Visibility and Impact of Contemporary Art in Contemporary Society

Dr Johanna Vakkari, the Finnish Institute’s Head of Arts & Culture Programme, blogs about Institute’s new project.
The Institute launches a new project
Helsingin Sanomat, the leading newspaper in Finland, published an article 26 June 2014  about  the Finnish small and medium large companies’ sponsorship. (Heiskanen 2014). Only 2% of the interviewed directors or proprietors of these companies would support art and culture, while 42% would support sport, 18% health and 15% children’s activities. Does this tell something about the lack of visibility of contemporary art, or art in general, in Finland? Or is it that companies don’t believe that sponsoring art would improve their own visibility while sport is always seen as a solid investment?  Is contemporary art seen as something difficult to approach or something only catering to a specific group? We do have museum collections, galleries, works of art exposed permanently or temporarily in public spaces, environmental art and different kinds of art events, but perhaps all this should be opened even more to the public and to decision-makers.
With this blog series we aim to start a discussion about the reasons and institutional structures that help or prevent the visibility and impact of contemporary art in Finland, Great Britain and Ireland.  We will explore the similarities and differences between these countries and cultures and analyse the art field and different organisations in it.
In which ways should artists themselves and art organisations such as museums and galleries act to improve the visibility of contemporary art?  What is the status of contemporary art in the media? Do the funders in public and private sector highlight enough those artists, artistic projects and events they are supporting? If yes, what kind of effect does it have to the visibility and impact of art and what does it mean to the social status of the supporting institute?
During 2014–2016 The Finnish Institute in London will organise discussions and events focusing on these topics. We will also invite visiting writers like artists, art critics as well as representatives of museums, galleries and funders to present their views. In addition, there will be a series of short video interviews published in this blog.
Background and Research
The visibility of art is closely related to the social status of artists. How does the public view them and how do they themselves understand their role in society? There has been a great body of research published in the fields of cultural policy and sociology on artists’ working conditions and incomes and the support policy of art in Finland since the 1970s. Only a few scholars have dealt with the visibility and impact of art in society.
One of the important new study reports is The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society published by the Arts Council in England (2014). It contains important statistics and confronts the situation in various countries. The impact of arts and culture is considered in four fields: economy, health and wellbeing, society and education.
Traditionally artists have been seen in an idealistic light as bohemian, charismatic personalities, geniuses, rather living outside of society than taking part in it. From this point of view artistic ability is seen as an innate talent where education only has a minor importance. Another way is to consider art as a profession, which needs an education just like any other occupation. This doesn’t exclude importance of talent  – not anyone can become an artist as much as anyone can become e.g. a master chef, mathematician or surgeon.
In a way this old romantic vision is still working because it helps artists to make an impression. However young generations of artists see art mostly as a profession. To become an artist requires education, advancement of one’s own identity and a lot of knowledge of the national and international art field and capacity to join different networks. Finnish artists, in general, are highly educated, most of them have university degrees, many have completed artists’ pedagogical studies and many have done a part of their studies abroad. (Karttunen 2009; Houni & Ansio 2013; Rensujeff 2014). In a contradictory way it seems that the education has a relatively remote effect to the artist’s social state, or to their standing as experts and in consequence to their visibility. 
In the survey on the opinions of Finnish people on culture, ordered by the Finnish Cultural Foundation in 2013, more than 8000 people of different age groups living in different parts of Finland were interviewed.  (Suomalaisten näkemykset kulttuurista 2013). Since the survey was not limited to contemporary art but included literature, music and visual arts both older and contemporary, as well as popular culture, it is not comprehensive from our point of view, but it still gives some hints about the attitudes of Finns in this field too. It was clear that both contemporary art and contemporary music were the fields most unfamiliar for the interviewees.
According to the results the most important purposes of art were:
1. Improving people’s lives by offering aesthetic and emotional experiences, consolation, sharing, contributing to health and emotional wellbeing.
2. Changing the world, highlighting social issues, breaking down barriers, promoting social values and depicting the world as it is.
3. Some of the interviewees however thought art had an independent purpose in itself, which doesn’t need to have any other specific goals or justifications – art for art’s sake.
In short, on one hand art is considered as a tool for realising something else, on the other, it is seen as an autonomous field with its own values.
The second point is interesting when confronting it to the survey made by the British Museums Association in 2013 on Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society. Museums, of course, are a different issue compared to art and artists, but the British public did not buy easily the politically or socially active role of museums. If the public opinion is that museums are not appropriate environments in which to hold controversial debates, neutral places without any political standpoint, how could such contemporary art, which challenges social or political opinions be exposed in museums?
Also the first task mentioned in the Finnish report fights against opinions on the purposes of museums. Fostering a sense of community and helping those in need were seen as low priority purposes among the Brits. People were afraid that they would divert museums away from essential purposes. The fact is, though, that nowadays many museums collaborate with artists in community work and together with artists create projects aimed for various specific groups.
In Ireland the Arts Council made a similar survey in 2006 as the Finnish Cultural Foundation’s report, interviewing 1210 people living around the Republic of Ireland. (The Public and the Arts). The questionnaire was different from the Finnish one, covering more fields of art but also in this case the survey did not deal specifically with contemporary art and culture and doesn’t give a clear panorama about people’s attitudes on it.  However, from the charts published in the report, one can see that people had frequented more those events that could be defined as entertainment than those, which could be defined as experimental or “high culture”, the latter being though an old fashioned and normative concept which I find out dated and rather not use.
Irish attitudes towards the arts were very positive. Arts were seen important in education, three quarters of interviewees thought that art amenities should be given as much support as sports amenities, almost all believed that arts play an important and valuable role in modern society, and seven out of ten believed that spending on arts should be safeguarded in times of economic recession.  It would be interesting to see how opinions have changed after the economic crisis in Ireland, as so often art and culture are the first areas to suffer cuts during economic decline.
About the contemporary art scene
The Finnish visual artists Minna L. Henriksson has studied art scene of several cities, as for example of Istanbul, Ljubljana, Belgrade and Helsinki, creating sort of maps on the communication between different members in it. (  In this project we are doing a slightly similar research by mapping the individuals and organisations, which in contemporary art scene influence to the visibility of art and its impact in society. The diagram below is one example for visualizing this.
Please send to our blog your own maps or diagrams.
The next blog post will look more closely the use of contemporary art in welfare services and creative industries and also the methods for bringing it closer to the public. Soon we will also publish a post about the impact of prizes to the visibility of contemporary art. 
Heiskanen, Reetta 2014. Vanhukset ja taide eivät avaa kukkaroita. Helsingin Sanomat26.6.2014.
Houni, Pia & Ansio, Heli 2013. Taiteilijan työ. Taiteilijan hyvinvointi taidetyön muutoksessa. Helsinki: Työterveyslaitos.
Karttunen, Sari 2009. Kun lumipallo lähtee pyörimään. Nuorten kuvataiteilijoiden kansainvälistyminen 2000-luvun alussa. Helsinki: Taiteen Keskustoimikunta.
The Public and the Arts 2006. Dublin: The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaion, 2006.
Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society. A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association March 2013.
Suomalaisten näkemykset kulttuurista 2013. Helsinki: SKR, 2013.
Suomalaisten näkemykset kulttuurista 2013: Vaikuttuneisuus taiteilijoista ja tyylisuunnista. Helsinki: SKR, 2013.
Rensujeff, Kaija 2014. Taiteilijan asema 2010. Taiteilijakunnan rakenne, työ ja tulonmuodostus. Helsinki: Taiteen edistämiskeskus.
The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society. An evidence review. Manchester: Arts Council in England. 2014.

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