A speech delivered by Anni Syrjäläinen, senior advisor at the Nordic Culture Fund, at ‘Look Up – Look North’ Nordic Foundations Conference, Copenhagen, November 2022.
The Nordic Culture Fund aims to promote and invest in international artistic and cultural co-operation. We wish to invest resources in obtaining more knowledge, supporting arts policy research, creating forums for international discussions and underlining the importance of transnational artistic and cultural exchange, as part of efforts towards achieving a more just and liveable future and the advancement of fundamental human rights.
In this presentation, I will talk about what we as a Nordic organisation, and as an arts and cultural foundation, view as important when building future, more sustainable societies. To do that, I will share some insights from our own strategic journey of recent years, highlight a couple of the concrete initiatives we are currently working on, and, finally, try to point out a few aspects that we have recognised as important for foundations to consider.
The Nordic Culture Fund was founded soon after the Second World War as an autonomous and independent organisation, with the aim of working internationally in the Nordic Region and beyond. The initiative to create the Fund was taken by the Nordic parliaments. The idea was born out of a strong belief that investing in arts and culture, and in cultural co-operation between countries, could contribute to cohesion and stability in the Nordic countries after the war.
In its organisation, the Nordic Culture Fund is anchored in political structures and in the implementation of these, which also makes us a unique body in the context of Nordic co-operation and cultural policy.
One of the pressing issues in our work has thus been to consider how we can use our position in a strategic way to contribute to a free, experimentational and sustainable field of art and culture.
We believe that in the urgencies of our time, we need to look at, understand and talk about society and the Nordic Region in new ways. That is why it is important to continually ask what the role of art and culture is in a new social and environmental context. And in the context of this conference: How can art and culture be made explicit, discussed and argued in debates on sustainability, and included in decision-making across policy fields?
In this respect we believe that culture is not just a topic of cultural policy; it should also inform and be integrated within all other policies, and seen as an important axis in all international cooperation.
We often find that politicians, experts, activists and artists around the world continue to look to the Nordic countries, because it seems as though we have found a solution to the increasing number of global challenges we are facing. That is understandable – and that was also in some respects the case in the past.
The worlds knows the Nordics as a success story of societal and economic transition: In just 150 years, the Nordic countries gone from being feudal, absolute monarchies to industrialised, democratic nation states. Instead of falling into war, our ancestors built institutions and welfare states and deliberately invested in cultural, moral and intellectual cultivation that allowed people to find meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging.
And now we are facing yet another transformation, but this one is even more fundamental and urgent than the previous one. Here we need to admit that not even the Nordic countries, which managed the previous transition so well, are sufficiently prepared for the challenges of the present time.
In a time when basically all divisions of knowledge are being re-examined, and the urgency and complexity of the challenges call for holistic solutions, stronger adaptation, agility and inter-governmental co-operation, it seems as though the very structures and institutions that we have developed are somehow standing on the way of doing what is necessary.
That is where the role of culture becomes so important. We tend to forget that the climate crisis, for example, is in fact a cultural crisis.
From that it follows that culture, which is to say cultural heritage, arts and the creative economy, museums and cultural spaces – all the things that forge our collective imagination and connect us to traditions, communities, history and our surroundings – should be placed at the centre of our global response.
It also means that for as long as cultural considerations fail to be included, the existing models of sustainable development that are forged on the basis of narrow economic or environmental concerns will simply remain too narrow, and are unlikely to be successful.
Several transnational and international organisations, such as UNESCO, United Cities and Local Government, and the Council of Europe, have recently advocated culture as an explicit aspect of sustainability. In September 2022, representatives from around the world gathered at a historic UNESCO world conference in Mexico City to find new ways to better incorporate the needs of culture into policy-making, and to promote its value and importance for the future of societies. In the final declaration of the conference, the member states explicitly acknowledged culture as a global public good, with an intrinsic value that can enable and drive inclusive, sustainable development. It also calls for culture to be included as a specific goal, in its own right, in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and development agenda beyond 2030.
We often hear that culture and art are considered to play a supportive or instrumental role in sustainable development; however, we believe, like many others, that they are the essential foundation and the critical infrastructure that can enable the necessary transition. But we urgently need new approaches, leadership, policies and practices to recognise and realise this potential.
In our work every day, we see artists, designers and activists who are connecting deeply to issues of the climate, justice and global, planetary health, rethinking our purpose and cultivating the meanings and sensitivities needed to think differently regarding a number of factors that have previously considered as given. We believe that as funders, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that decision-makers and policy-makers across the various sectors can follow suit.
So what is the role of a foundation in all this, and how can we work to incorporate a more future-oriented approach and a holistic perspective towards sustainability that will cover both the environmental, social and governance aspects? How can we, as a foundation, contribute meaningfully to twenty-first-century societal transformation?
These were some of the questions we asked ourselves when we were formulating our strategy back in 2018-2019. Although a lot has changed over the past four years, we recognised already back then that the developments and changes in our surroundings would not allow us to simply continue doing what we had done before. Instead, we asked how we ourselves could contribute to change, how we could develop more long-term, knowledge-based approaches that would build upon existing experience and address in new ways the connections of artistic and cultural ecosystems with their wider societal contexts.
The challenges we were talking about at that time related to the decreasing interest and investment in international cultural co-operation on a Nordic level, the unsustainability of internationalisation strategies, stagnating cultural policy and the structural challenges in the financing of arts and culture. We wanted to respond with agility, collaboration, a willingness to take risks, trust and proactiveness, grounded in a belief in the fundamental role of arts and culture in our societies.
Our approach was to build a strategy with four cross-cutting initiatives that would reflect the potentials and challenges we had identified. The key was to integrate them fully into our internal practices and governance structures – to make sure that we had effective and transparent decision-making structures that could support the work and maximise its value.
The four focus areas are:
One initiative on which we have worked throughout our strategy period, and which incorporates all of the focus areas, is our current thematic funding initiative, Globus.
With Globus we wished to demonstrate the importance of strengthening and maintaining the transnational character of art and culture in an increasingly turbulent and unstable world.
Globus has been our way of rethinking and challenging some of the structures, definitions and premises that have long shaped our understanding of and our way of supporting international cultural collaborations in Nordic contexts. There is for example the paradox that when applying for funding for international projects, your project needs to have a certain degree of national anchoring or aims. With Globus, we wished to shift the perspectives and cultivate a more open and inclusive approach. Instead of seeing national borders as the defining framework for artistic collaborations, we wanted to offer artists and cultural practitioners the opportunity to engage in wider transnational collaborations and long-term networks that would extend beyond the Nordic region and build upon genuine mutual exchange.
This has meant deliberately moving away from narrowly defined categories and replacing a unified, predefined Nordic framework and mindset with a stronger orientation towards specific local practices and contexts, while at the same time addressing their entanglement with their surroundings on a local, regional, global and even planetary scale.
The first open call was held in the autumn of 2022, and we can already see how this approach is helping to weave the Nordic countries into wider networks that connect actors from different parts of the Global North and the Global South, enabling work that engages transdisciplinary artistic creative methods with philosophical and scientific approaches, and building links with indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge and organisations when dealing with issues such as climate change and adaptation.
This is just to illustrate how, in our time, international cultural co-operation can re-shape our approach to achieving a sustainable and liveable future by connecting experiences and perspectives from different parts of the world – and linking them strongly to questions of global, social and environmental justice.
Finally, I would like to share a couple of ideas that we have learned on our journey, and which we view as important when thinking about the future of philanthropy within arts and culture:
We believe that our future depends on the ability of all organisations to not only react to changes in the world, but also to recognise and embrace the agency they hold, so as to intentionally build better societies in the future.
Systemic challenges such as climate change require decades-long commitment, but at the same time the increasing complexity and unpredictability of the world makes it difficult or even impossible to project trends into the future.
This creates new kinds of requirements towards strategy work and leadership in foundations, to enable us to combine more long-term actionable and societal visions and the ability to navigate uncertainty in our daily operations.
We need to increasingly start allowing ourselves to look beyond administrative borders and established categories within our funding practices and seek synergies between different funding initiatives. It is often at the intersections of areas that real change is possible, but unfortunately these areas are also those that have the greatest difficulty in obtaining funding within the existing funding structures.
We cannot simply rely on old, existing models and mechanisms when dealing with something that is as yet unknown. Allowing a higher degree of experimentation as a way of acquiring new learning and skills is a key factor in building resilience and adapting to new situations. This might for example mean developing impact assessment and evaluation methods with process-based approaches that are based on more ongoing gathering and application of real-life knowledge and experiences.
We need more collaborative and integrated approaches in which states and public bodies actively collaborate with international and regional organisations, local authorities, the private sector and civil society. We also see great potential in developing networks and connections across national borders, to help promote strategies, programmes and projects in order to benefit aims at a broader scale at Nordic and international level – and to provide concrete opportunities for knowledge sharing and analysis.