How to get a bang for a Euro?

Tom Sandberg, Untitled, 2003, Anhava GalleryNorwegian arts policy may not be everyone’s cup of cloudberry juice, but I am wondering if anyone has any thoughts about what the Europeans are doing right (or wrong) when it comes to managing the arts. I’m shamelessley reposting this op-ed of mine from VG, Norway’s largest daily, because a) few of my friends read Norwegian, and b) it’s a good away to ask the perennial question: Why is it that America’s sink-or-swim attitude toward arts support keeps producing world-renowned stars, while lavish state funding in Europe seems to achieve the opposite?

THE OPENING was a dream come true. An elegant crowd gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon in New York City in the galleries of P.S.1., the vast contemporary art center that displays the most adventurous exhibitions of the Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors from around the globe filed past Tom Sandberg’s black and white photographs, admiring their low-key depictions of billowing clouds and intimate family moments. Even the Crown Princess dropped in, having made a pilgrimage all the way from Oslo to grace Sandberg’s career-capping moment.

Only one thing was wrong with this picture. There has been no solo-exhibition by a Norwegian artist in a New York museum since 1986, when Jan Groth was featured at the Guggenheim.

The fact that twenty-one years would pass between these two events points to a particular weakness of Norwegian cultural policy. Although the arts receive lavish state subsidies in Norway by American standards, living Norwegian artists are basically unknown here, and for that matter, almost anywhere outside Scandinavia. Awareness of dead Norwegian artists may be summed up in one word: Munch – whose popularity received a boost from recent reports about the spectacular theft of his works.

Small countries tend to be obsessed about their cultural reputations. (I know; I grew up in Hungary.) And while one can list many rationales for public support of the arts, stimulating international awareness of a nation’s cultural heritage is surely one of them.

The problem is that government programs don’t seem to do too well in nurturing the kind of artistic reputations that merit recognition abroad. Access to free training and living subsidies is a wonderful privilege. Enterprising artists can even take advantage of government travel grants. But in Norway – as in other European nations that spend generously on the arts – these forms of support have, by and large, failed to translate into international approval.

Let me suggest that this might be a perfect mission to embrace by private philanthropy, a phenomenon that is finally emerging in full force in Norway.

I have long believed that philanthropy – the notion that once you’ve made a bundle, you should give some of it away – is America’s most attractive cultural export. These days, with colossal fortunes being made everywhere, the popularity of philanthropy is spreading. From Clinton to Bono, all the cool people are doing it, and the world is taking notice.

In Europe, this could not come at a better time. The post-war moral consensus that led to the welfare state is breaking down. Society no longer needs to be healed and pacified. Once concern for humanism gives way to worries about efficiency and competitiveness, tax expenditures for the arts are destined for the chopping block.

This creates an opening for private foundations. And they could hardly think of a smarter mission than advancing Norwegian art on the global stage. There are several reasons for this, but let me mention the most obvious.

First, the use of domestic tax revenues to support foreign programs, let alone cultural ones, is always a contentious issue – “We have plenty of problems at home,” is the usual criticism. If a private foundation wants to focus on international programs, so be it.

Second, private philanthropy does not need to be concerned with politics. Even in enlightened countries, where public support follows the “arms-length” principle, with quasi-autonomous expert bodies disbursing grants, art funding tends to focus on what’s proper rather on what’s best. Money is often awarded on the basis of rewarding each social group equally. Private foundations, by contrast, can be purely meritocratic.

Third, private philanthropy does not have to justify costs in the same way as government programs do. Promoting the arts abroad is expensive. Putting on a big party in a distant city, or buying advertising in a magazine nobody back home reads, may seem like a waste of public money. Private foundations can afford to play the game. They are also quicker, more flexible, and capable of taking advantage of opportunities as they come up.

Last but not least, it’s important to recognize that international careers begin with a gradual gestation at home. Artists who do well achieve their renown through exposure at exhibitions as well as through the commercial approval of the art market. Private foundations, by virtue of their independent resources, can help provide both of these forms of validation, even before an artist is ready to appear on the international stage.

The tool kit of international arts promotion is no mystery. It consists mainly of travel grants for residencies, publications, and expert exchanges that help weave together international networks of artistic dialogue. That’s how the Sandberg exhibition started. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait two decades for another major success.

1 thought on “How to get a bang for a Euro?”

  1. Sol Sneltvedt emailed this comment:

    Szántó’s optimism about the role private philanthropy can play particularly for Norwegian arts makes a good read. However, there are a couple of fundamental assumptions running through Szántó’s argument that I as a practicing Norwegian artist partly based in England, feel I cannot leave uncommented.

    Importantly, there is no contradiction between private and public funded arts: London is, for one, an exciting example of how the public and commercial arts thrive side by side. Private funding does not exclude the public funding. On the contrary, a fair amount of art production and distribution is funded by a combination of the two.

    I recommend a closer inspection of the European art scene and particularly publicly funded schemes. To this end, see the current issue of the San Francisco based Leonardo Journal (Vol.39, no 5, 2006) in which Bronac Ferran Director of Interdisciplinary Arts, Arts Council of England, gives a clear account for a particularly interesting and substantial publicly funded scheme in the UK.

    This is just one of many examples of highly competitive and successful public investment in arts. There are many more across Europe almost as diverse as Europe is herself. Their purpose is exactly to help avoid the narrow idea of the international art scene as presented in Szántó’s article. To think that an artist would have nowhere else to go and nothing but Szántó’s dire tool kit to go by is uncanny in its simplicity.

    Talking of simplicity, could Szántó’s description of European state funding being lavish simply stem from a factual misunderstanding given away in the headline “How to get a bang for a Euro?”? To be sure I must point out that Norway counts its public funding in Norwegian Krone.

    Finally, I would like to encourage private philanthropy in Norway and elsewhere: As Szántó points out, private foundations can operate differently from other funding bodies, which is why artists generally welcome private philanthropy. There is however, absolutely no reason why this should exclude public funding.

    Best regards,
    Sol Sneltvedt

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