Confessions of an Arts Officer

by Jali Wahlsten

Ask any serious Finnish contemporary artist what she or he thinks about the Finnish cultural institutes abroad. In the first place, they may not know what the institutes do exactly, but the most common answer will be something like the following: "They are obscure Finnish outposts that mount exhibitions or stage concerts for established Finnish artists. These events are attended mainly by the local Finnish community, who can enjoy their Karelian pies in pleasant and safe surroundings. What would I need an institute for? I want to make it in the real world."

As promoters of Finnish arts, Finnish cultural institutes seem to have a severe image problem. They lack credibility. This has lead to a lack of ambition in their strategies for promoting Finnish arts. The cultural institute model has not been able to cope with an ever more fragmented marketplace of contemporary culture. Instead of being a serious player and a help for an ambitious Finnish artist abroad, our role is seen as an "arts travel agency" working on an ad hoc basis. We Finns are not alone in experiencing this problem. Similar critical comments have been directed at the big cultural organisations like the British Council or the Goethe Institut.

If you cannot win over quality artists and other creative people, you do not have a product to promote. This becomes even more critical when your country is the size of Finland. It is very unlikely that Finland would produce a constant stream of top artists. More likely there would be a bright new spark every decade or so to complement the perpetual recycling of Jean Sibelius and Alvar Aalto. That means that the only way that the arts officer of a cultural institute can justify his/her role is to make his/her work accountable. Is she or he able to create extra opportunities for artists with international potential, and does she/he make the right decisions on where to put the institute's resources?

As success in the arts world requires recognition in a specialist media, I have taken media coverage as a barometer for evaluating the current status of Finnish artists in Britain. In trying to anticipate these bright sparks of contemporary Finnish culture, the Finnish Institute will try to support those artists whom it judges to have true media potential. By supporting artists like Jimi Tenor and Panasonic, for example, most Finns would think that we deal with marginal artists, but in Britain these names are as mainstream as they ever will be for Finns in Britain.

In saying that I assume that everything from Finland is marginal from a British point of view, it follows that it does not matter if the artist in question has been successful in Finland or not. The only thing that matters is that they should make an impact among British audiences and media. Full-page features on Jimi Tenor and Panasonic in succeeding issues of the world's leading pop music paper, The New Musical Express, is beyond all traditional expectations regarding Finnish popular music. Minor news for the British music business, but a significant boost to the self-esteem of Finnish pop music.

We Finns do not necessarily need our own Björk or a similar popular icon to represent our culture to an international audience, but we need the enthusiasm to heighten our ambitions. As in sport, "the best way to learn is to get to play with the good ones". Usually that also means that you have to leave your old team-mates behind and start from a new level. Our reason for existence at the Finnish Institute is to find these "good ones" to play with. If we don't, we are of little use to the system.

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