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Cultural Policy: International Best Practices in the Visual Arts

by Alexandra Chiriac
Image: Image: Eoin Carey

Recently, I undertook a three-month research project commissioned by SCAN and supported by the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. The aim was to delve into cultural policy in Europe and North America and identify best practice examples of policy and government-led initiatives that positively impact the contemporary visual arts sector. Although countries do inevitably opt for a wide variety of policies and practices, some particularly relevant examples emerged from the information gathered in respect of five different policy areas: legislation, artists’ livelihoods, distribution of state funding, cultural mobility and Equalities Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and education. I also delved deeper into the cultural policy of three geographical regions that have a strong reputation in supporting the visual arts: the Nordic region, Germany and Canada. As well as seeking feedback from representatives of the British Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, I interviewed local arts professionals with the aim of assessing the experiences of artists, curators and institutions working within these regions. Links to my full report are available below.

Some of the findings proved surprising, with policies delivering impacts that are different than expected. For instance, in the realm of legislation, Status of the Artist laws exist in a small number of countries, of which Canada is the most prominent example. They aim to improve the social and economic situation of professional artists and outline their importance to society. Nonetheless, such overarching legislation does not always result in tangible outcomes that truly support arts professionals. We heard that policies that support fair remuneration were much more impactful, such as Sweden’s so-called MU agreement which requires the state to pay individual compensation for public exposition of works of visual and applied art, or Canada’s CARFAC minimum fee schedule which ensures that artists are correctly remunerated for a variety of activities. In the case of Canada for example, following the fee schedule has become accepted practice even though it has no legislative basis. Such positive developments in valuing artistic work are all the more important as regular income schemes are disappearing. In the Nordic countries, traditionally known for such supportive policies, lifetime salaries for artists have been discontinued and grants, albeit long-term, are now much more common.

Significant support for contemporary art also comes from percentage for art schemes which stipulate that a certain percentage (usually between 0.5 and 2%) of the construction costs of public buildings is invested in the acquisition and commissioning of works of art. Such schemes are extremely common and many countries are using them to highlight the importance of art and artists for public spaces and everyday life. Sweden has increased the percentage allocation for buildings engaged in care, so that a recent hospital project in Stockholm benefited from an unprecedentedly large budget dedicated to public art. In the Netherlands, the scheme has been applied for the first time in a large-scale infrastructure project, while in Denmark artists are increasingly being invited to engage with and contribute to projects from the earlies stages of planning. The surprise here was that Britain, although engaged in public art commissioning, has never committed to a nationwide ‘Percent for Art’ policy. Nonetheless, some Scottish councils, such as East Lothian or Aberdeenshire, are leading the way with their own ‘Percent for Art’ schemes.

This is not the only positive feedback that emerged from the project regarding Scotland and the contemporary visual arts. Some of the interviewees who participated in the research had studied or worked in Scotland and spoke very positively about how their experiences compared to their current locations. They particularly appreciated the high standard of arts education and support for early career arts professionals, mentioning the availability of studio spaces and a perceived higher grant application success rate. The vibrancy and diversity of artist-led spaces was also mentioned, as well as the opportunities for networking and cultural mobility, with interviewees remarking that the professional connections made in Scotland led to other projects further afield. In general, the UK was perceived as being ahead in arts outreach programming, as well as equalities, diversity and inclusion practices.

Just as I reached the end of the project, another revelation emerged. Reports came in that Scotland has ‘surprised critics and the arts sector’ by pledging to increase culture spending by 10% over the next year and committing to an increased three-year budget for Creative Scotland. It is perhaps a fitting note to end on. Ultimately, as well as highlighting effective policies and initiatives, the research has also revealed that even countries seen to champion the visual arts have their challenges and no perfect solutions for the sector currently exist. We should indeed learn from other models, but without forgetting to celebrate the achievements of Scotland’s own contemporary visual arts sector and forging our own innovative policies and initiatives.

Alexandra’s full report ‘International Cultural Policies and Initiatives for the Visual Arts Sector’ is available here alongside a working database of all policies and initiatives that were identified during her research period.

SCAN commissioned this research to help inform our understanding of best practice initiatives out with the UK that support the contemporary visual arts. This overview has helped us identify key examples of support that we will further investigate to inform our advocacy activity and to help us shape ideas and initiatives to better support those working here in Scotland.

Alexandra is a third year PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, funded through the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. She is researching the impact of modernism on stage design and interior design in Romania in the 1920s and 30s. She holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and has previously worked for Sotheby’s and for GRAD, a non-profit cultural platform for Russian and Eastern European arts.