A Change to Norway’s Immigration Policy for Artists?

Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez is co-founder of Scandinavia’s only support network for foreign artists.

Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez. Photo: Kristian Skylstad.

Artists and cultural workers with a temporary residence permit in Norway find themselves faced with a lack of access to crisis support, including financial social assistance, unemployment benefits, and other support schemes. Thus claims Verdensrommet (or, “World Space”), a support network for foreign artists and cultural workers in Norway. The organisation works with future solutions for a group it believes falls between the cracks within the country’s bureaucratic structures for culture and immigration. 

Artist Rodrigo Ghattas-Pérez told Kunstkritikk: “The immigration system eats away at the other systems that are in place for artists to be able to establish themselves in Norway.” Ghattas-Pérez is originally from Peru and Palestine, but is based in Norway. Together with Canadian Oslo-based artist Gabrielle Paré he is the founder of Verdensrommet, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last Friday. In addition to Ghattas-Pérez, the working group consists of the artists Prerna Bishnoi, who is from India and is based in Trondheim; Oslo-based Bianca Hisse, from Brazil; and Bergen-based Anthony Morton, from South Africa. According to Ghattas-Pérez, some see their work with Verdensrommet as a part of their artistic practice, while others draw a sharper distinction between art and activism.

Semi-inclusive cultural politics

Artists and cultural workers who want to apply for a residence permit in Norway have three options. Those applying as skilled employees must comply with legal demands requiring them to have so-called ‘ordinary employment’, meaning a full-time position and an annual income of at least NOK 397,100 (EUR 39,000) before tax. If applying as self-employed, the applicant cannot take a job outside their own industry and must earn at least NOK 253,378 (EUR 25,000) a year. Those who cannot meet these requirements can get a temporary residence permit for one year at a time as a musician, artist, or similar. This category is intended to cater for those who have offers of temporary work in Norway, and requires applicants to document offers of employment for a specific continuous period of time with one or more employers or clients. Verdensrommet supports those who belong to this particular category.

State Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs Vegard Einan (Conservative) understands the tough situation in which the artists find themselves, but believes that negative socio-economic consequences will follow if a renewed residence permit is granted to people who no longer meet the conditions for their original permit. As unemployment rates in Norway are currently high, Einan thinks workers from third countries (countries outside the EU/EEA) should not be a burden on the Norwegian welfare system: “We have no assurance that everyone who has been temporarily laid off or lost their income during the pandemic will return to work. Based on this, the government has chosen not to make an exception from the income requirement for people who have been temporarily laid off or lost their income during the pandemic.”

Ghattas-Pérez is critical of what he calls a “semi-inclusive cultural policy” where foreign artists are considered an expense and social burden without taking into account what they potentially contribute to the Norwegian economy. He sees two opposing political agendas in play: “On the one hand, you have government-driven efforts towards internationalisation and profiling of the art field and work on diversity within the cultural sector. On the other hand, you have regulations working against it by toughening immigration laws and ‘shielding’ the welfare system from non-EU artists.”

Solutions for an uncertain future

The group has issued a call to the Norwegian authorities, demanding adjustments to the immigration regulations. The initial goal is to change the immigration policy for artists, primarily by introducing an artist’s visa that reflects the complex work situation of artists and cultural workers. Among other things, this would provide the opportunity to combine self-employment and paid work. The group also works to highlight fundamental weaknesses in cultural policy. Ghattas-Pérez believes that politicians and bureaucrats generally fail to understand how artists work: “The challenge is to help the authorities understand that the platform for art is diverse. Meaning that artists work with forms of production beyond studio-based traditional art practices. And that their income relies precisely on this flexible way of working.”

As yet, Verdensrommet has functioned as a resource centre for foreign artists with a temporary residence permit in Norway, with a special focus on citizens from countries outside the EU/EEA. Now it is collaborating with a lawyer to develop a strategy for its lobbying activities. One ambition, Ghattas-Pérez said, is to find future solutions from which the rest of the art and culture scene can also benefit in times of crisis. “It’s urgent that artists look into cultural politics and find ways to have a political influence. Verdensrommet wants to improve working conditions for practicing artists and find sustainable ways of living, both for artists and others,” he said. 

Similar pressure in Denmark

Norway has the strictest requirements in Scandinavia within this field. In Sweden, the minimum requirement regarding annual income in order to qualify for a residence permit is SEK 156,000 (EUR 15,000). The Danish regulations do not state any specific minimum wage requirements, only that the applicants income must not be “lower than is normal within the given field.” Like Norway, Denmark does not provide access to temporary crisis support to those with temporary residence permits.

Kunstkritikk has been in contact with labour organisations working within the field of art in Sweden and Denmark, but has not found any that work specifically with the rights of artists with temporary residence permits, although several expressed sympathy with Verdensrommet. Among them is Scott William Raby, an artist based in Aalborg, Denmark; he is a board member of the Organisation for Artists, Curators, and Art Mediators (UKK) as well as of the Aalborg’s Artist Association (AAAA) and the Danish Visual Artists Association’s (BKF) northern chapter.

Raby does not have a permanent residence permit in Denmark, so he recognises the challenges facing foreign artists in Norway. Although his residence permit imposes no requirements regarding minimum income, he finds himself under continuous pressure to be active because he cannot receive financial social assistance, without putting his status at risk. “It is quite mentally and physically draining dealing with these constant economic and legal requirements that I have to manage as an immigrant, but with less of a support structure than the rest of the society has in which to do so,” Raby told Kunstkritikk.

Based on a survey among the members of a total of eight Danish cultural organisations, UKK has prepared seven proposals for reopening the art world. The proposals were launched on 12 March this year, and Raby hopes they will prompt positive changes for the art field in general, including for citizens from outside the EU.

Same right to crisis support as everyone else

Stefan Ahlenius is an expert on issues regarding the economic and social conditions of artists, and works at the Swedish Arts Grants Committee (Konstnärsnämnden), a government agency. He told Kunstkritikk that in Sweden, all working artists have the right to apply for crisis support, regardless of whether they have a permanent residence permit: “They have, like everyone else in Sweden, had the opportunity to apply for the crisis support and subsidy schemes made available to companies and employees here. All artists who work in Sweden have also had the opportunity to apply for special cultural support distributed by the Arts Grants Committee and others.”

Internationalisation is one of the Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s focus areas, and Ahlenius noted that it works with this field through residency schemes and travel grants. In addition, it is in the process of further developing the handbook The Artists’ Guide, which includes information on visas and residence permits for artists from countries outside the EU/EEA.

Verdensrommet has been in contact with three or four networks that emerged at around the same time in the Netherlands, but Ghattas-Pérez has not yet come across similar advocacy groups in Sweden and Denmark. He would, however, like to see Verdensrommet connect with similar initiatives in neighbouring countries, stating that: “We welcome allies who would like to help create a blueprint for how we can emerge from current crises by shaping new community economies as well as by putting solidarity at the heart of artistic and social debates.”