Iceland’s art scene faces an uncertain future

Artists are struggling, corporate and private sponsorship is drying up and museums are slashing budgets as the new government comes to terms with difficult times ahead

COPENHAGEN. Six months after the collapse of the Icelandic economy, the country’s art scene is feeling the pinch. Private sponsorship is almost non-existent and the decline in value of the Icelandic krona has made international cooperation difficult if not impossible. Nevertheless the country’s biggest museum, the Reykjavík Art Museum (RAM), has seen visitor numbers increase, and the country’s young art scene remains lively, albeit because young art graduates are finding it increasingly financially prohibitive to study abroad.

In October last year the previous government had to intervene to save Iceland’s three biggest banks. The stringent conditions imposed by nationalisation meant that almost overnight the most important sponsors of Iceland’s cultural were no longer active.

“For us, as the country’s largest museum, that [had clear] consequences,” Hafthor Yngvason, director of RAM, told The Art Newspaper. In recent years the local authority provided around 80% to 85% of the institution’s overall budget, with the rest coming from external sources. Until autumn last year Mr Yngvason could rely on sponsorship to finance the publication of extensive catalogues, to fund invitations to many foreign artists and to enable the showing of large-scale installations. However since the collapse of the banks—Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbanki—private funding has dried up, meaning a decline in RAM’s annual income of around 15% to 20%. The smaller National Gallery reports a decline in income of around 25%.

“In addition, the purchasing power of the Icelandic krona abroad [means] inviting foreign artists might cost twice as much now,” added Mr Yngvason.

As a direct consequence of the economic downturn the National Gallery and the Akureyri Art Museum have already announced that they will not hold exhibitions with foreign participants.

“It simply becomes too expensive to freight their works and invite them personally,” Hannes Sigurdsson, director of the Akureyri Art Museum, told The Art Newspaper. Halldór Björn Runólfsson, director of the National Gallery, has adopted the same policy and cancelled all exhibitions with foreign artists for 2009. “However, that does not mean we show only Icelanders. For example we could arrange a Dieter Roth show as many of his works are in this country though he wasn’t Icelandic”, Mr Runólfsson told us (Roth spent many of years resident in Iceland).

The policies initiated by the two smaller museums makes it even more important for Mr Yngvason to continue with an international strategy. “We have a responsibility to introduce international artists and art movements to an Icelandic audience,” he said. To be able to do so Mr Yngvason has had to cut costs and find new sources of financing. This year, and probably into 2010, the number of exhibitions at RAM will be reduced, while their running time will be extended. Artists also have to accept that the budget is too tight for major changes to the museum’s interior and for the showing of large installations. “But the quality will not suffer,” said Mr Yngvason. Japanese artist and design collaborators Yoshitomo Nara + graf, who will show the installation Crated Rooms for Iceland in the autumn, already suggested a reduction in size from their original proposal. And as holding fewer exhibitions saves a substantial amount of money, Mr Yngvason is able to offer the visitors more peripheral events such as artist talks and panel discussions. It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off: compared to the first quarter of 2008, the museum’s main building had almost 25% more visitors.

Inevitably, artists are also suffering as a result of the economic crisis. “Bankers and banks bought from Icelandic artists, [who] now sell less as there is not much money in the financial sector,” Aslaug Thorlacius, head of the Visual Artists’ Organisation, told The Art Newspaper. In addition it is now harder to find a job to finance the artistic work.

State arts policy is currently in flux, as the new Social Democratic-led government elected in April is currently seeking to form an alliance with the Left Green party, based on agreements to seek entry into the European Union. The Left Greens are historically opposed to Iceland joining the EU. However, on 10 May Iceland’s Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, announced that a deal had been made between the parties and Iceland would now pursue EU membership. The government announced that Iceland would start work “on drafting a long-term cultural strategy in consultation with artists”. In a further statement, a government spokesperson said: “As one of the responses to the financial situation the government has decided to increase the number of financial grants to creative artists from the State Art Fund (so-called Project Grant for Artists) by 30% over the next four years, and thus make it possible for a greater number of artists to receive such grants. It is hoped that grants provided by municipalities and independent funds and other private sources will be maintained at the same level as before.”

It is a big hope as, in the meantime, individual private sponsorship continues to fall away. The non commercial space 101 Projects was financed by Ingibjörg Pálmadóttir, until last year one of Iceland’s richest women. However, in the light of the economic downturn she has had to withdraw funding, leading to the closure of the gallery.

At the local Art Academy the declining value of the Icelandic currency is the main problem. In Iceland one can only study visual arts to undergraduate level. Graduate artists undertook postgraduate study abroad—many in the UK, US or Germany—and most of them later returned to Iceland.

“Grants and state-financed student loans are now worth only half as much as before. Under these circumstances only a few can afford [to leave] the country for further study,” Katrin Sigurdardottir, artist and professor at the Art Academy, told The Art Newspaper. “In the short run that will probably be good for the local scene as many more will [stay] in Iceland. But in the long run it is essential that Iceland [receives] influence from abroad,” she added. She can also see how the crisis is affecting her students culturally, as well as economically. One, Emil Magnúsarson Borhammar, now paints work depicting the old financial and political elite, which is held responsible for the situation and has largely lost power and influence.

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1 Sep 10
18:55 CET


Hence, we have decided to move to Reykjavik! We won't leave you behind Iceland!

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