Danish Ministry of Culture Changes its Tune

Minister of Culture Joy Mogensen wants to strengthen management in art education, set up boards of directors, and counteract overly academised teaching. At best, this breaks with decades of technocracy.

“This is the government’s message,” says the message posted on Danish Minister of Culture Joy Mogensen’s Facebook wall above an opinion piece published in Jyllandsposten last Saturday. For those interested in the future of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ Schools of Visual Arts, the Film School, and other higher art education in Denmark, certainly sends a message. Not only because the minister presents proposals for significant reforms, but because Mogensen has actually addressed, in rarely seen detail, the complex challenges associated with the seven art-educational institutions operating under the auspices of the Danish Ministry of Culture: The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ Schools of Visual Arts; The National Film School of Denmark; The Danish National School of Performing Arts; The Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg; The Royal Danish Academy of Music; The Rhythmic Music Conservatory; and The Royal Academy of Music Odense/Esbjerg.

The ministry recently launched a study aimed at analysing various managerial and organisational challenges and at creating “models for the future organisation and development of artistic education in Denmark.” This in itself is nothing new. As recently as 2017, the ministry presented a report proposing a merger of art education in Denmark. Fortunately, nothing came of those plans at the time. But now they may be about to come to fruition.

Pernille Albrethsen. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

The study comes in the wake of some sudden and much-publicised vacancies in the rector’s chairs among these institutions in recent years: twice at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (in 2018 and in 2020) and once at the Film School in 2019. Although different circumstances prompted these departures, the combined effect leaves an impression of institutions that are foundering. 

The thirteen-person committee in charge of the study comprises rectors/principals, students, employees, employer panel representatives, and experts on management and education. Its work coincides with the recent announcement that the director of the CPH: DOX film festival, Tine Fischer, will take over the rector’s chair at the Film School on 1 May, and takes place concurrently with the recruitment of a new rector for the Academy of Fine Arts.

“We want to make films – not read about them,” read banners waving during the protests in 2019, when students at the Film School rebelled against the increasing academisation which they feared would render the curriculum overly theoretical and reduce the teaching of filmmaking as a craft. The process was part of the restructuring and accreditation work which the rector at the time, Vinca Wiedemann, had been brought on board to carry out, but which ultimately ended in her ouster from the position.

Both the protesting film students and the former rector’s untenable position were presumably at the back of Tine Fischer’s mind when she spoke to Danish daily Politiken about her vision for the school: “One point that I have already discussed the with ministry is that the artistic educations must develop artistic talent. And this can only be done by offering teaching that is closely associated with actual practice. You quite simply won’t become a good painter without actually painting; you don’t become a good film director without having a filmmaking practice.”

By making such a public statement, Fischer entered into a ‘contract’ with the Ministry of Culture that promised winds of change, including within the ministry – a blast of fresh air made clearer by the minister’s opinion piece. 

According to Mogensen: “The biggest problem is the slippery slope of academisation, an overly strong focus on theory, that our artistic educations are currently slipping down. There is a need for a stronger, clearer focus on the artistic aspects and on craftsmanship. The purpose of art education is not to compete with the universities, but to train the most sublime craftsmen, the ones we usually call artists because they have practiced the skill of producing works of art.” 

Assuming that the ‘focus on craftsmanship’ is not to be understood in the most pedestrian sense – that is, a notion of art which entirely skips a hundred years of conceptualism or forbids the reading of theory – this remains a significant announcement. One which would involve more than just a minor makeover.

The academisation of education programmes is particularly associated with the growing spread of artistic research, a field that has risen to substantial prominence in a relatively short time and which arose partly out of a need for the arts to attain specific forms of institutional legitimacy. In the late 1990s and in the 2000s, there was a need to define art as a form of basic research – not least in order to cater to public funders who were eager for measurable results and the ability to compare the arts with other parts of the education sector. From this also sprang the welcome opportunity for artists to embark on PhD fellowships, giving them settled conditions that allowed them to develop their artistic projects. The challenge now is that the area has grown into a substantial institutionalised field in its own right, caught somewhere between academic research and artistic production – hence the somewhat condescending nickname “Edu-Art”.

In Norway and Sweden, this more academic approach has already infused art education for more than a decade and extends to most artistic subjects. In Denmark, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts is probably the one institution most heavily involved with the trend.

What is more, the Bologna Accord – which requires institutions of higher education to implement all sorts of reforms in order to achieve accreditation – has also been an unfortunate ally, often serving to promote standardisation and red tape. To this, Mogensen notes that a “heavy accreditation reform may be a bureaucratic millstone around the necks of smaller-scale higher education in particular,” and that the Bologna standard must not interfere with the main tasks of the individual institutions. Perhaps this opens up the possibility that the strange, time-consuming, resource-gobbling phenomenon that is accreditation might be envisioned in new ways?

Last Saturday’s opinion piece was the first time that a Nordic Minister of Culture has responded in such explicit detail to the complex developments seen within artistic higher education – developments reflected in the increasingly academised institutions. “The Academy of Fine Arts and other institutions of artistic education must get back on track. Back to the world of art – not suffocated in reams of academia,” the subheading asserts. Such announcements will, of course, also prompt some anxiety about the consequences they will have for the various institutions – and about how extensive those consequences will be.

It is all the more noteworthy, then, that Mogensen’s statements can also be seen as a breaking with decades of technocratic control. She proclaims that “having the Ministry of Culture appoint the individual head of each school is out of touch with our day and age.” She also states that the power of the management should be strengthened and that managerial power “should be rooted in a board of directors competent within the field of art.”

For those such as the Danish People’s Party’s spokesperson on cultural affairs – who has argued that a board of directors should be appointed by politicians (for a place of higher education, mind you!) – the latter statement is bad news. To others, such as yours truly, it sounds promising. Particularly if it means that the rector of, for example, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts will in the future have the backing of a professional board with a strongly founded mandate in the Danish art scene – provided, of course, that steps are taken not only to avoid unnecessary top-down management, but also to continue the excellent tradition of close collaboration between management, staff, and students. This would also alleviate the unfortunate decision made in 2011 when the Ministry of Culture enforced a much-criticised revision of the Public Administration Act, which meant that the ministry would be in charge of appointing the academy’s rector in the future. Now, just ten years later, we have thankfully learnt that this practice is “out of touch with our day and age.” 

How much of the Minister of Culture’s initial ideas will become reality remains to be seen; we will know more in October, when the committee presents the results of the study.

Danish Minister of Culture Joy Mogensen, Social Democratic Party. Photo: Kristian Brasen.