20 September 1999                                  

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To be a Finnish art graduate in London -- or not to be? 

The art of the 21st century is obviously very much the art of young art graduates. London, with its cosmopolitan and lively cultural scene, attracts art students from all around the world. Stiina Honkamaa, who works as a trainee at the Finnish Institute, knew there were some Finns amongst them just starting their careers so she decided to meet some of them and find out their thoughts on art, Finland and London. (Art students’ comments are in Italics.)

One of the main reasons for studying art in London as opposed to Finland seems to be the quality of the teaching. And of course London attracts young art students because it's such fun: "For example if you think of street fashion in London, it is much more inspiring than in conservative Paris." London is also considered as a good forum for making contacts and there are great exhibitions going on all the time. In general it seems to be a better place for a young artist than many other cities: "In London, newcomers are taken relatively seriously; in Paris you already have to be someone to get any attention."

How do the markets differ from Finland then? Obviously everything is bigger. More opportunities, but also far more artists wanting to make it in London: "It’s harder to rise above the others here and get the attention of the media." But Brits are also in the same situation....or are they? "In every country there are nationalists. In London, they want to give jobs to English people. The most important thing, however, is to be professional and talk!" Sometimes the talking part and self-expression can be a problem for Finns, especially in a foreign language. However, it seems that young people are beginning to have an increasingly assertive approach towards communication. All too often, though, the same old lack of self-confidence is apparent: "In general, Finnish artists are talented and professional, but they don’t usually believe in themselves enough." The overall attitude in London does not make things any easier: "In general, British people are at least as jealous as Finnish people are. They keep information to themselves, they don’t want to help you with your career. Then again in America, everyone encourages you and leads you to the right contacts. They think if you make it, it’s good for the field and someone else will make it too."

"Everyone has been really interested in the fact that I come from Finland, I think it is an advantage." This is often the case, but the reverse is equally true. There are roughly two approaches to being an artist: to be "an artist from Finland" or just to be "an artist". The former emphasises "Finnishness" and usually takes its influences from traditional Finnish art. The influences for the latter are more international. This is of course a huge generalisation. Very often artists are "just themselves but are still aware of the enormous influence Finnish art has on their work with its simplicity and minimalism." The decision on which approach to take is usually not a conscious one. After all, the most important thing to an artist is simply to be able to concentrate on their work: "You have to be true to yourself and to your art. You cannot think about what other people will think. They all think differently anyway. Be what you are and make the best out of it." Either way is appropriate if an artist is talented, but he/she should have someone to adapt their work to the local culture and take care of the marketing.

"I don’t want to think about marketing too much, I just want to do my work as well as possible." But if you are a graduate just starting out on a career in London, where image and media relations carry more weight than in Finland, and you don't have the money to hire anyone to handle the marketing side, what do you do? "It’s all about who you know, but it usually happens naturally on school projects and during your traineeship." Very often young graduates gather together and hire work studios and establish galleries. Graduates have to find someone who is interested in their work and wants to show it. Fortunately there are exhibitions planned especially for new designers. But meeting the right people is still not easy. Sometimes what is needed is simply the luck to be in the right place at the right time. The media creates stars but it is also very unpredictable: "Sometimes it bothers me that the media has "pets" among young artists and creates hype around them. This might last for a couple of weeks but then you are forgotten in no time."

So it would seem that it's not easy to become a successful young artist in London, no matter what nationality you are. In a nutshell, to be successful, an artist has to be talented enough, want success enough to work hard, know the right people and be in the right place at the right time. It also helps if he/she has some understanding of marketing or has someone to handle it. Maybe we as an institute could help some of the potential art graduates with the start of their careers? Still, whatever happens, it seems to be a wise decision to study art in London: "Even if you don’t make it here, you are still hot property back in Finland. You don’t have to prove yourself back there that much anymore. I consider Finland as a sort of safety net, somewhere you can always go back to if you want."

The article is based on a series of interviews with young Finnish graduates from Central St Martins and The School of Fine Art in London who have studied in the departments of fashion, fine art and media.

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