I felt that I had only scratched the surface of understanding the life of artists in Norway, and so contacted a couple of people after my return to the UK, hoping that a few questions by email might fill in the gaps and wouldn’t be too onerous for the people I was asking. I wasn’t expecting the incredible generosity of artist Nicholas John Jones from PRAKSIS, who offered me ‘an hour on Skype’ which turned into two. Nicholas is another Brit who decamped to Norway just over two years ago. He wanted to create a means for artists to develop through collaboration and cross-cultural exchange, and Oslo offered the opportunity to do it. PRAKSIS was established as a not-for-profit organisation in 2015. They ‘work with experienced creative professionals and organisations to facilitate thematically focused, supportive communities of local and international practitioners and thinkers of all career stages without charge’ … and aim ‘to open the artistic process up to a wide audience, and encourage a deeper engagement with and understanding of contemporary art – getting people excited about what artists do, not just what they produce … Community – local, national and international – is key’.
We had a long chat about the situations in the UK and Norway – particularly interesting as Nicholas has deep knowledge of both and is therefore well able to compare. We talked about Brexit and the possibilities for the UK as we are likely to leave the EU soon. Many people talk about the idea of a ‘Norway model’ for the UK and I asked if he thought this might be a possible concept in terms of how artists will continue to be a part of Europe. Norway is not in the EU but is part of the EEA through which it pays subsidies and maintains open borders, so artists and others are free to move and inviting visiting artists is not a problem. The situation in Norway, however, is very different from the UK. Norway was traditionally quite poor until North Sea Oil was discovered, whereupon the government had the foresight to invest the profits back into society – hence the very high standard of living for all Norwegians, with social care, creches etc. They pay for it in high taxes but it seems to make for a more equal society.
The artists’ stipend is less than half of an average salary in Norway and won’t keep you in a life of luxury, but it does allow artists to stop chasing work just to pay some of the bills and thus have more time to create. It is competitive and there is a sense that you have to give something back, that there is some kind of social responsibility involved. As seems to be the case in a lot of places, however, Norwegian politics is also moving to the right, the current government doesn’t recognise culture in the same way, and the feeling is this stipend may disappear.
The question we have to ask ourselves is what is important to us as a society? Do we in the UK want the traditional starving, stressed artists living on the breadline but making ‘Great Art’ or do we want a happy society? I think even artists are sometimes guilty of corroborating the myth that only suffering produces good art.
If we want our government to listen to us and support the arts then we need to organise and unionise – the Artists’ Union (NBK) is very strong in Norway and this is one of the main reasons why cultural funding remains as good as it is. Norway is small enough that artists can and do have direct contact with politicians, so perhaps lobbying is easier. There are the beginnings of this happening in the UK: A-N has been working along these lines and acting as the artists’ union in all but name, and the Artists Union England has formed, though seems not to have gained the necessary traction so far. If there is resistance to paying union fees, we could follow the same model as the Norwegians – union membership gives free or reduced price entry into all major exhibitions and there could be any number of other benefits included. In addition, in Norway any piece of art over £200 has 5% tax taken which goes into a fund for artists. There is an understanding that tax should be used for culture. Perhaps we need to set up something similar. This is unlikely to come from the government, but perhaps wealthy successful artists could be persuaded to put something into a fund which is never spent but which makes investments and is used to help fund artists, rather like a community energy scheme.
I recognise a cynical resistance to this in myself: ‘it wouldn’t work, who would put into it?’ and I think this is exactly the problem here. Many of us have tried for so many years to change things that the energy for new schemes runs out. It’ll require a big effort from all of us, and supporting those (perhaps younger artists who aren’t yet so jaded!) who are trying to make things better. Those who have success need to support those still trying.
We also need to communicate our importance to society better. We need to feed off the interest in art that Tate and other organisations have seen – contemporary art is no longer reserved for an elite or for an exclusive few. As long at it is affordable (free or cheap entry to see shows, not just buying it), we have proven that anyone can be touched by good art.
Perhaps one of the most encouraging points of talking with Nicholas was that this whole conversation happened without either of us travelling. The internet cannot replace face-to-face meeting, that’s still a unique and important experience, but we have an incredible power to connect with other people even if travel becomes harder in the future.
Huge thanks to A-N The Artists Information Company for the travel bursary, to Galleri Svalbard for the welcome and beautiful place to stay, to Andy Hodson for his knowledge and generosity and all the staff and students on AG340 2017, to the Leverhulme Trust, everyone in the Geography Department at Sheffield University and to all the artists and art professionals in Norway that I’ve contacted.