The independent scene left behind
Article on the status of independent performing arts by Sara Marti Guðmundsdóttir and Klara Helgadóttir master’s student in Cultural Management at Bifröst University, published in Morgunblaðið newspaper on January 21, 2020
According to statistics from the Nordic Statistic database, Iceland is the most efficient of all Nordic countries to attend theaters. For example, a record number of audience attended the National Theater in the year 2018 to 2019, or about 118,000 people. It is therefore not surprising how much performing arts are flourishing in this country. Despite this record number of spectators in theaters in Iceland, it is not possible to maintain the institutional theaters with the ticket sales alone – and thus even less independent performing arts companies except with support from state and municipalities.
Stage performances in Iceland are produced on the one hand by public institutions and on the other by independent professional performing art companies or groups. When talking about independent performing art groups, this does not refer to amateur companies, but groups consisting of professional, educated performing artists. The public performing arts institutions are included the state and municipality budgets, such as the National Theater, the City Theater, the Akureyri Theater Company, the Icelandic Opera and the Icelandic Dance Company. However, independent companies can only apply for grants once a year to the Performing Arts Council to produce a performance. As the independent performing art companies receive only one production grant per year – if they are lucky – it is clear that no one can afford to maintain an independent company all year round. Despite this, the independent companies premiered 76 new productions compared to 58 institutional productions in the 2014-2015 season, according to Statistics Iceland’s most recent compilation, or 57% of all stage performances that year.
Increase in the performing arts sector
Number of performing artists have increased greatly in recent years, this is partly due to new departments at the Academy of Arts; dance and theatre & performance making. With new technology and multimedia that is increasingly used in stage arts, more artists with a particular expertise are being added to the performing art scene, e.g. video designers, and on top of that new opera groups and circus companies are being added to the independent performing arts landscape. Performing arts companies in the rural areas have also recently emerged. All this is indicative of the development of the field and it is a great pleasure to see this growth there is in the performing arts, but the funds have failed to respond to that rapid growth.
When looking at figures from Rannís on grants for performing arts projects over the past five years, it is apparent how many independent performing arts groups apply for grants and how few groups receive them. On average, it’s only 18% over the past five years. It is therefore clear that funding for the Performings Arts Council needs to be significantly increased to rectify this imbalance.
Before discussing artist salaries, the misconception that artist salaries are salaries must be corrected, which is no doubt the misnomer to blame. Artist salaries are contract payments and therefore the person in question must pay all public expenses of that amount, pay into the pension fund both the employee’s share and the employer’s share, social security contributions and other taxes and pay their own leave, union payments and sick days, should they arise. Artists’ salary is ISK 407,413. per month, but its far from the truth that the amount goes straight into the pocket of the artists.
Division of funds between different fields of art
If you look at the allocations between different fields of art and the number of months each field, one can see that writers receive a total of 555 months, designers 50 months, visual artists 435 months, musicians 180 months, composers 190 months and performing artists a total of 190 months. Performers are the only art field to apply as a group. All other artists apply as individuals. The theater requires the collaboration of many, and there different art forms meet. For example, there may be a group consisting of seven performing artists who will be paid an artist’s salary for 14 months, and this is even higher on the basis of what groups generally receive. However, the group needs to share that amount. In addition, artists who from other fields working in the theater, for example musicians or visual artists, will be allocated from this same fund.
Performing arts are extremely important to society and must be nurtured. The independent scene is made up of professional artists and is the leading platform for new creations in the performing arts. In stage arts, many art forms are merged; drama, dance, visual arts and music, and the written word takes flight. Therefore, the theater is a powerful entity for preserving the Icelandic language and in addition, it is important to Icelandic culture, whether as recreation and entertainment or a platform of new ideas, social criticism and national mirror at all times. Most of us agree on the importance of culture and art because our contribution in this regard is more often than not what carries our praise on a foreign grounds and makes us a nation among nations.
If we intend to foster the immense activities that take place in independent performing arts companies in Iceland and meet the growing number of performing artists who live and work here, the public sector needs to rectify this error.