundations have a good reputation as funding providers precisely because of stability: we value basic research and do not expect people to reinvent the wheel on a regular basis. Because of the government grant system, the role of foundations in art music is somewhat different. However, private foundations can provide support for experimentation in art music too, not just in science.”

Following a sequence of boom years, foundations have significantly increased their support for the arts in recent years, to the tune of several million euros. This of course contributes to more freedom and agility in music funding in Finland, but the idea is not to jump any way the wind blows.

“You can see the hype in the grant applications when people imagine that funding providers are now interested in feminism or climate change or what have you,” says Susitaival. “But what we do is provide funding for basic-level operations.”

Korhonen says that the new strategy of the Kone Foundation is largely of the same mind, focusing on academic and artistic freedom, perhaps as a response to rhetoric stressing the instrumental value of art for wellbeing or for the economy.

“It may sometimes make sense for a funding provider to allocate resources according to emerging phenomena, but in the long term this will result in people creating art that is specifically designed to win grants,” Jaakko Kuusisto points out.

Artists At Risk Map Residencies
One of the receivers of Kone Foundation grants is Artists at Risk organisation.
Photo: screenshot from

Pluralism reflected in funding

Funding reflects our values, but funding also builds values. Our panellists agreed that increasing pluralism in music is reflected in funding for art music in Finland. The government grant system is structurally biased towards classical and contemporary concert music, but orchestras are exploring other genres too. Still, there is the occasional storm in a teacup when good jazz is given less money than a good symphony orchestra.

“Funding is not motivated by a yardstick of what is valued and what is not. It is directly driven by labour costs and historical continuity,” says Jaakko Kuusisto. If you want to have a good jazz trio and a good symphony orchestra, then the latter will obviously get more money. But do people want a good symphony orchestra any more?

“There is a more level playing field between genres in terms of funding and appreciation in Finnish arts. There are more and more good examples of collaboration across genre boundaries, starting with basic education in the arts,” says Värri.

Nevertheless, right-wing populists in several cities have proposed disbanding local orchestras, and judging by the news it is very difficult for politicians to go along with continuing to fund culture as before. However, our panellists do not believe that Finland might see the sort of cultural mayhem that happened in the Netherlands when right-wing populists came to power.

“There were calls to disband orchestras in Finland back in the 1990s, but that trend never built up steam,” says Hanna Susitaival. “One term of government cannot change all that much. We already had a Minister of Culture from a right-wing populist party once, and it was all good.”

Culture and cuts

Actually, though, all is not good. The state gaming monopoly has traditionally been a source of funding for culture in Finland, but now the revenues from that monopoly are being transferred to central government budget control without earmarking for culture. Other news suggest that politicians view culture as a field for budget cuts rather than as a national resource. The panellists are unable to pinpoint a specific reason for this mood, but Hanna Susitaival from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland offers a hypothesis:

“The young government ministers of today grew up at a time when culture excursions were discontinued at schools, and things like that have an impact. A school education with cultural immersion fosters not just consumers of culture but also decision-makers who understand the role that culture plays in society. The chains of cause and effect are very long.”

Be that as it may, funding for art music in Finland seems fundamentally sound. The very rigidity that characterises legislation and institutions prevents sudden upsets, private foundations are independent in what they do, and the government grant system incentivises local and central government to support the arts in tandem. Discussing the future, the panellists envision hybrid funding models akin to the government grant system. Not just because more sources could mean more money, but because having multiple parties on board would cause them to encourage each other and level the playing field.

Johanna Selkee from the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities points to other ministries: the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment might award grants on the basis of the economic impacts of cultural activities, while the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health might pay out on the basis of demonstrated wellbeing impacts.

As an example of a new departure, the panellists mention the creativity fund currently under development. Its purpose is to link private foundations and central government in the same way in which the government grant system links central and local government. Central government could subsidise a project supported by a private foundation according to a specific set of rules, based for instance on box office revenue. Time will tell whether this idea will translate into a significant arts funding provider, but the concept certainly represents a new way of combining the independent cultural aspirations of the civil society with government resources to create a new kind of balance between stability and freedom.

Olavi Louhivuori By Tero Ahonen 04 Ilona Korhonen C Sami Repo
Drummer Olavi Louhivuori (left, photo: Tero Ahonen) and Runo singer Ilona Korhonen (right, photo: Sami Repo) received 5-year grants from the Finnish government in 2021.

The delicate balance of stability and freedom

Even in the current pluralist environment, Finnish music funding is fit for purpose in many contexts, though better for some than for others.

“The system is particularly good at fostering new works of classical music, which can gain worldwide attention,” says Jaakko Kuusisto. Results are achieved because there are a couple of foundations dedicated to funding the commissioning of music, there are grants available for composers and there are many orchestras to premiere new works. Finnish conductors are so good because there are plenty of regional orchestras with which they can train. Still, it is more than likely that important things fall outside the established networks.

“As a run-of-the-mill lobbyist, I’d like to see more coordination so that instead of us all supporting the same things we could see whether there are any black spots in the field of music not covered by any funding system,” says Selkee.

Nevertheless, the panellists stress that each funding provider is independent. Indeed, if all the parties providing funding for music were to devise a shared vision of what needs to be supported, then that consensus would obscure a lot of very special things. Better to tend to your own back yard in the interest of maintaining the delicate balance of stability and freedom.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Grants and subsidies infogram: Merja Hottinen/Music Finland
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