Income Crisis in the Norwegian Art Field

‘Everyone contributes jointly to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. We should show the same solidarity with those who lose their income’, says Ruben Steinum, chairman of the Association of Norwegian Visual Artists.

UKS (Young Artists’ Society) has temporarily closed its exhibition venue in St. Olavsgate due to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

As a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus, most contemporary art venues in Norway have closed until further notice. Cultural events large and small have been cancelled, schools and kindergartens are closed, and people are encouraged to work from home.

On Thursday 12 March, the Norwegian Minister of Culture and Equality Abid Q. Raja announced that he has asked the administration of the Ministry of Culture to survey the various schemes under their auspices and come up with reasonable solutions which will help mitigate the financial consequences of this situation for the cultural sector.

While waiting for the Ministry of Culture’s response, Norway’s largest artists’ organisation, Creo, made a number of concrete proposals just before the weekend. The unions Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK) and Norwegian Critics’ Association (Norsk kritikerlag) made their own proposals soon after, calling attention to their members’ vulnerable situation.

At a press conference on Saturday 14 March, Raja expressed appreciation for the financial worries currently besetting cultural workers and said that the Ministry of Culture was working on a range of measures.

On the morning of Monday 16 March, a united parliament presented the first part of its crisis response package to the business community. It states that self-employed and freelance workers will, after seventeen days without income, have 80 per cent of their income covered by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). They are also entitled to sickness benefits from day three and care allowances from day four.

“It is good to see that agreement has been reached on a crisis package aimed at freelancers and self-employed people, which covers many artists,” said Ruben Steinum, chairman of the board of NBK.

However, he added that visual artists, who have an average annual business income of NOK 89,000 (EUR 7,700), are so severely underpaid that this will probably not be enough. Accordingly, he would like to have their entire income included when calculating the rates received, including income from casual jobs.

“Artists are particularly vulnerable because they are low-paid and lack the safety nets enjoyed by ordinary employees. When they are left without a job, without commissions, or without the opportunity to work due quarantine or being responsible for homeschooling their children, this will have serious financial implications for the individual. The situation can quickly become precarious for many,” Steinum said.

Ina Hagen, chair of Young Artists’ Society (UKS), believes the government must recognise that artists’ work situations fall outside the scope of most of the social security schemes found in Norway, which tend to be built around an employer–employee model.

“The fact that the realities of the artist’s working situation pose a major challenge to our standardised social security set-up is definitely not news. UKS and the other trade unions in the field have made this clear to the state and local government sector for years,” she said.

When asked what exactly the union would like done, Hagen said that UKS supports the demands put forward by NBK before the weekend and added that she looks favourably upon the government’s crisis response package for self-employed workers and freelancers: “Visual artists have the lowest income rates of all artist groups. When your average income is low, you are particularly vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to have effective schemes that are easy to manage and which take effect immediately.”

Hagen also emphasised that the losses suffered by visual artists cannot necessarily be measured in terms of regular income flows, as many art institutions plan their exhibition programmes for years at a time, and the long-term financial impact of galleries and museums being closed cannot be accurately calculated. “It is impossible to say how many sales, stipends, commissions, and opportunities to exhibit their work an artist misses out on when an exhibition does not go as planned. In the long run, one must calculate the income loss for artists on the basis of average incomes,” Hagen said.

Hagen applauds Arts Council Norway’s decision not to demand refunds of funding spent on events which have been cancelled, and also praises the Minister of Culture’s responsiveness to the need for state coverage of the usual fifteen-day employer-paid period of leave with two days’ notice. Even so, she asks that the Arts Council Norway to consider whether these measures should be extended in scope: “This affects artists’ assignments and commissions through Arts Council Norway beyond the immediate quarantine period. Extending the deadlines for applications and reporting would be a natural step.”

Steinum is pleased to see that some measures have already been taken, such as initiatives aimed at artists with assignments for the The Cultural School Bag (Den kulturelle skolesekken), Public Art Norway, and those who run exhibition spaces with support from Arts Council Norway.

Steinum and Hagen would both like to see a compensation scheme for cancellations and work stoppages made for public health reasons. For example, they believe that artists should receive exhibition fees even if their exhibitions are cancelled, and the loss of income from planned set-up and teaching activities should be covered.

“UKS’s own gallery guards and technicians will be paid for all planned and agreed working hours,” Hagen pointed out.

Steinum believes that concrete measures for artists and the cultural scene should be included in the next crisis response package issued by the government, but adds that one must also be aware that the situation is developing rapidly and new needs may arise. “We are now in a situation where everyone contributes jointly to limiting the spread of the coronavirus,” he said, adding that “we should show the same solidarity with those who lose their income.”

NBK is collaborating with other artists’ organisations and players in the field to map out the consequences of the situation. According to Steinum, “we see a need for gathering more information, and will conduct a survey among our members to get a complete picture of the financial consequences for artists.”

Hagen says UKS is considering ongoing measures which focus on the individual artist’s situation, based on its members’ experiences.

Both NBK and UKS have asked their employees to work from home. UKS has closed its exhibition venues and will postpone all physical meetings or conduct them digitally instead. This includes the annual meeting.

“The management at UKS is monitoring the situation and making continuous assessments according to the recommendations and orders issued by the authorities. Our immediate focus has been to prevent the spread of infection,” Hagen said. “We must do everything we can in solidarity with those who will be hit hardest by Covid-19.”