Art does not just magically appear in the world as a gift of grace that comes from divine inspiration. It is created through persistent and devoted work. This work is always funded by someone who has their own expectations of what to receive in return for their support.
BY Olli Virtaperko
Arts supporters have always found ways to gain maximum benefit from the art they sponsor. The church employed artists to praise God’s miracles, and the flourishing of visual arts in Renaissance Italy was advanced by the vanity of secular rulers. In the European National Romantic ideology, artists were required to reflect the uniqueness of the national characteristics and natural environments of their homeland. During the last century, arts funding gradually became the responsibility of nation states, whose reasons for supporting their artists ultimately came down to gaining instrumental value: for a nation, art is the most valuable spiritual capital, and it has international appeal. Art can be valued in clear economic terms, and this value is not insignificant.
In Finland, the state has shouldered the main responsibility for supporting our national culture and the arts for over half a century now. In the state-centric model of supporting the arts, the relationship between a sponsor and an artist remained stable for a long time. However, the current reality of long-term lack of economic growth means that the public support mechanisms for the arts are no longer as self-evident as they used to be a couple of decades ago. Support from businesses from the free market sector would no doubt be a welcome addition to the resources channelled to the arts through the state and through private foundations.
However, market-based and state-based funding models represent two very different set of conformities. In both models, a return is required for the investment, but the payoff expectations of the state’s cultural policies are based on the multi-layered knock-on effects of long-term accumulation of artistic capital. The state defines the value of its returns through a broad palette and a long time-span. Market-based sponsoring schemes, however, present more straightforward demands for returns. A commissioner often expresses a wish to steer the artist’s work into their chosen direction. In addition, the market considers some art forms to be more attractive candidates for funding. Commissioning a painting or a music composition produces very different kinds of rewards. The former is something tangible that one can own, with a clear monetary value defined by the market. The relationship between contribution and return is clear. But what about a musical work? It may take months to compose a ten-minute chamber music piece. The reward is an abstract river of notes, taking form in space and time. Its value is impossible to define and it cannot be “owned” in the traditional sense of the word. With these conformities in place, it is hardly surprising that supporting the work of an art-music composer is only seldom attractive to private sponsors. The return feels simply inadequate and uninteresting for the amount of support given.
The importance of receiving compensation is detected even in the currently fashionable crowdfunding projects where the funding target and the return from the investment are fundamentally concrete in nature – a physical or digital music recording, book, magazine, photograph or a personal experience through a concert, lecture or lesson. Crowdfunding projects must offer a compensation that is satisfying and appropriate for the amount donated, the campaign must be carefully planned and the progress of the funded cause must be publicised frequently and enthusiastically. For an artist, crowdfunding may provide a functional mechanism for completing a small-scale, clearly defined project whose end result can be worked into different concrete rewards. However, it will not enable long-term artistic work in the way a grant does.
The state, with its current focus on arts policies, as well as private foundations geared towards supporting the arts remain the most important benefactors for professional artists in Finland.
However, arts funding circumstances are never static. The conditions for making art are defined by three clear power structures: the arts community, the national opinion which feeds into political decision-making, and the free market. The welfare society model, which highlights the inherent value of the arts, emphasises the importance of an arts community. Public funding, which is allocated through a peer evaluation process, produces the kind of art that is preferred by the arts community. Although this model is appealing to many artists, it is problematic in terms of the gradual weakening of political legitimacy received from ordinary people. In the end, state arts policies always require the support of the majority of people. Art that is created separately from the surrounding reality will sooner or later lead to a social counter-reaction. Funding for art that is perceived to be irrelevant can be questioned.
In the increasingly pluralistic arts world, the sheer range of expression restrains the arts from sliding away from the preferences of the surrounding society. Having a personal preference for an arts model that is based on substance and expertise does not mean one can ignore the power of national opinion and the market. If public economy resources get reduced, there will be those who get cut off from that funding stream, but who will find ways to secure alternative funding sources for their art. Art always listens to the wishes of its commissioner. Where there is a change of funder, there is also a change in demands about the substance of the commissioned art work. From an artist’s perspective, it can feel like a despicable compromise having to accommodate for the tastes of the market and the audiences, whereas someone examining arts funding from outside the creative perspective might choose to interpret the situation as an improvement of the mutually beneficial collaboration between state funding and marketing mechanisms.
It is hard to predict the future but two things feel certain: art is in a constant state of change, and this change is partially driven by the practical necessity of seeking balance with the funders’ demands. Something is always given and something is requested in return. There is no such thing as a free lunch – neither in business nor in art.
Olli Virtaperko is a composer and music journalist.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
See also Hanna Isolammi’s article W(h)ither arts support?