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Guest column: Supporting the arts is no simple feat

"The best thing about the Finnish public grant system is the very existence of it. Even if the amount allocated for the arts in the state budget is minute, it has nevertheless been clear to the political decision makers for a long time that public funds must be invested in supporting the arts."
Pekka Nissilä. Photo: Riku Nissilä.

Pekka Nissilä. Photo: Riku Nissilä.

BY Pekka Nissilä

Music is one of the four major art forms supported by the Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike), which operates under the Ministry of Education and Culture. Visual arts and literature are the two largest sectors, followed by dramatic arts and music. From the arts field’s perspective, it is difficult to determine the significance of Taike after just a few years since its inception, but the early stages of the organisation have not passed without some strong criticism. The role of the Central Arts Council, which was established at the same time to assist the Ministry, has so far remained unclear except for its tangible effect on the music field as an appointing body for arts councils and their members. The National Council for Music has a lot of tasks to look after due to the extensive range of operations across the music sector.

The support allocated by Taike is no doubt significant to all of its recipients. The status of different operational subsidies is also often significant enough to open up other support streams as well. However, the high-risk sector only seldom attracts new promoters. Even the state advises and encourages those who are at the risk of becoming unemployed to become self-employed, regardless of their line of activity – but being an entrepreneur does not automatically create more work, and particularly in the music field it rarely leads to new work opportunities, not to mention actual jobs. Instead, music entrepreneurship often means employing new agents, or incorporating the activities of an individual musician, rather than increasing the number of concert organisers.

The support for cultural entrepreneurship must naturally remain on the same line with other equivalent sectors, but there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make sure all employment officials are familiar with the specific features of the field. Improved producer training will certainly improve the likelihood of mutually satisfying cooperation – without artists having to compromise their integrity too greatly. Artists, however, are primarily interested in creating their art and becoming better at it. When only very limited opportunities exist, or none whatsoever, they often keep working even without compensation in order to maintain their skill level and feel for the work. This equation offers no market for agents, not to mention managers. Unfortunately it is the artist who remains the weakest link in this formula: when costs need to be brought down, the easiest way is often to cut from artist fees, appealing to sentiments such as cultural goodwill or the importance of promotion.


Need for a livelihood

An individual artist grant does guarantee a certain basic livelihood for an artist where there is no paid employment available, or the work is underpaid. Sometimes grant applicants argue their need for a particular grant to enable them to work at reduced rates, or even for free. This kind of argument, however, leads to an immediate rejection of the application, as it is not considered justifiable to use arts promotion funds for entertaining care facility patients, for example. It is certainly important that everyone has access to stimulation through different art forms, but the costs involved, such as musicians’ fees, need to be covered by appropriate budgeting.

Grants make the biggest actual employment impact on the free market sector, but the effect does not travel very far. Artist grants may only reach a small percentage of artists, but the importance of a grant to an individual artist is not insignificant. Reports about artists’ earning patterns or median income statistics (see also Merja Hottinen’s article) reveal the concrete importance of grants in terms of livelihood. This is particularly the case in the freelance sector. A monthly grant instalment, however, is no sufficient compensation for a regular salary received by an orchestral musician or a teacher, for instance, and this discrepancy occasionally comes as a surprise to an applicant in these sectors. A grant does not necessarily stop the recipient from pursuing other work, but long-term grants do require a leave of absence from the recipient’s regular employment.

In a nutshell, Taike’s criteria for granting operational and production subsidies are based on the questions who, what, where, when and with how much money. The last criteria – the budget, in other words – is assessed for its structure on both the expense and the income sides. Public support never covers anywhere close to a hundred percent of all expenditure – even more than 30% could be asking for too much.

In individual grant applications, it is the work plan that really counts, rather than the CV. In some publicity statements for five-year grants, for example, the award rewarding criteria only refers to the artists’ previous work, something which makes the grant come across like a reward. The National Council for Music, however, has long kept its stance that – to put it strongly – a name guarantees nothing and an artist grant is not a reward.


Future pressures

The best thing about the Finnish public grant system is the very existence of it. Even if the amount allocated for the arts in the state budget is minute, it has nevertheless been clear to the political decision makers for a long time that public funds must be invested in supporting the arts. The fact that funds for arts support are mainly sourced through the Finnish national betting agency is considered too questionable in the long run. There are regular demands to start funding the arts increasingly through general tax revenue.

Despite the fact that even expert authorities consider arts funding important, funding amounts are not experiencing any growth in the current state of our national economy. This leads to increasing pressure to divide the existing pool of money in a slightly different way. The current “once a year” allocation of funds is slow to react to any changes, and it is particularly hard to achieve changes in regularly occurring grants, which is clearly a problem. On the other hand, regularity and stability are the very qualities that most organisations crave for.

The different forms of support and the prerequisites for receiving them need to be constantly evaluated, and the industry practices must be changed to reflect this. Support definitely makes it less painful to create art, and sometimes even enables the birth of an artwork – after all, this kind of work is appropriately compensated very rarely, if ever.

Pekka Nissilä is a music journalist and former musician who is also an expert member of the State Council for Music.

See also Hanna Isolammi’s article W(h)iter arts support?