On 27–28 April, the first conference of the newly established Arts and Culture Magazines Publishers Forum was held in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. The initiators behind the forum are the independent organisation Artnews.lt, which runs the Lithuanian online magazine of the same name, the English-language online magazine Echo Gone Wrong, which covers the art scene in all three Baltic countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the art book publisher Artbooks.lt.
For Vaida Stepanovaitė, editor-in-chief of Artnews.lt, and Vitalija Jasaitė, editor-in-chief of Echo Gone Wrong, the motivation for creating such a forum was that they saw a need to establish more tangible and permanent connections to other art magazines in order to be able to discuss organisational working processes and issues, share knowledge and resources, and strengthen regional and international publishing through mutual cooperation.
It is too early to say what will come out of this Nordic-Baltic network. But after the first conference – in which Kunstkritikk participated alongside the English-language Estonian magazine A Shade Colder, the Latvian art yearbook WunderKombināts, the Finnish online magazine Edit, the Icelandic magazine Myndlist, and the Norwegian Art Yearbook – it is clear that despite the differences between the various publications and countries we have many overlapping interests and face similar challenges.
In particular, financial uncertainty was a point of concern and interest for all participants. Regardless of size and location, all forum participants depend on a hodgepodge of project income to fund their work. Everyone wanted less financial stress, more stability and security, and were keen to put an end to the exploitation of cultural workers – including self-exploitation. For example, Artnews.lt reported that they currently have seven or eight different projects keeping them afloat. Despite their position in Lithuanian and Baltic art life, they have no basic funding for their operation.
Some of the forum participants also took part in a panel discussion on art criticism at the Lithuanian National Gallery, where the issue of financial foundations became a main point, too. After I described the situation regarding criticism in the Scandinavian countries, there were some panelists who immediately wanted to move to Norway. And it is true that we are privileged in many ways, having donors such as Arts Council Norway and the private Fritt Ord Foundation which understand the importance of journals and criticism, and also benefiting from the current work grant programme for critics, a hard-won victory for the Norwegian Critics’ Association. But the journals are still underfunded, and it is still difficult to make a living as a critic, not least in a high-cost country like Norway. Running a journal professionally, as we do at Kunstkritikk, is expensive, and the costs are only mounting, so the fear of having to make cutbacks is very real. The signals currently being sent by the governing authorities are not particularly encouraging: it now seems that the Norwegian culture field has little prospect of seeing any of the increased investments in culture that were promised when the Norwegian Labour Party and the Centre Party took over government in 2021.
When the current Norwegian grant programme for periodicals and criticism was established, it was expected that this would be accompanied by increased funds for the programme. However, the politicians never implemented a raise, meaning that competition for the funds available is fierce – the total coming in at just under NOK 30 million (EUR 2.6 million), which is to cover established journals as well as new, emergent initiatives. The interest organisations Norsk tidsskriftforening (Norwegian Magazine Association), the Norwegian Critics’ Association, and Tekstallianse (Text Alliance, a network for literature, magazines, and critique in the west of Norway) have now joined forces to send the Ministry of Culture and Equality a list of specific suggestions ahead of next year’s state budget, putting forward concrete proposals for devoting resources to journals.
Firstly, they propose to increase the funds set aside for the Periodicals and Criticism programme by NOK 30 million (EUR 2.6 million), thereby doubling the current budget, a figure three times higher than the one requested by Arts Council Norway in its application to the ministry for next year. They also propose to increase the number of work grants for critics by ten on top of the existing fourteen grants, and want regulations in place for wage growth for grant recipients. In addition, they ask for higher subsidies for themselves in order to strengthen their work within the field. Specifically, they request an increase in operating support for the Norsk tidsskriftforening and the Norwegian Critics’ Association, and also ask that operating support be introduced for the journal and small publishing centre Tekstallmenningen (The Text Agora), which ensures efficient distribution and dissemination of Norwegian periodicals to public libraries and which now, after a years-long start-up period financed by project funds, needs a stable framework.
“If the arts are to play an important role in Norwegian democracy, art must not only be produced, but also discussed publicly,” state the proponents. They point to the state’s responsibility to facilitate an “open and enlightened conversation,” an obligation laid down in the so-called “infrastructure requirement” in section 100 of the Norwegian constitution. They also refer to a parliamentary report on “The Power of Culture – Cultural Policy for the Future” (Meld.St 8, 2018–2019) and the investigation (NOU 2022: 9) carried out by the Ytringsfrihetskommisjonen (Freedom of Expression Commission) elaborating on this responsibility.
They go on to point out that in recent years newspapers have greatly reduced their coverage of arts and culture, which means that more of the responsibility for public awareness and discussion of art falls on journals and freelance critics. At the same time as journals and critics shoulder a larger portion of this this responsibility, the provision set aside for the Periodicals and Criticism programme amounts to just over 7 per cent of the total press subsidies managed by the Norwegian Media Authority.
Journals have been taking increasingly greater responsibility for criticism and cultural journalism for some time now. For example, the fact that the Norwegian Critics’ Association launched Kunstkritikk (kunstkritikk.no) in 2003 was a display of such responsibility. Back then, the ambition was to revitalise art criticism, and since then the journal’s succession of editors have taught and provided development opportunities for a whole generation of critics, not only in Norway, but in the Nordics.
In the present-day media landscape, journals are crucial to a serious public discussion about art and culture at all. The journals’ combination of topicality and depth, artistic expertise, and social engagement, and the fact that they are open to other voices and other types of language than the mass media, are crucial for a functioning democracy. This is particularly true in the difficult times we are now facing, characterised by the climate crisis, war, growing economic inequality, and anti-democratic currents.
I urge the Norwegian authorities to follow up on the proposals from the Norsk tidsskriftforening, the Norwegian Critics’ Association, and Tekstallianse. Hopefully, this active input can also serve as inspiration for journal editors and critics in other countries – prompting them to organise and make similar demands.