A short note on post-COVID-19: The Terms of Art in Iceland

3.05. 2020 | artzine in english

All of a sudden, things are moving quickly. 600 months have been added to the artist’s salaries starting this year, seemingly available for the foreseeable future. An emergency fund of 500 million krónur has also been created for artists dealing with this coming year. Of those 500 million krónur, 57 million are for visual art specifically. These are improvements on our current situation and should be encouraged. But as we are seeing all over the world these emergency measures do not address the long-term, fundamental issues that art faces today.

The problem is how vulnerable artists are even at the best of times. This crisis has again showed us how serious the effect of economic uncertainty is on our art scene. When we restart art, whenever that will be, we must do so on the right terms. Especially since this crisis will have the most effect on artists themselves. Artists who are working part-time, or even full-time, jobs alongside their practice, paying high rent, trying to pay for a studio while also providing for children or thinking about having children, or any sort of stable future. If these artists lose their “real” job, in the tourism industry or the service sector for example, in addition to the postponement or cancellation of their upcoming exhibitions, what sort of chance do they have? Will they be able to make any art? If this becomes the post-COVID-19 reality – if as some have predicted, the economic consequences of this crisis become worse than the crash in 2008 – how will we deal with that?

We know the answer to these questions. A project-based life has no guarantees, and on average you might expect to receive the artist’s salary once every eight years. Of all the people who applied for the artist salary last time, 14% received them. 1,600 months were available; the added 600 for next time might increase the percentage a little, maybe, hopefully. But there will probably still be more than a thousand applicants that get nothing. With the realities of funding here it is amazing that the art scene is as robust as it is. That is a positive and we will build on that. But we must be careful not to let these fluid, extraordinary, times lead us into making changes that do not work for us.

Because all of a sudden it is possible to make changes. We have a Prime Minister who is sympathetic to the arts, as well as a Minister of Education, Science, and Culture, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, who has shown an interest in listening to artist as well as expressing a belief that the arts are necessary to a functioning society. When we come out on the other side of COVID-19 we will of course work together with our art institutions and our municipalities and our government to start again. But as historically has been the case, the majority of the art scene here is artist-run. The museums will survive this period – cancelled shows and postponements do not mean a loss of necessary livelihood. And thankfully the few actual jobs in the art sector here seem to, still, be mostly unaffected. Ultimately it will be artists who make the new work, who put up the shows, who try to survive on an artist’s salary in a recession. If artists are the ones hardest hit by this crisis, as it looks like might be the case, then we cannot be sure there will be as many practicing artists here when the restrictions are fully lifted.

There will be no perfect way to respond to this crisis, as can already be seen in various places. Though the response from the German state has gotten more favorable reactions from artists and the media, there will be problems with any emergency approach (see various articles, one here: https://news.artnet.com/market/germany-bailout-issues-1834791.) In these circumstances artists must be heard in order for the right changes to be made. Those changes need to build on the (relatively) good things that have been happening here in recent years. Museums and institutions starting to pay artists for their work, however small an amount it still is. The expansion of The Iceland University of the Arts has made the university more closely resemble the leader in its field that it is supposed to be, although much can still be improved. There are good, driven people heading up many of our most important institutions. There is arguably more support for artist-run initiatives than there has been before, though our artist-run spaces and galleries need more help. Not to mention that artists working in Iceland today are as relevant internationally as they have ever been. In such a privileged country as Iceland there is potential to really make something interesting. But these things do not happen automatically, someone needs to go out and do these things.

In that context it is depressing to think about how changes are more readily made in absolutely extreme circumstances. We can do better, not just when things crash and the big lights come on. But if the government reaction now is to put money into art, then this is already different from the austerity measures implemented after the 2008 crash. And while the sale of artworks is not a viable nor reliable way for an artist in Iceland to make a living, except in unique cases, the relative increase in sales in recent years has maybe set a precedence that can be expanded on post-COVID-19. And if the economic consequences of this virus lead us into a serious recession then, as the government has hinted at, further measures might have to be taken. It would be good if our artists and our art scene have a say in what those measures would be.

The main point here is that if now is a time for change then we make use of it. We should ask ourselves if we were happy with the way things were before the COVID-19 restrictions. Not just on an institutional level, but on a personal, environmental, critical level also. Do we want to build back up the scene we had before? If not, what do we want to change? How do we make those changes? Because one of the main problems artists face in Iceland is that the government does not really understand how artists work. They do not understand the language artists speak, what artists need, what the relationship is between art and society today. We can be better at communicating amongst ourselves. We can be better at communicating with the public. We should be more aware of the bigger picture of art in Iceland. Can we make a more equal, more unified, more interesting framework for making art in Iceland? What would that look like?

Nothing mentioned here is new or revolutionary. We know what would make art better in Iceland. And it is maybe a contradiction to be talking about a positive way forward in the face of a brutal and traumatizing global catastrophe that might turn into a severe international recession. Never waste a crisis, indeed. Hopefully we can deal with the economic fallout, though only time will tell us what post-COVID-19 means. But we should, at least here in our privileged position, try to have an effect on what art looks like on the other side.


Starkaður Sigurðarson


Cover picture: Auður Lóa Guðnadóttir’s on-the-cheap studio shoot in an alleyway in Dublin.


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