It’s a brilliant time to visit Oslo, but it’s not a brilliant time to visit Oslo if you are hoping to meet a lot of Oslo artists. It’s July and ‘the whole of Oslo is on holiday in July’ as one artist told me, so after many understandably unanswered emails and messages, I leave things up to chance and go with the flow. The flow brings me to Tori Wrånes at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Nasjonalmuseet) and her brilliant troll-filled Hot Pocket and Track of Horns. Strange chimeras of legs and rucksacks and wings, pink and blue bulbous beanbags, oars, flutes and haunting songs. I resist video art, which generally has all the fun sucked out of it, but Tori squishes it all back in and then some.

On one of the islands in Oslo’s harbour there are permanent artists’ studios and a temporary gallery, run by Kunstwerket, open in summer when their Oslo city gallery is shut. There was some stunning and thoughtful work by the resident artists (including Anne Karin Jortweit, looking at invasive plant species and their properties and Kari Steihaug, also working in textiles and the plants of the island) and it was interesting chatting to the gallery assistant, who, like the gallery, lives a double life working in Norway and studying art history in London. Talking to her was a reminder to me of what the UK still has to offer: we have an internationally renowned art market and world-respected art schools. We produce brilliant artists and can attract people to study and work here in art, because we are seen to be at the heart of the creative world. So why does it feel such an uphill battle to make a living as an artist in this country?

Helen Eriksen from Tenthaus was generous enough to squeeze in a cup of tea and a look round the studios with me, in between her holidays. Tenthaus work a lot with schools and have a toolkit on how to be ‘an artist in school, not a school artist’. It’s a socially engaged practice and is also looking at how to work with migrants and promote women artists. It would be idealising to think the Norwegians have this more sorted than in the UK, but it’s refreshing to know that there are inspirational groups working on these questions. Artists in Norway have been able to apply for guaranteed stipend or wages from the government to allow them to concentrate on their art, which seems unbelievably sensible to someone coming from the UK, but opinion is divided as to whether this makes artists simply too reliant on the state. The Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) offers grants for practitioners with an invitation to participate in an exhibition or project abroad. Then they also apply to Arts Council Norway, who have bigger budgets. These two institutions are both state funded. In Norway there is no tradition of private money in the arts, but that is exactly what the current Conservative government is trying to change, with initiatives such as Talent Norge and Kreativ Norge. OCA also has a new grant scheme, which supports galleries, which in the end will help artists sell their work.


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.


I’d been so engrossed in Oslo, I’d forgotten to tell Elda at Galleri Svalbard when I’d be arriving, but figured that any slightly Wild North place like this would attract people who are problem-solvers and, sure enough, wonderful Elda had simply left the key in the door of my room and a pile of bedding ready for me. I met her the next morning and she lived up to all expectations: friendly, lovely, generous and intelligent; she contacted people on my behalf and provided insider-knowledge of the town. Elda used to run a gallery in Berlin, her work here was slightly different, to put it mildly, but she helped to make me feel at home.

A town of 2000 permanent residents, whose population can triple when one of the giant cruise ships comes in bringing tourists from around the world, Longyearbyen is a strange mix of coalmines, a university (mostly studying the effects of climate change from burning fossil fuels), and shiny shops selling trinkets to tourists. Everyone seems to have 3 jobs, you are not allowed to give birth or die here and if you walk more than 100 metres from the edge of town you need to carry a rifle.

Galleri Svalbard run self-funded residencies, providing accommodation and studios (some of the best value in town in a beautiful shared apartment at the top end of the valley). There is a gallery with a permanent art collection, a library, temporary exhibitions and workspaces for local artists. Make sure you are aware of the safety issues in the Arctic (mainly polar bears) and that travel is very difficult and expensive around Svalbard. Do your research.

I visited Artica Svalbard in the unmarked building next to the Fire Station, fending off attacks by ground-nesting arctic terns, which take over the streets of downtown Longyearbyen each year.  Artica Svalbard ‘intends to promote discussions and thinking about the Arctic and its importance concerning questions of resources, nature, technology, society, culture and geopolitics … both internationally and within the circumpolar region’, and is partnered with OCA, Norwegian PEN, Queen Sonja Print Award, North Norway Art Museum and Kunsthall Svalbard. It’s a brilliant addition to Longyearbyen, which for a tiny town has a vibrant cultural life, with cinema and library, art galleries, workshops and residencies. Along with The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), which has world-class scientific research and teaching about the cryosphere, it really feels like Longyearbyen punches above its weight intellectually. Artica Svalbard has collaborated with Polar Permaculture, Galleri Svalbard and the library and it will be interesting to see the outcome of its international residencies. Audhild Dahlstrøm of Artica Svalbard spent 18 years in the UK and loves the ‘let’s just do it’ attitude of the Brits. In contrast to the idea of relying on government subsidies and funding to make art, her philosophy is based on years of working with colleagues who said ‘we never have enough money, but we’ll just do it anyway, because it needs to happen’. I think that’s been my attitude, too, but I’m increasingly worried by the burn-out that seems to happen when people ‘just do it’ for years and still have to feed themselves and their families.

I spent August hiking up mountains and glaciers, learning to use a rifle safely to prevent polar bear attacks, recording the sound of methane, assisting in cutting-edge science involving tea-bags and cryoconites, being caught in white-out blizzards on ice-caps and driving deep into the heart of a frozen mountain to visit a working coal-mine, where ice crystals grow on the coal-face. I am now deep inside the Geography Department at Sheffield on the Leverhulme residency, making work from my research in Svalbard. You can see the results of the residency in ice report and there will be a public exhibition in March 2018 in Sheffield.


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.


Another thing about Norway is that, with a population of ‘only’ around 5.3 million, everyone is more likely to know everyone else. It turns out that Helen from Tenthaus knows sound artist Jana Winderen, whose work at SALT I had heard the morning I met Helen. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone was stunning, even more so listening to it alone with fresh coffee in a specially constructed wooden amphitheatre/sauna (I heard it unheated) overlooking Oslo harbour. I had arrived early at SALT to guarantee a place among the hordes I was sure would be there for this prestigious Arts Council Norway-funded installation. At 11.10am, ten minutes after it should have opened, I wandered around the empty site until I found someone serving in the cafe. He wasn’t the person who was supposed to run it, but happily found a key, opened it up and together we worked out how to turn on the sound system. I sat in a dream world under the ocean with Jana and in Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault in a piece by Signe Lidén.

My stay in Oslo was coming to an end, and I’d had my fill of city life, craving the strange intimacy that only wilderness can provide, so after peering through the windows of all the other galleries I wouldn’t get to see, I got on a plane to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.