What’s Happened to Iaspis?

Iaspis went from being an independent and critical voice in a public conversation, to being a careful and loyal team player for the authorities.

Mats Bigert och Lars Bergström på Iaspis i år 2000. Foto: Ulf Lundin.
Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström at Iaspis. January 1st, 2000. Photo: Ulf Lundin.

For being a department of a government agency, the amount of interest and appreciation Iaspis (originally International Artists Studio Program in Sweden) has garnered around its activities is astonishing. Since the late nineties, Iaspis has been an obvious reference point for those interested in contemporary art. This is less the case today, however, as in recent years Iaspis’ presence seems to have become increasingly anonymous. “What’s happened to Iaspis?” has become a common question in art circles. Interest in the activities of what was until recently such an important player in the Swedish art scene seems to have fallen dramatically.

Royal Academy of Fine Arts at Fredsgatan in Stockholm. Iaspis was located here from 1996 to 2007. Photo: FriskoKry/CC BY 3.0.
Royal Academy of Fine Arts at Fredsgatan in Stockholm. Iaspis was located here from 1996 to 2007. Photo: FriskoKry/CC BY 3.0.

It was in 1996, during a time when the points of contact between the Swedish and international art worlds were limited, that the Swedish Arts Grants Committee and the Visual Arts Fund developed their international work and created Iaspis. The Arts Grants Committee is a government agency tasked with implementing the cultural policy objectives dictated by the Swedish government. The Visual Arts Fund is an organ within the Arts Grants Committee that awards grants and stipends to artists.

What they established was a studio center and exchange program for Swedish and foreign artists, where even curators and critics within and outside Sweden could be invited to see and discuss art, make contacts and initiate collaborations. Additionally, the purpose of Iaspis was to support the internationalization of what was then a somewhat insular Swedish art scene, to “overall be a center for contemporary art”, as it’s written in the Arts Grants Committee’s annual report from 1998.

A handful of studios and a project space for exhibitions and workshops were housed in the upper floor of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, spaces that had become vacant when the Royal Institute of Art relocated to Skeppsholmen. The program was given a director, Sune Nordgren, who was to manage the operation together with a delegation from the board of the Visual Arts Fund. The title “director” is hardly standard a bit down in the government agency hierarchy, but it suggests that a certain degree of independence was meant to be emphasized. Apparently no one saw a need to write down a policy document for the project. “A more detailed description of the objectives, priorities and decision-making was never provided”, states a steering document from 2009.

Iaspis anno 2003
Iaspis year 2003. Above: Ann Lislegaard, sitting in the window: Ann Böttcher. Lower on the ladder: Karl Holmqvist. Three standing: Joachim Koester, Runo Lagomarsino, Gabriel Lester. Two sitting: Maria Heimer Åkerlund, Unnar Örn. Photo: Ulf Lundin.

– No one really knew what Iaspis should be and there weren’t any expectations about what it should be, says Daniel Birnbaum, who was director from 1998 to 2000.

In 2007 Iaspis and the Arts Grants Committee were forced to move their offices to a space on Södermalm. The move provoked protests from artists and the director of Iaspis at the time, Maria Lind, who argued that the magnificent baroque building and central location was part of the reason that they were able to succeed in attracting so many highly sought after and interesting guests. It is likely that the move was motivated by purely practical reasons, but the episode is still telling as to how relations between Iaspis and its administrators has developed. In the old premises, Iaspis and the administrative offices were housed in the same building but on different floors. It was a negligible distance, but it established a clear boundary sufficient to signal a degree of autonomy and the relative freedom that characterized Iaspis. In the new space the border between Iaspis and the administrative offices broke down. The very layout of the office demonstrates in a wordless yet clear language precisely what the government agency’s leadership wanted to instill: Iaspis is an integrated part of a state agency.

But this is not merely a matter of Iaspis’ location or how it’s presented; this is about a profound change in which Iaspis went from being an independent and critical voice in a public conversation, to being a careful and loyal team player for the authorities. Iaspis’ public activities are today more than ever coupled to the perspective of the authorities, where the political mandate puts ever-tighter frameworks on what projects the Iaspis director can push forward.

Since 2007 Iaspis has shared its office with The Swedish Arts Grants Committee and is located at Maria Skolgata 83 on Södermalm in Stockholm. Photo: The Swedish Arts Grants Committee.

Iaspis falls under the Arts Grants Committee’s operational grants and stipend distribution. The stipends that are offered are in the form of residencies and support for exhibitions and research trips abroad. But what characterized the image of Iaspis beyond the government agency’s walls is the publicity surrounding contemporary art that they managed to create through their own outreach, their public program with seminars, workshops, exhibitions, presentation of artists and publications. Soon after its creation, Iaspis became synonymous with a venue where a qualified discussion informed by an international outlook was taking place. Together with, among others, the art fair Stockholm Smart Show, ArtNode, NU: The Nordic Art Review and a number of commercial galleries, Iaspis was at the forefront of a process of internationalization that started to grow and would bloom in the following years. This period also saw the emergence of a new figure on the art scene: the curator. At Iaspis an invited curator could generate as much interest as an artist. This made it so that Iaspis came to be understood as an operation directed by curatorial conditions, where the director acted freely on whatever he or she thought was the most interesting at the time.   

This image might still be alive for some, but it is completely erroneous today. Today the managing administrators at the Arts Grants Committee emphasize that the director is a government official at an agency, not a curator as some seem to think. The inability to realize this simple fact is the source of a number of misconceptions about Iaspis.

– There are lacunae in the knowledge of how the state is organized, perhaps especially in artistic circles, as administrative official and secretary of the Visual Arts Fund and the Iaspis-delegation, Lars Olof Gustafson, expresses it.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset at Iaspis in 2000. Photo: Ulf Lundin.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset at Iaspis in 2000. Photo: Ulf Lundin.

There are several misunderstandings:

– In some circles in Stockholm there is a vision that Iaspis is only an outward-looking operation, but Iaspis has always been the entirety, and that is what makes it effective when it concerns the internationalization of Swedish visual artists. If it had only consisted of the public program, it would not have been able to create careers for artists, says Ann Larsson, the Arts Grants Committee’s chief of staff and government agency chief.

Today, in 2012, several directors later an ever-expanding Iaspis is about administrating rather than renewing, says both Ann Larsson and Iaspis’ current director Lisa Rosendahl. Daniel Birnbaums words, “I could fill [Iaspis] with content and could do it without ever asking anyone for permission”, sound foreign today, when the key phrases are “the agency’s perspective” and “the political mission”.

Mona Hatoum at Iaspis 2001
Mona Hatoum at Iaspis 2001. Photo: Ulf Lundin.

And this is where it starts to get interesting. For what these gray terms can mean becomes clearer if one looks closer at the decision making process when it concerns their own public program: that part of the operation where the director shall use their specific knowledge to put his or her profile on Iaspis, the part that’s about being a center for contemporary art.

In order to understand the decision-making process, one has to understand the organization Iaspis is a part of. Iaspis is funded with money from the Visual Arts Fund – the agency within the Arts Grants Committee responsible for individual stipends and grants within the visual arts. This fund distributes the so-called display compensation (visningsersättning), which the state compensates artists with because their work is shown publically (it’s comparable to authors’ Public Lending Right programs). Huge sums are involved, in 2012 about 73 million kronor, of which approximately 19 million went to Iaspis. The decision over Iaspis’ administrative budget is taken by the Arts Grants Committee’s board of directors, who also have ultimate responsibility for everything that happens within the government agency’s framework. When it concerns Iaspis’ goals, policies, budget and priorities, decisions are taken by the Visual Arts Fund’s board. A delegation from the fund’s board (Iaspis-delegationen) decides on the allocation of stipends and grants.  

The director today is not very involved with the stipend procedure (at least when it comes to the Swedish candidates), instead, her primary task is to drive the studio program in Sweden and to present and implement the public program, that is deciding the focus and themes of exhibitions, seminars, international projects and publications. This is formulated in the plan of operations that the director provides to the Visual Arts Fund’s board to decide on.

Maria Lind was Iaspis director from 2005 to 2008, three years in Iaspis’ history when the public program was very visible. She tells Kunstkritikk that it was in the beginning of her directorship that it was decided that the director should present their program to the Visual Arts Fund’s board every year for approval. According to Maria Lind, this is not something that earlier directors were required to do.

– I thought it was strange, since I was hired as artistic director, and artistic activities are markedly better when not made by committee. Besides, the director is the one who possesses the relevant skills, the one who knows the international art scene. If I’d known the direction things were going I would not have applied for the job.

The fund’s board, however, always approved her program – which often circled around questions of cultural politics – without reservations.

This arrangement remains in place today, but with a twist. According to Lisa Rosendahl, she has zero direct communication with the Visual Arts Fund’s board. All program proposals and documents must first be reviewed by the government agency’s administrators, that is, Ann Larsson and Lars Olof Gustafson. The proposals that Lisa Rosendahl presents to the board are thus only those approved by the administration.

One reason for this is that the administrators want to ensure that the proposals that the Visual Arts Fund has to consider do no conflict with the mission, in other words the guidelines the Ministry of Cultural Affairs has set for what the Arts Grants Committee can do, because an agency is charged with the function of carrying out the government’s policy and it is the administrators who have the greatest political management skills and contacts within the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. But why the board, who are the ones who will decide on Iaspis’ program, doesn’t get the chance to assess whether the director’s proposal is consistent with the mission is difficult to comprehend. That this must limit the director’s – and the board’s – authority is easier to understand.

The administrators are keen that Iaspis does not take a position, or test a particular angle on a question where the Arts Grants Committee by virtue of its cultural political position must remain objective or neutral. Lisa Rosendahl says that there is an understanding at the Arts Grants Committee that Iaspis’ earlier program has been too narrow in relation to its mission, and it often happens that the administrators have objections or say stop for certain program points in reference to this. Sensitive subjects are, for example, economics and cultural politics.

Studio conversation with fellow Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst in connection with open house at Iaspis, autumn 2011. Photo: Jean Baptiste Beranger.
Studio conversation with fellow Johanna Gustafsson-Fürst in connection with open house at Iaspis, autumn 2011. Photo: Jean Baptiste Beranger.

– I’ve long been interested in issues related to working conditions and copyright. When I wanted to continue to discuss these questions publically, from the perspective of artists, one bumps against the fact that the Arts Grants Committee as an organization must represent a broad group of artists that can have different approaches or relations to these issues. Now it is emphasized internally that we must be highly conscious that it is the government agency that is behind projects, not Iaspis or Iaspis’ director. It’s not desirable that I, as an officer in a small department within the agency, formulate a specific position.
For example, it is not possible for the director of Iaspis to organize a seminar on the cultural and creative industries from a certain point of view, when the government agency as a whole has received the assignment from the government to work with the question within a larger perspective.

When Lisa Rosendahl speaks of “the government agency”, one gets the impression that practically speaking this means Ann Larsson and Lars Olof Gustafson.

Today, Iaspis is required to reach out into the various regions of Sweden, often in collaboration with local actors, which means that it is not Iaspis alone that drives the project. Moreover, it is the first time that the director is tasked with managing the plastic arts, which include architecture, design and crafts. This of course means an additional workload for Iaspis’ director and staff.

In the Arts Grants Committee’s annual report it is stated that their officials and experts “ensure that the distribution of funds is in accordance with their mandate and includes quality, equality, diversity, geographic and genre variety.” Considering that even Iaspis’ program activities are formally part of the government agency’s grant and stipend arm, the Arts Grants Committee can refer to their mission statement when a program point is considered to be too narrow. This demand for breadth means that a Iaspis director must ask herself a series of questions while writing her plan of operations: Is there too much of a focus on artists of a certain age? Are the themes we’re working with too similar? Is it a particular segment of the art world that is coming to events? A certain type of art? Could someone get a sense of a certain critical perspective as being too “narrow” or “biased” in relation to the government agency’s mission?

– To work for this diversity concept is the opposite of working with curator-driven institutions, where one can raise a fairly specific question from a very specific artistic or aesthetic perspective. It is definitely possible to work with political content, but then one has to work fairly broadly. The program in its entirety will not completely take one side or the other, says Lisa Rosendahl.
– When from the outside one sees that Iaspis has its own director and its own plan of operations, she continues, one can get the impression that it’s its own place. During Maria Lind’s time, it was perhaps understood that it was she as curator who was the lone mover behind the intellectual production that was presented. The Arts Grants Committee would love for this misconception to cease. When we initiate program activities ourselves, the government agency is authoritatively behind the project and we are officials who cannot take positions on different issues.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the earlier cited formulation of Iaspis as a center for contemporary art is not included in the annual reports from recent years. The following paragraph from the Arts Grants Committee’s annual report from 1998 has no counterpart today either: “Simultaneously, it has been important for IASPIS to not function as an anonymous support agency, but to always put its own spin on the events it participates in. […] The ambition has been to revitalize the dialogue around art and culture in this country and to create an open and generous place for critical discussion. This will continue to be IASPIS’ ambition for the coming years.”

Behind these hopeful words one can sense an awareness of the risks of being a support agency and a critical player at the same time. Perhaps this tense relation has reached a point today where it is excessively charged. In a situation where the perspective of the government agency is so steadily fixed, the question of the very existence of the operation comes to a head: Is it possible to pursue an artistic program under these conditions?

– It isn’t set in stone that Iaspis shall produce a public program. In many countries it would certainly not be possible for a state agency to be an actor within the area that they are at the same time tasked with supporting financially. It is perhaps a completely absurd thought for some, says Lisa Rosendahl.

Lee H. Jones in dialogue with The YES! Association. Part of the series BODY OF WORK, produced by Iaspis and Lucie Fontaine, 2012.
Lee H. Jones in dialogue with The YES! Association. Part of the series BODY OF WORK, produced by Iaspis and Lucie Fontaine, 2012.

One can wonder in whose interest it is to restrict Iaspis’ autonomy. Was there actually discontent that Iaspis was driven by a strong curatorial line? In the Visual Arts Fund and the Arts Grants Committee’s boards there are professional artists and people with the highest competencies in the field of culture. Can it be their desire to squeeze Iaspis into the structure of the government agency at any price, or let the operation be steered by a fear of approaching politically sensitive questions? These people, together with the chief of staff, must now take a position: return to the high ambitions that created Iaspis’ successes and let the artistic program be guided by artistic considerations, or turn one of the Swedish art scene’s most important and prestigious institutions into a stipend fund with neither critical nor aesthetic clout.