Screenshot 2024-01-18 at 13.15.15

Funding and Working Spaces against the Background of Diversity Aspects in Europe

18 januari 2024

Konstnärernas Riksorganisation samarbetar med den tyska systerorganisation IGBK i seminarieserien ”Visual artists, diverse conditions”.

Den 15 november deltog vår ordförande Sara Edström som en av talarna på temat ”'Funding and Working Spaces against the Background of Diversity Aspects in Europe”. 

Under 2024 kommer samarbetet att fortsätta och den 24:e maj arrangerar vi ett gemensamt seminarium som äger rum parallellt i Stockholm och Berlin samtidigt och kommer att gå att delta i via zoom. 

Här kan du lyssna på Sara Edströms tal.

Hela talet finns också i textform nedan.

With the project visual artists I diverse conditions, IGBK examines the conditions of artistic work in Europe from the perspective of diversity in 2023. What impact do characteristics such as age, gender, origin/language and geographical location (or place of residence) have on the work of visual artists in addition to country-specific cultural policy, art policy and socio-political conditions? To what extent is the presence or absence of diversity structures in institutions, for example, noticeable in the work of artists?

The session on 15 November 2023 focused on 'Funding and Working Spaces' in Europe against the background of diversity aspects.

My name is Sara Edström and I live and work in the very north of Sweden. Not far from the arctic circle. My town has around 80 000 people, and it’s the region’s main city.

I was once working with a big exhibition up here produced by the Swedish Arts Council with a curator from Stockholm. As part of the exhibition we were going to include one of the largest meteorites found in Sweden, and it is located in the village of Lannavaara. The curator asked me to go pick up the meteorite “because you are already up there” she said. The distance from my home town to Lannavaara is 375 kilometers. It would be like saying you could swing by Copenhagen while you’re already in Berlin.

So not even Swedish people understand the basic facts of life up here. Since we are today going to talk about Funding and working spaces with diversity aspects in mind, I wanted to share my perspective.

I am the president of the Swedish Artists’ Association, and I am also the vice president of the International Association of Art. But I am also an artist myself, and I run the self organized art space Syster in my town since 2006. To work as an artist, and as a curator and exhibition organizer, in a place like mine has a lot to do with the longing to bring as many diverse voices as we can to our context. We see the absolute necessity in keeping up a dialogue with the rest of the world and question whose story is being told and by whom.

These days the north of Sweden is attracting a lot of attention from the art world because it is the focal point of so many pressing topics of society. We are in the middle of a new industrial boom, that of course comes in the footsteps of an ongoing colonization of the north for centuries, and especially since 1898 when the big iron mine opened in Kiruna. The indigenous Sami people have been oppressed and are still being oppressed, their right to the land is constantly questioned, they have been forbidden to speak their languages and they were forced to send their kids to Swedish schools. The last few years there has been a big interest from the whole world for sami artists, and art has definitely helped to put these questions of land exploitation on the table. So in one small sense art has given space for a dialogue, we hear much more diverse voices nowadays than I have been experiencing growing up here.

But at the same time we all know that whenever there’s a conflict of interest between economical gain and preservation of nature and `ancient claims', i.e. that they have hunted, fished and used the reindeer pasture since time immemorial, it is most often the prospect of money that wins in the end.

So, of course, there is an absolute danger that the art and culture will be used as “art washing”. As a tool to persuade all these people to move up north to work at the big new battery factories, the green steel plants, the new copper mine in Gällivare or iron mine in Gállok. The companies, and the region and the municipalities in the north, in my opinion, pretends to lift up the culture here, but in reality they don’t want to hear any diversity in opinions that could jeopardize their goals.

When I was growing up the general image of us northerners was that we were kind of hillbillies, we were really working class, not rich, sophisticated, educated people. This part of Sweden would be called “the waste land” in double meaning. But of course it’s actually the absolute opposite: we produce the majority of the Swedish wealth through the mines, the forests, the water power plants and so on. So: whose story forms the picture?

This part of the country is big. But we are not many people. 248 883 people live in an area that is a quarter of the whole of Sweden.

So, of course there are specific challenges to maintain an infrastructure for art. Our history leaves traces in the transportation infrastructure as well. All major roads, and the railroad, goes north / south. Which means it can be quite a struggle to travel east - west. Especially if we include the north of Norway and Finland. This has also had an impact on what we can actually do in terms of collaborations over borders. Which of course also has had an impact on what art has been made and what exhibitions are being produced.

My town is not far from the Finnish border. Along the river that separates the two countries there are other minority groups. They have also been prohibited to speak their language and practice their culture. Somewhat in the shadow of the interest directed towards art by sami artists there is also now a movement to reclaim the Meänkieli language and culture.

When I first was invited to talk about this topic today I immediately thought about diversity aspects in terms of how we in Sweden work with the questions of immigration and how to welcome artists from other countries and cultures into the art scene here. But I wanted to start with this short description about how we’ve been treating the minority groups and indigenous people that have been here long before the Swedish king or government came up with the idea to claim the land and resources.

But of course it is also of highest importance to make sure that more newly arrived artists can live and thrive here and that the art they produce can be shown to the public. In Sweden there is a project called “The Art of Participation” in which artists coming to Sweden meet artists that live and work here. The other week I participated in one of their meetings, and I got so many questions about how to find one’s way into the art scene. I am sad to say that is a very difficult question to answer. But maybe I could compare a bit to the situation for us up north. There was no art scene to step in to. When we founded galleri Syster it was a way for us to create our own platform by finding like minded artist friends to work with and define what we needed and how we should achieve it. To come together and to form a nonprofit organization has been one way to access funding and create opportunities for a lot of artist colleagues to make exhibitions and receive exhibition fees and so on. As the swedish funding system is working we have the Swedish Arts Grants Committee that gives out grants to individual artists. But a much larger portion of the cultural budget is going through The Swedish Arts Council that supports organizers and collectives. This is why I always encourage more artists to work together for support and artistic development.

As I said in the beginning, the art scene in the north of Sweden is really booming right now. And most of the initiatives we see come from the starting point of artists coming together and organizing exhibitions and events that over the years have grown into art institutions and production spaces.

If I zoom out to more of a Swedish national perspective, I want to address the recent shift in Swedish political life. After a long history of being a social democratic country, based on successful workers unions, we have seen the same rise of nationalist right wing parties as a lot of other countries. The Swedish nationalist party is now Sweden’s second largest party.

And these types of nationalist parties are always very interested in culture. Because they know the impact it can have for a free and democratic society. Day by day we here more and more suggestions about how drag queens should be banned from reading books for children, how they question the principle of arm's length and how art exhibitions and other cultural events are being questioned or closed for political reasons. We cannot talk about the topic of diversity without acknowledging the absolute risk of voices being silenced, either directly or indirectly in the form of self censoring. And maybe the most insidious way to restrict who can tell their story and who gets to hear it is to just simply cut the funding for the arts. “Ooops, I am sorry, there is just no money left…”.

Who can choose to become an artist if the economical risk is sooo high? The Swedish art schools are struggling to attract students with another background than the well situated middle- and upper class.

These are the questions I work with on a daily basis at the Artists’ Association of Sweden. The artist’ right to fair pay is absolutely essential. For diversity reasons, but of course just simply for human dignity and respect.

Sara Edström


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