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W(h)ither arts support?

by Hanna Isolammi

The Finnish arts subsidy system is considered efficient and effective by international standards. However, a recent report by the Finnish Cultural Foundation reveals that the structure is beginning to show its age. Change is desired by many, but sweeping visions for the future are offered by few, the FCF says.

The cuts to public spending enacted by the new Government appointed in Finland in spring 2015 will no doubt bring the need for arts support reform under the spotlight again. Finland’s economic situation is precarious, and cuts will be inevitable in many fields. The accessibility of arts and culture is named as a spearhead project in the Government Programme, but it remains to be seen what this will actually mean in practice. Yet the need for reform comes not only from the Government’s cultural policy or the necessity of cutting public spending; there are also voices in the arts sector itself calling for a reappraisal of the arts subsidy system.

The Finnish Cultural Foundation (FCF) addresses the current state and future challenges of Finnish arts funding in a 74-page report entitled Rahan kosketus – miten taidetta Suomessa rahoitetaan? (The Touch of Money – how is art funded in Finland?), published in August 2015. Dozens of artists and experts were interviewed for the report, and some background studies were commissioned. Founded in 1937, the FCF is one of the largest private entities supporting the arts in Finland. It is unique in the sense that its basic capital was raised by subscription among the general public. In autumn 1938, some 30,000 primary school pupils went from door to door in every municipality across Finland, explaining the purpose of the FCF and asking for a contribution to its capital. A total of 170,000 Finns contributed to this constitutive fundraising effort. Subsequently, businesses have also made donations to the FCF.

The FCF report notes that the Finnish arts subsidy system, exemplary though it has been for a long time, is no longer able to keep up with rapid changes in society and in the needs of the arts sector. The subsidy system in place today grew up in an uncoordinated way and on a foundation of old models over a long period of time, with no major structural reforms. Therefore its impacts are not entirely predictable. The system is also slow to react, fragmented and in many ways unfair. Its shortcomings have occasionally been publicised, but there has been virtually no constructive debate on the issue. With this report, FCF wishes to initiate a thorough discussion about the need for change.

Arts community – policy – market

The Finnish arts subsidy system is heavily legislation-based and institutional, and as such it has the effect of dividing the arts sector into permanently funded institutions and what is known as the “free sector”. The status of certain individual arts institutions such as municipal symphony orchestras is actually enshrined in law. However, the arts sector today is much broader and diverse than it used to be, and several branches of the arts generally considered valuable remain outside the scope of public funding. This apartheid into historically appreciated branches of the arts on the one hand and newer, less institutionalised ones on the other is the principal reason why calls for reform are emerging from the arts community itself.

Those operating in the “free sector” would like to obtain permanent funding, while those already enjoying guaranteed support are naturally less than enthusiastic about giving up benefits gained. Because the total amount of arts subsidies is not likely to increase in the near future, it is difficult to come up with a solution that would please everyone in what is essentially a zero-sum game.

The FCF further notes in its report that arts funding is governed by three parties: the arts community itself, the current cultural policy and the market. The arts community determines artistic quality, while political input is needed because citizens have the right to have a say in how their tax money is spent.

Both the arts community and the political leadership have traditionally had a strong influence in outlining arts subsidies in Finland. The relationship between the market and arts funding is much vaguer: there is no consistent correlation between commercial success in the marketplace and being granted public subsidies. The subsidy system does not encourage operators to go for commercial success; its purpose is to facilitate artistic freedom and the exploration of new things. However, these days the laws of the market economy govern society in many ways, and the arts subsidy system should be more adept at adapting itself to market parameters.

Arts subsidies from central and local government

The most significant patron of the arts in Finland is the public sector. Basic education in the arts and municipal arts institutions (e.g. city orchestras) are mainly organised and funded by local authorities, but central government funding is also provided through the government grant system. The major portion of central government funding for the arts, however, goes to higher arts education, grants to individual artists and national cultural institutions such as the National Opera, the National Theatre, the National Gallery and the National Museum. In addition to appropriations in the central government budget, arts subsidies are also paid out of national lottery funds.

The majority of central government grants awarded to individual artists are coordinated by the Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike). The grant decisions made by Taike are peer-reviewed: the National Councils for the various branches of the arts include experts in each of those branches, such as practising artists or arts administration professionals. Thus, the grants awarded by Taike may be construed to represent the views – however subjective – of the arts community itself as to which artists and projects deserve to be subsidised. These National Councils are appointed for two-year periods, which means that any bias caused by the opinions of an individual member will not be long-lasting. Taike has both branch-specific and regional councils, the purpose in this arrangement being to ensure regional fairness in awarding grants.

Musicians are supported by the National Council for Music, which awards artist grants and other grants for the music sector to a total of about €1.4 million per year. These discretionary grants are awarded to support a variety of projects, such as concerts, the running of an association or the acquisition of an instrument. The Council also awards library grants for music.

In addition to this direct support, Finland may be considered to have a number of means of indirect support for the arts, such as tax rebates. Unlike in the other Nordic countries, in Finland artist grants are tax-free up to a certain annual amount. The flip side of this coin (pun not intended) is that tax-free income is not entirely compatible with the social security system.

Pioneering foundations

After local and central government, private foundations are the major source of arts subsidies in Finland. Today, the various foundations and funds disburse even more money in grants than the central government does in subsidies. Most foundations operate on a peer–reviewed basis, like Taike. The Finnish Music Foundation (MES) is a general-purpose funding provider in the field of music, formed by the copyright organisations Gramex and Teosto in 2013. The capital of the -Finnish Music Foundation comes from central government grants, private donations and private copying remunerations. The largest private foundation supporting the arts is the FCF, followed by the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland, the Kone Foundation, the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, Konstsamfundet Society and the Alfred Kordelin Foundation.

Private foundations supporting the arts have more leeway in terms of means and time than the public administration. Cultural policy changes slowly, but some foundations have already begun to take action to change their procedures, for instance by setting up their own major projects to complement the traditional artist grant system. As examples, we might mention the Koko Suomi leikkii (All Finland Plays) project funded by the FCF and implemented by the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare and the Finnish Red Cross; the Kielen kuvaus theme (Language Programme) run by the Kone Foundation; and the strategic programmes of the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland, which in 2014–2016 are focusing on theatre, upper secondary schools and Swedish-speaking adolescents.

Foundations have traditionally been willing to support marginal art forms, because diversity translates into renewal in art and brings new and interesting phenomena into the limelight. Accordingly, the FCF suggests in its report that more attention should be paid to not allowing interesting groundbreaking efforts to remain shooting stars; the transition from the margins to the mainstream is what should be supported. The FCF further notes that the foundations might increasingly be involved in business operations in the future, for instance in the form of property letting, loan guarantees or investments in arts export organisations. Artist grants would retain their present function, the augmenting of insufficient income, but the investment aspect would serve to encourage artists to explore fundraising opportunities for themselves and to seek commercial success.

The regional perspective and the zero-sum game

Ever since the 1960s, Finland has pursued the principle of bringing art to everyone everywhere in the country, regardless of geographical location or socio–economic status. It is for this reason that Finland has an exceptionally broad network of arts institutions. National and regional art is not only of intrinsic value but also of great importance in improving wellbeing, and this should be taken into account when reforming the structures of the subsidy system. Especially from the -regional perspective, the physical presence of art and the possibility of engaging in and experiencing art personally are values that are considered just as important as artistic quality. Finland is a sparsely populated country with great distances, which poses challenges for joint projects that might otherwise help support regional arts efforts.

The other major challenge for reforming the arts subsidy system apart from the regional perspective is the stark polarisation between secure and insecure funding. The institutions that have attained secure funding are unwilling to compromise on their benefits, and in the present zero-sum game it is virtually impossible for any new groups to gain access to this platform of stability. Dynamism could be added for instance by putting basic funding on a fixed-term basis with variable-period lengths – successful examples of this are already in place for instance in France – or through multi-channel funding. In practice, many individual performing and creative artists get their income from a combination of these two models, but for institutions they are largely alien.

The FCF report envisions new operating models and forms of funding for both institutions and individual artists. For instance, arts institutions could be encouraged to raise assets of their own through a variety of incentives. Once an institution has own assets, it could buffer or compensate for a drop in funding at the end of a grant period, for instance. For such a concept to work, completely new forms for subsidising would need to be set up, with a focus different from that of current government grants. Individual artists, on the other hand, could be encouraged to form cooperatives or other communities that could jointly provide occupational health care and earnings-related unemployment security and perhaps hire a shared administrator, for -instance.

Balancing change and stability

Art continues to be widely appreciated in Finland, and support for the arts is favoured even though its immediate financial benefits for the national economy are negligible. In addition to art having intrinsic cultural value, it is known to promote citizens’ wellbeing, to contribute to a positive image of the country abroad and to boost competitiveness. The common question today is not whether art should be given public support but what kind of art should be given public support.

“In order to fulfil its function, art must have sufficient freedom. An optimum funding system would offer both an opportunity for trial and error and a robust platform of support for those forms of culture that prove to be the most effective and sustainable. Balancing change and stability is one of the most difficult issues related to funding. Nevertheless, the overriding goal is to safeguard the potential for the kind of art which people can relate to and which has a social impact.” (FCF report 2015.)

The article is based on a thorough study of arts subsidies in Finland published by the Finnish Cultural Foundation published in August 2015 (Available in Finnish at

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

More detailed description of the Finnish funding model in the FMQ printed issue 3-4/2015 (pp. 34-35).