Smaller institutions create communities | kulturpunkt

English Interview

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Smaller institutions create communities

Curator and author Jonatan Habib Engqvist talks about governance regarding the socio-cultural infrastructure in the Sweden and Nordic region.

by: Katarina Pavić and Hrvoje Pašalić

FOTO: Nikolina Ställborn

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Jonatan Habib Engqvist is a curator and author from Stockholm. Independently or in collaboration, he curated more than fifty exhibitions, wrote and edited numerous texts and publications. In 2018., together with Nina Möntmann he published a research report Agencies of Art – A report on the situation of small and mid-sized art centers in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The research brings forth an insight into the recent framework of more than fifty institutions, organizations and initiatives in arts and culture in Scandinavia. Covering aspects such as financial framework, material and immaterial resources, but also strategies and visions, the paper notes similarities and differences between the countries whose cultural and public policies are widely perceived as exemplary in regard to structural stability and good practices. In the light of the recent conservative turn, which impacted the Nordic region as well, the conversation with Engqvist tried to understand whether structural stability could be understood as a barrierfor inovativity and the progressive approaches towards position and role of actors in civil society.

To begin with, how would you describe the ecology of social and cultural institutions in the Nordic region, perhaps with a focus on Sweden?

That’s something I have been thinking about quite a lot lately up here, in what has been a very wealthy region when it comes to municipal public funding for initiatives coming from artists or practitioners themselves. But, like the rest of Northern Europe, we’re experiencing a political shift right now, and that is not necessarily something we can take for granted anymore. Artists who work with institutions or micro-institutions are used to being precarious and are more sensitive to this shift than more “traditional” institutions, but I dare say that people are starting to take this into consideration as they develop their own methods to create a more resilient modus operandi.

How would you describe the main typology of the sociocultural field in Sweden? In other words, which type of organisation applies to social and cultural institutions? In the Agencies of Art report, you stress that many institutions defy strict determinations?

It’s a tricky question because, in a sense, it depends on where you look and what questions you ask. However, I do think there is a shift – perhaps one of acceptance – taking place. And that’s probably true in the art world in general, with #metoo, BLM, and perhaps even more so, COVID hastening the acceptance of these other expressions. I mention COVID because there are various practical reasons for this shift, one of which is that people are actively choosing to operate in a different way or to move to other places, away from the inner city, and are bringing with them knowledge networks or transferring international cultural capital from the "art world proper". But I think that this simply reflects a need and desire for a different way of working, a sense of exhaustion, perhaps most notably among artists, and there are some institutions listening to this and adapting to what artists are doing.

Do you think that the practices of "New Institutionalism" in the Nordic region have evolved from there?

Yeah, Nina Möntmann, the co-author of the report, and I were trying to pursue that line of thought – that there’s a kind of new "New Institutionalism" coming up. And that it has its pros and cons. Years ago, I remember thinking how, when Swedish artists organize themselves, they do so according to the structure of how most things in this country are organized – you create a board, elect a chairman, there are defined positions, you create a foundation, a not-for-profit, an association, write statues… And I think it has something to do with a very long tradition, dating back to the 19th century and later to the Workers Union, that is closely tied to the concept of "folkbildning", or people’s education, to reading clubs and art associations – some of which are still alive and kicking. I think that’s a part of it, that there is a tradition of organizing things like that in this context, and that it is viewed as a democratic method. But, at the same time, I remember thinking it was fascinating because, if you look internationally, it’s quite unusual to have such a – almost reflexive – organisational style."We’re going to take over this building and we’re going to start an initiative"; in Sweden, you don’t squat a building, you form an organisation, hold a meeting and decide on different functions. It’s a very rational and, in many cases, efficient way of thinking, but it does stand out when compared to other places. It’s a bit like that line from Björk’s song Hunter: "I tried to organise freedom, how Scandinavian of me…"

And it can slow things down, but, above all, it is a bit naïve in that it doesn’t recognise the informal power structures that exist within a set group of people, for instance. You risk ending up with something that appears on paper to have a very transparent structure and allows you to be very democratic, but in a way, it can prevent certain voices from being heard or certain decisions or actions from being taken, and it can be painstaking to amend.

Do you think that this kind of rationality is also creating these opacity spaces where the lines are blurred and it’s not really clear where the space for progressiveness is? To put it another way, would you say that the formality of structures is actually keeping these institutions captured in where they are at the moment?

I think it does on occasion. It really depends on the example we’re looking at, but this is something that was clear when we were writing the report on mid-sized art institutions. The most striking example was their answers to the question about their visions of the future, which all pointed in the same direction – "it would be great to keep doing what we’re doing, have a bit more money", etc. The visions were deeply rooted in the reality of the present, as were the concerns for the future.

Do you think that some institutions are now trying to develop different types of visions for the future?

That’s what I meant when I mentioned "acceptance" and "curiosity". There are several things going on. Ten years ago, if you went to a medium-sized kunsthalle in a town with 50 thousand inhabitants, you would see a replica of the exhibition from the capital, but a budget version of it, so to speak… Perhaps they couldn’t afford all of the pieces, or the lighting was yellowish, etc. But, there are now several such spaces offering art produced from the conditions on site, with people living on site, and even the institutions in the capital are slowly starting to understand this and suddenly showing interest in what they do. So, although many of these institutions are likely poorer than those in urban areas, they change the very idea of resources by thinking about them in a different way. Because they do have them, it’s just that the resources are possibly different. I remember talking to people from Kultivator, a farmers’ and artists’ initiative based on the island of Öland in southern Sweden. They were saying how great it is for them now that there is so much on Zoom, because they can attend any conference without significantly changing their daily activities. They actually felt more included in the ongoing global discussion, and there was something equalizing in that, which was quite fascinating. Once you open that door, regardless of whether we go back to the situation before COVID, they’ll still be there as an actor. And with this comes a package of rethinking issues of social and cultural engagement.

Would you say that the distinction between different types of cultural institutions is still very clear or are the lines becoming more blurred? And are there examples of cohabitation in physical spaces, especially when it comes to smaller communities?

I think that’s a really good question. In the smaller kunsthalles, in the examples I’ve given so far, the lines are definitely blurred, they don’t care about that. But when it comes to the larger institutions, the answer to the question of whether the lines are blurring is both yes and no. There seems to be a desire, a will, to dissolve this strict division. On the other hand, the structure – or the infrastructure – has remained relatively unchanged. There might be a director saying that – within the framework of a given cultural institution – people of different backgrounds and profiles should work together, and looking for interconnections between their activities. However, the reality is that these things take a long time. So, if you do a two-year project and invite an external curator to solve the problem of lack of communication between the theatre department and the art department, what happens after two years? Right now, a lot of institutions are recognizing the need for someone to help them mediate within the institution, which I see as a positive thing in general, but the perspective on time and the informal power structures within an institution can be quite a challenge. It could necessitate a different level of change, which will most likely be painful. 

In the Agencies of Art report, you emphasize that the art world shouldn’t be viewed as a food chain, but rather as an ecosystem. Could you elaborate on how you’d replace infrastructure with an ecosystem, and what the organizing principle of this ecosystem would be?

The short answer is that it has more to do with recognition than anything else – simply understanding that it’s not a food chain is crucial. This is quite a big step, as the art world is sometimes governed by an almost feudal power system. In addition, finding the means to maintain continuity is a challenge. Because, when there is continuity – or the security of knowing that there is continuity – one is willing to take risks. And if you don’t take risks… You know, sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you planed it, and if you’re going to lose your job if it doesn’t, you’re not going to take the risk. If you have that in the back of your mind, that you must succeed at all costs, you will most likely fail. Because, I think you have to have a bit of that privileged position of things not being successful all the time.

So, failure as a privilege?

I would say so, yes. This is something we don’t talk much about. Failure can be such a "goes-without saying-buzzword" thing, you know – "we’re this experimental thing, and we’re ready to fail", etc. – but to what extent are you actually ready to fail and continue to sustain yourself?

That is a really interesting line of thought. And also – what kind of institutional stability will allow for this? When you’ve had seven decades of social democracy, maybe it’s a bit more beneficial to fail, as opposed to when you’re coming from a politically completely volatile system where you basically can’t afford it.

You have to turn it into something else. You must use that failure and turn it into something that becomes a vehicle for perpetuating what you’re doing. That’s where it gets really tricky.

 So, from the perspective of a small-scale practitioner, how do we talk about an ecosystem that isn’t Darwinist and, at the level of articulation, coming from the top down? How do we persuade those in power to change the game, and is there a game-changer at all?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for that. All these large institutions that are cherry-picking from the smaller ones… I don’t know how many press releases were written as if something was a large institution’s discovery – the newest, the coolest, the greatest, we just discovered this young artist… They own it and, you’re never told the full story. I think that the large institutions need to understand that this can be dangerous for them as well, because they need that ecosystem to survive. It’s in their best interests. To be generous. And to be curious. But I think that we’re witnessing some changes. For example, we see a museum director attend artist-initiated events or a student exhibition in an art school gallery, ending up in a conversation with an artist who she or he is not familiar with... These small gestures might well be symbolic, but they are important if we are to get anywhere with these things. If we want a sense of community, these signals matter, and these banal examples are important for fostering mutual understanding, though there’s obviously a lot more to be done.

Do you think that cultural policy, especially at the subnational level, such as in regions and municipalities, can aid in this? In terms of distributing resources and providing some kind of mobility or visibility? Can these cultural interlocutors and larger infrastructures help diversify this ecosystem?

I think they can. We experienced the regionalization shift that many countries in the European Union experienced, from highly centralized to regionalized funding structures, and it was a bumpy ride because there are still places with a lack of competence and political instability. But I think that we’re slowly starting to find balance, and that a few government players – the larger bodies – have been very active in working regionally and together with the regions. But, one tangible problem with regionalization is that you end up with these extremes. Because of local politics, some regions lack a cultural budget, and cultural workers get nothing from the municipality. However, some have managed to find ways to fund themselves, partly through collaborations with organisations from other regions, partly through the state, and partly through their own labour. There are some impressive examples. Even hopeful. But, the cultural system in Scandinavia continues to rely heavily on public funds. It’s a strength, not least in terms of artistic autonomy, but it’s also precarious, because if politics shifts… Public funding, like all money, is guided by certain objectives, and those objectives are currently more or less ideologically in line with what many art institutions want – diversity, gender equality, etc. What happens if we have another governmental situation, and how does the cultural sphere react to it – does it follow suite or does it find a way to resist? I mean, look at Poland, things are progressing so fast there.

We actually talked to a cultural actor from Poland a few days ago, and they’ve already built a lot of resilience. We also had the opportunity to talk to someone from Flanders, and the situation there appears to be more serious than in Poland, where the shift to the right occurred four or five years ago.

This is my concern – that we aren’t as good at this as the former East, that we´re less tuned in, and that we may lack the strategies. And Flanders is probably closer to us, in the sense that they have known security and now lack the necessary coping strategies.

Can you tell us a bit more about the notion of "deferred value", which you highlight in the report? What can small and medium-sized institutions really contribute to the ecosystem as a whole, and to what extent does this concept manage to grasp their role? Is there more to providing value higher up the chain?

I would say that providing value higher up the chain is their secondary role. There are numerous examples of how they support the local community of practitioners – not only the artists whose work they exhibit, but also artists or visitors who belong to a given community. In a time when there’s nowhere to sit without paying, these are really becoming social institutions, far beyond the artists themselves. As such, they have an extremely important function – and, for the same reason, they are viewed as a threat. Small and mid-sized art institutions, in the best-case scenario, don’t just have an audience; they have a community around them, which is a very different way of working. And that is something that many of these institutions have understood in a way that the larger institutions have yet to understand. They are still talking about audiences and how to attract this or that group to come see something.

What can you tell us about the main laws or provisions that outline and determine the sociocultural field? How would you describe this framework, and do you see it as progressive and appropriate to the current state of art?

Well, different institutions have different remits, obviously. Many of the small and mid-sized institutions in Sweden are municipally grounded and funded, and this is always in negotiation with other things. And what happens is that there are those who argue that, as long as there aren’t enough nurses or adequate pensions, money shouldn’t be spent on culture and art. And when we have such political shifts in certain places, kunsthalles are under threat, not only in terms of budgets… In these cases – and there have been a few in recent years – there is an enormous outcry and support on a national level, which is partly related to the actions of the Klister network. Returning to the funding sources, the local funds are combined with other sources, such as Nordic funds, national public funds, private money, etc. Currently, there’s this crazy idea from the Nordic Council of Ministers, among others, that what needs to be prioritized are inclusion, sustainability, and environmental adaptation, and because we need to prioritize these, funding for culture and cultural exchange will be cut. So, they see no link between inclusion, sustainability, environmental struggle, and culture, which is quite shocking. This is happening on a larger, national and bi-lateral scale, but it also tends to happen at a municipal scale from time to time. 

But when we talk about regulatory framework in terms of laws, is it consistent with what’s going on in these institutions? Would it be possible to co-found a hybrid public institution that would be both cultural and educational at the same time?

I think it would, but you would probably need to meet the demands related to different categories, ones placed on both cultural and educational institutions.

So, when speaking of this type of out-of-the-box thinking and legal thinking that isn’t obsolete and non-progressive, would you say that the policies governing the field are fit for the purpose?

In theory – yes. In theory, we have this arm’s length distance principle. The lump sum of money is negotiated on one level, but the distribution of that lump of money and who gets it is left to the field itself. So, if you're applying for money from a governmental arts grants association, the people reading your applications are professionals. That system is pretty much in place, but from time to time you get people who question it or politicians who don’t understand that they aren’t allowed to express their opinions on what’s going on in a public square. From time to time, there are examples of politicians who succeed in overriding what they are allowed to do, but for the most part, I think it works reasonably well. And, in comparison to many other places around the world, I think that the voice of the cultural worker and the artist does matter. You can still find debate articles written by artists and authors in major newspapers, for example.

In your report, you mention that sometimes money is offered in exchange for obeying orders, and that the cultural sector must also put up with management by objective. Could you tell us a little bit more about it?

Actually, that would be a different answer, as my previous one was more on the level of superstructure. But that goes back to what I previously stated – things are functioning under the current policies and the left-greenish governmentality that we have here. Of course, we want money in order to be more inclusive, which is why we wanted money in the first place. But what if that money suddenly is no longer about inclusiveness, but, say, about patriotism, ideas of Swedish values, or national pride? How do we react to that as a collective? Do we take that money, and then wave the Palestinian flag saying, "this is also Sweden"? Do we say, "we are working with cultural heritage, but the cultural heritage of the future"? Do we protest? I might be wrong, but I don’t believe that the Swedes have a clear exit strategy, as a collective field. I don’t see it. I see examples of people who are thinking and talking about this, many of whom, like myself, have spent a lot of time working abroad and have seen how quickly things can change. But people are not really prepared for the possibility of change, and I think we need to decide where our loyalties lie. If you’re a government funded institution like the Arts Council, who are you working for, is your loyalty with the government or the artists? If you’ve made that decision, you will pretty much know how to handle a situation that comes up. But I feel like that reflection hasn’t been fully realised here, and that’s something I’d like to see figured out – how to create that awareness. At the moment, the only method I can think of is to keep up with what’s going on elsewhere.

One last question about funding: you mention that the institutions in Sweden are perhaps less well-funded than those in Norway and Denmark, but they are more stable. Can you tell us a bit more about that, and has that changed since 2018?

I don’t think it has changed that much. What it means is that institutions in Norway and Denmark have more money for what they do – in comparison to the number of people working there or their output, so they can pay fairly, etc. – but they are forced to constantly reapply for funding, which results in a situation where in December they don’t know if they will have funding in February. Or how much money they’ll have in February. So, it’s super difficult to plan anything, how do you plan for August when you don’t know what kind of budget you’ll have next year. You kind of must blindly trust that everything will work out in the end. Actually, I work for a cultural journal, and we have the same funding system; every year, we must apply for the following year’s funding. We are a 129-year-old journal, and we don’t know how much money we’ll have for the coming year until December. And that’s also pretty much the case for kunsthalles in Norway and Denmark.

If it’s any consolation, we usually find out the results for the year around March. So, you’ve got peak season, because everything happens between May and October. And it’s a frenzy. But it’s not even the worst, because I heard terrible stories about some other countries in the Balkans, they get some kind of a decision and a contract in spring, but then they have to finance everything with their own money and wait for a ministry to reimburse them. And these are, like, 35-year-old initiatives working with artists.

That sounds extremely stressful, and it must be difficult to create some sort of continuity in that situation. In case of many kunsthalles in Sweden, they seem to have two to three-year plans, and even though many of them are stressed and don´t have a proper overview, they still “trust the system,” so to speak. Another solution, especially in Norway, is to have multiple projects that run on different timelines so that you can overlap your funding and you don’t end up with an empty account. But it’s clear that the Norwegians and Danes are much more stressed over this ever-shrinking knowledge horizon. And I think this relates to the continuity we discussed earlier, because applying for money also entails reporting on what you’ve done. And you don’t want to report that you did something that didn’t work out so well, because then you’re worried that you won’t get any money next year. And what happens is that, even you made some mistakes that are interesting, you never tell your peers about them because you believe that you need to keep quiet in order to sustain yourself. That’s a catch that can be quite destructive to the will to experiment, curiosity, possibility of failure, etc. And to always have more visitors than the previous year. We’re stuck in that kind of logic.

When we wrote the report, it was very clear that the institutions think they know what the funders expected of them, and that was very much within this logic, which in turn affects how they talk about what they do. But, when you talk to some of the funders, it turns out that this actually isn’t what they want; the funders are much happier to receive qualitative reports. After all, they’re your peers, and that’s something that people forget, that the people reading this are also professionals. In the mindset of these institutions, there’s this projection that, since their funders are giving them money, they just want to know how the money is spent. There’s definitely a misunderstanding when it comes to this issue, and I believe that everyone involved would benefit from a clearer articulation.

The last two questions focus on the issues of governance – not just on the governing structure, but also on practices of daily management and the conceptualization of the power distribution within institutions. So, as a starting point, who is typically included in the governance of these institutions, and are there any prevalent models or schemes?

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a very standard way of how to organise stuff – with the board, its chairman, etc. Some of these institutions have advisory boards, which are made up of external people connected to them. There are some quite interesting examples of people trying to do things differently, such as the Index Foundation in Stockholm, which has an advisory board comprised of teenagers. But, in general, the dominant model is a rigid one: you have a board of 5 to 7 people, artistic and financial directors, producers, possibly a lawyer, curators… In most places, this is a very classic model.

So, when we talk about risk-taking, experimentation and innovation, would you say that these manifest more as a programmatic or curatorial thing, or can they be related to how these places are governed and managed as well?

Well, this is the criticism we try to lay out in the report – there's business as usual and then there's programming, and very often, these things are not integrated. Going back to the earlier question of crossing the lines, getting the theatre to work with the kunsthalle or the library – that’s the problem. One needs to look at the entire structure, as there are also questions of representation, gender, ethnicity… All these things can influence the programme. But what I find challenging is coming up with a model for governing your institution in close proximity to artists and maintaining that sensibility. 

For me, art doesn’t show anything new. It shows me what’s right in front of me, but in a new way; it skews my perspective or shifts my gaze. It makes me smell something that I've only ever seen with my eyes. And if you have that close to you all the time in a situation of governance, then it should come by itself. If we nurture this sensitivity, I think it will come quite naturally. 

Objavio/la hana [at] kulturpunkt.hr 07.02.2022