Comment | A Common Goal: Arts Funding in Wales & Finland

Comment | A Common Goal: Arts Funding in Wales & Finland

Tanja Råman was born in Finland. She trained as a dancer at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds and gained her MSc Dance Science at Laban, London and PgC in Teaching in Higher Education at Cardiff Met. Alongside her freelance choreographic, performance and teaching work, Tanja also runs a not-for-profit dance and digital art organisation – TaikaBox – together with digital artist/designer John Collingswood. In 2014, Tanja received her third Creative Wales award from the Arts Council of Wales to undertake an intensive period of choreographic and performance research. Her previous research focused on developing her ground-breaking ideas of applying dance science in her choreographic practice in working with freelance dancers. Tanja’s Creative Wales Ambassador award expanded her research into developing work internationally and exploring production frameworks between Wales and Finland. In 2015, Tanja and John moved to Northern Finland and registered TaikaBox there to create a dual base for the company and an artistic bridge between the two countries.

Since moving to Finland last Summer I have been beginning to learn about how the Finnish arts sector works. After making work as a freelance choreographer and running an arts organisation in Wales for a few years, I have a pretty good understanding of arts funding for individuals and organisations there. It has been fascinating to peek into two very different ways of supporting the arts and to try to understand how they function in practice and how they influence an artist’s work and life. I don’t claim to be a specialist in fundraising, but I have written my fair share of successful applications to the Arts Council of Wales. I am only a novice in the Finnish funding system. The following observations are based on my experiences of trying to weave my way through the arts funding jungle as an independent choreographer and artistic director of a not-for-profit organization in Wales and in Finland.

I must say that I have never written as many funding applications in my life as I have since moving to Finland nine months ago. Although, generally, the amounts applied for per project in Finland are smaller than in Wales, there is an enormous amount of sources that you can apply to. I doubt that I have even come across all the options yet. Sometimes I feel that I get too stuck in front of the laptop and I have to remind myself that I am a dance artist and that I need to move.

Regardless of producing (what feels like) hundreds of applications to various Finnish funding bodies, I have only succeeded in gaining one travel grant. You cannot gain any feedback from the funders either and therefore I don’t know whether I am getting it all completely wrong or whether the lack of success is relating to the fact that I am new to the scene and I don’t have a track record in this country. Many people keep encouraging me and saying that I need to keep applying, so that the funders start recognising my name, or that I will get lucky and one of the many will bring some money. These comments make me feel slightly worried about the potential ad-hoc nature of the success. The Finns take their time to warm-up to new people and I wonder whether the Finnish funding bodies are too scared to take risks with newcomers. Perhaps due to the vast volume of applications, the newbies are the easy ones to be dropped off from the competition first. No questions asked.

The wonderful thing about Finnish arts funding (at least at the moment) is the possibility of freelance artists applying for working grants. For me these sound like a dream come true. They are meant to give artists a regular wage to do their artistic work based on a work plan that they submit as the application. The funders don’t ask for a budget – the fee is fixed, it is designed to pay your rent and living expenses for a fixed term, freeing an artist up to be able to create art. These grants vary from half a year to year, three years, five years and in some cases up to ten years. Incredible! As an outsider stepping into this system, a grant like this would make me want to become an evangelist of dance and make sure that dance (through projects, classes, workshop, broadcasts etc.) was available to every single person in the 50km radar from me. I would be that happy. I just have to keep writing and roll the dice.

Finnish funding bodies are incredibly slow to make their decisions, which I am very surprised as the society otherwise seems to work so swiftly. It can easily take three months or longer to hear anything back. There are also clear deadline hotspots during the year when everything needs to be submitted. You have a one-month window to access the application online to submit it. The reasoning behind this (according to one website) is that it is fairer to the applicants. I can’t see how – apart from that this procedure creates obvious natural selection amongst the applicants. You simply cannot make several good applications within that time limit. I also sense general tension building amongst artists as they wait for the results of their applications after 3-4 months from the submission. I am sure this is not good for the artists’ mental health. It feels like your whole life is being decided there and then.

In Wales, you are usually limited to a small number of applications that you can possibly make during a year, as well as there is no such thing as a working grant. A Creative Wales award comes closest to the working grant as it focuses on supporting the artists’ development more than – or as well as – creating a project/product. Operating purely on restricted project-based funds can only pay a fraction towards the artists’ living and practicing their art in Wales in any given year. Creative ideas don’t just happen once a year either. Now that my eyes have been opened by another funding system, the Welsh (UK) system paints a bleak picture of the arts being seen as a part-time job or even just as a hobby that you do whilst you do your real, money-paying work. Not many artists can sustain themselves purely from making art in Wales. I am sad to say this as I know how hard the people in the arts in Wales have been working towards sustaining what is left there after recent funding cuts. But perhaps this tells more about British society overall and its lack of understanding of the arts – its usefulness, power and its contribution to the society as a whole and to the individual members of society.

The lovely thing about Welsh arts funding is that you can connect with the people who work there and gain their support. They really want you to create great projects and they are happy to have meetings with you and guide you in the application process. This is missing in Finland. Funding bodies here are faceless and nameless. No questions asked or answered. I find this quite old-fashioned and I don’t think it serves the arts as I believe that many good ideas will stay perhaps unarticulated and unfunded.

The Welsh funding system also seems to be a bit more flexible and dynamic, perhaps less hindered by heavy structures, than the Finnish one. In Wales, there is the possibility to apply for a smaller grant at any time. This is brilliant as you can test out your creative idea fairly quickly after it popped into your head rather than wait for a year to realise that you have already moved on or that it wasn’t that great after all.

I keep hearing that the Finnish funding system is about to change. As I haven’t got to grips with the system as it is at the moment, I have no clue what direction it might go. Wild feeling!

(Image credit: Rites for the Digital Shaman – photo by Antti Karppinen/Alias Creative; dancer: Tanja Råman)