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The Transparent Elephant in the Room
Article by Romeo Kodra

 

This article, commissioned by Globe Art Point (G.A.P), Helsinki, is the outcome of impressions after my involvement as a “key listener” of the first panel, entitled Strategies Forming the Future, which opened the GAP ART SUMMIT, taking place at Luckan Helsingfors Culture Center 21-22/04/2022.

The invitation came because of my experience as an evaluator of the European Commission for the Creative Europe Program, Horizon Europe, COST – Cooperation in Science and Technology; because of my artistic practice based on institutional critique; because I researched institutional theory. But above all, I think because of my interest in the transparency of Finnish art and culture institutions, which was a topic, also for the G.A.P personnel, that deserved to be discussed within Strategies Forming the Future[1].

I fully understood the G.A.P personnel’s interest in the article, considering the evident lack of documentation for these activities. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the strange role given to me [to be honest, it was the first time in my life I heard about a “key listener”]. I took it as a jolly, which revives the atmosphere in case of a lack of interest and audience participation. Yet, surprisingly, the audience, addressing specific questions during the Summit‘s first panel, was beyond any expectation. Beyond the expectation were also the overall “size and quality of the event”, as some speakers told me. However, what was problematic for me – because of the involvement of the audience, which was perfect for the event – is that I could not ask all my questions and had to interview the speakers after the Summit, one by one, during offline and online meetings.

The speakers of Strategies Forming the Future, moderated by Ruby Gupte (G.A.P’s Chairperson), that reported their personal or their institutional strategies, in the order of presentation, were: Maija Lummepuro, Senior Ministerial Adviser, Cultural Affairs, Ministry of Education and Culture; Aleksi Malmberg, from Helsinki Municipality and General Manager at Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Johanna Tuukkanen, Head of Cultural Services and Director of Cultural Centre Valve, City of Oulu; Heljä Franssila, Communications Director at KONE Foundation; Anastasia Trizna, Helsinki based Actor, Singer.

The order G.A.P decided the speakers to present their strategies was somewhat displacing for me. I would have expected to hear in the first place strategies of the artists and or culture professionals and only after strategies of the institutions. This is for de+ontological reasons: firstly, because, ontologically, the artists can produce art (since Lascaux Caves) without institutions, while the institutions of art and culture cannot exist without art and artists; and, secondly, because, deontologically, the coherence in organising similar Summits requires the principal focus on the audience, for which would have been much clearer to listen firstly the language used by the artists imagining the future and then to follow the pertinence of the language used by institutions in designing their future strategies and the accordance with the artists’ imagination and language. Though, this is a problem that often afflicts the art and culture scene, not only in Finland but also elsewhere. Yet, evidencing the needed coherence in terms of approach towards this kind of meeting and the necessary focus on language is also instrumental to the topic of my interest – “transparency” – which I hope to clarify further.

An important thing I noticed after hearing all the speakers was that the word “transparency” was mentioned only twice during the presentations: once by Maija Lummepuro but without a specific highlighting or further articulation; and by Anastasia Trizna, that presented it as one of three fundamental pillars necessary for better strategies, namely: “transparency, diversity, equality”. Of course, for Anastasia, there was no order of importance in these three pillars, but for me, there is one. It starts with “transparency”, without which there is no possibility to measure and demonstrate the other two, “diversity and equality”, which, by the way, were widely mentioned by all the speakers during the presentation of their institutions’ strategies. So, turning back to the coherence of the order of presentations and the language mentioned above, the only artist/actress present in the panel mentioned three fundamental pillars, one of which, “transparency”, disappeared from the institutional vocabulary as a pillar and almost disappeared as a term from the presentations of the other speakers. Why does this happen? And, how? Is it just a case?

To answer these questions is illuminating a case that came up during the presentation and interview of Aleksi Malmberg, which explained in general terms the process behind Helsinki’s city strategy for art and culture. In 2020, he, as General Manager of Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and city’s employee, was Chairman of an Independent Committee made of a group of artists and cultural operators working in different institutions in Helsinki that were invited by the Municipality to design the Vision for Art and Culture in Helsinki 2030. This was the idea of the late Jörn Donner, a member of the Municipal Council at that time. Yet, the Vision – as mentioned by Aleksi – was not transformed into an “official document” by the city. Therefore, it is hard these days to find and define what exactly from the Vision became part of the Strategy. So, even in this case, as in the case of “transparency” mentioned by Anastasia Trizna during the Summit, the words and the imagination of the Vision of some art, culture and institutional educational representatives, that are also all professionals of the field, dissolved without leaving clear traces and were absorbed by the institutionalized rhetoric of the official document, namely the Helsinki City Strategy 2021-2025.

And when “transparency” dissolves, from the visions and consequently from the strategies, the situation becomes foggy, ideal for wolves hunting public and private funds. Are the people working in the field aware of this? As a demonstration can be mentioned a document published by Emmi Lahtinen of the Center for Cultural Policy Research Cupore:

“Many of the respondents specifically complained about the lack of feedback on grant decisions. Some saw it as a valuable source of information to improve future applications, but, for others, it indicated a lack of transparency. This led to assumptions of favouritism and relationships between the applicants and evaluators; these were similar to assumptions reported by the Barometer Survey respondents (Hirvi-Ijäs et al, 2018; 2019).”[2]

Moreover, I think that also at a ministerial level there are people aware of the centrality of “transparency” within the art and culture fields. This can be noticed, as mentioned during the presentation of Maija Lummepuro, by the decision of the Ministry of Education and Culture to have “a cross-sectorial approach” involved in the design of the institution’s Strategy, beyond “TAIKE [Arts Promotion Center Finland], municipalities, art and culture field organisation” also experts “from Ministry of Justice”. And I think, the experts from the Ministry of Justice can help a lot in understanding the importance of “transparency” and what lies behind its lack. In any case, to make sure an understanding of what it is all about, it is worth mentioning directly from the Finnish website of a well-known global NGO, Transparency International:

“Finland traditionally scores high on the Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the scope of the CPI does not cover all forms of corruption that are typical to Finland, such as conflicts of interest, unethical decision-making and favouritism. In Global Corruption Barometer, 25% of the Finnish respondents reported that they use personal connections for public services. Finland has[sic] adopted an anticorruption strategy in May 2021, but the government has not appointed a body to monitor the implementation of the strategy. This needs to be fixed quickly. TI Finland calls for a comprehensive approach for[sic] monitoring corruption across all sectors in Finland. Equally, sector-specific and regular risk assessments are needed. Only this way we can draw a realistic picture of the presence of corruption in our society and determine the best methods to fight it.”

Yet, although the basis, let consider like this the art and culture professionals such as Anastasia that took part in the Summit and those mentioned by Cupore’s paper, and the top institutional levels, let consider like this the policy-makers like Jörn Donner and experts like Maija Lummepuro from the Ministry of Culture and Education, acknowledge the lack and ask for “transparency”, there is an in-between-strata of the art and culture field institutions as well as professionals – public and private – which totally or partially ignore the problems the lack of “transparency” and the consequent “conflicts of interest, unethical decision-making and favouritism” may cause. This, at least, is what I noticed during my interviews with the representatives of Helsinki Municipality (Aleksi Malmberg and Veikko Kunnas[3], Head of Cultural Promotion), KONE Foundation (Heljä Franssila and Kalle Korhonen[4], Director of Research Funding), and Oulu Municipality (Johanna Tuukkanen) as well as TAIKE (Paula Tuovinen[5], Director).

In the City of Helsinki the lack of “transparency”, which as seen above starts with the dissolved contribution of the art and culture basis within the institutionalised rhetoric of the strategy, is also visible by the lack of feedback justifying the evaluation process to the applicants – individuals and/or organisations – that apply for funding and grants. However, according to Veikko Kunnas, the organisations receive the decision, positive or negative, which is public, and they can “have the possibility to appeal” it. There are also “discussions between the applicants and Culture Division that made the decisions” and, in case the organisations do not agree with the decision, there is also the possibility to proceed further with the appeal, which is verified by “other evaluators” of the Municipality. Moreover, in case of further disagreement, there is also the possibility to “bring the case to the court” of justice. However, there is a fundamental problem that cannot be mitigated by these good practices and procedures of the City of Helsinki: it is the possibility the “internal or external evaluators” of the Municipality have “to interpret the guidelines” and the “criteria of evaluation”. Thus, the problem is that if the criteria are interpretable there is no possible case in which a committee of other evaluators or even a court of justice can decide, because the criteria, according to its etymology “means of judging”, are made to take decisions beyond any subjective interpretation. Moreover, there is an additional problem with the conflict of interest, which “for the internal evaluators is guaranteed by their status of civil/public servants”, but for the external evaluators, although “they are trained very well according to the guidelines” of the Municipality, there is no document signed by them regarding the absence of conflict of interests.

The same problems are also present in Oulu Municipality, or “even worst”, as witnessed by Johanna Tuukkanen upon her arrival as part of “Oulu City a few months ago”. The same situation is present in TAIKE, where, according to Paula Tuovinen, among other problems, there is a disparity between the organisation of the independent art and culture scenes and the public art and culture institutions, that “receive funds also from the municipalities or the state”. This, in my opinion, agreeing with Paula, exacerbates further the arbitrariness of decision-making and favouritism, because, when the rules and criteria are vague and interpretable, it is easier for the more prominent and/or market-oriented institutions to impose their status quo, their quantity and numbers (people employed, productions, assets, audience, etc.), to validate a priori their supposed importance, their artistic and cultural quality.

The favouritism as a consequence of vague and interpretable criteria happens not only at an institutional level, between state or municipal and independent institutions/organisations of the art and culture field, but also at an individual level, between independent artists and cultural operators and their colleagues affiliated with political parties, with art and culture institutions (as simple members or board members), with universities, etc., that are applying for similar projects. An example of this kind of favouritism was mentioned to me by Johanna Tuukkanen, when she was a member of TAIKE’s council and “had to fight very much and beyond any expectation with another member of the council [an academic] to give the grant to an independent artist, that had a better project, instead of giving the grant to an artist that was doing research within a university but presented a weaker application”.

The above-mentioned example brings up, beyond the lack of transparency, conflict of interests, unethical decision-making, also the problem of favouritism among people frequenting the same circle, like the circle of academia (which, as a problem, beyond the example of Johanna, was mentioned to me also by Anastasia Trizna during the interview); or among people frequenting the same artistic interests such as dance, theatre, visual arts, etc.; or among people frequenting circles that from art and culture cross-cut other fields of humanities, socials sciences, etc. And here the problems not only multiplicate in quantity and consequently impact throughout society’s circles and strata but also in the quality of their complexity.

I noticed this during my interview and exchange of emails with KONE Foundation’s representatives Heljä Franssila and Kalle Korhonen. First of all, it is good to mention that the KONE Foundation procedures are slightly better, because, although there are as in other institutions interpretable criteria and there is no feedback for the unsuccessful applicants, the external evaluators are paid[6] according to the number of applications they evaluate. In addition, the external evaluators present to the Grants Unit the “list of applications” evaluated ordered according to “their preference” and, what is most important, “a project not chosen by an evaluator cannot receive funding”. Yet, beyond these good procedures and practices, there is an additional problem consisting of the KONE Foundation supposed “independence” from the interests of the KONE Corporation. First of all, there is a strict connection related to the fact of having in common the same name – KONE – and the automatic reciprocal benefits and damages in terms of image and public opinion. Secondly, the Foundation operates thanks to the shares it possesses from Corporation, which means that if the Corporation does not make profits, the Foundation‘s finances are directly affected. And, thirdly, the problem becomes even more complex when considering that the Corporation and consequently the Foundation through its assets “possesses shares in tens or hundreds of companies”. Therefore, if the applicants, evaluators, and board members “do not” have to declare the absence of conflicts of interest with companies of which KONE Foundation possesses shares, and if the evaluation system is interpretable and left in the hands of restricted circles (such as board members made of academics and/or professionals of the field) the impact on society of the Foundation is proportioned with the impact on society of the Corporation, which is huge but has not always been positive in the past[7] and seems also in the present[8].

Finally, I wanted to conclude this article with the last exchange I had with Anastasia Trizna during our interview:

“at – Yet, although this interview makes me sound critical of the situation in Finland, it is vital to acknowledge that there is also a giant amount of good things happening. There is a good working culture, a lot of people with an open mind and goodwill to do things. Finland has provided me with possibilities to become what I am: an independent artists with a carrier, which to be honest, I am not sure I could’ve had in my former home country.

rk – I agree. However, looking from behind or from below, from where I am coming from [Albania], I think that there are better systems and institutional practices, especially at the EU level, from which Finland can benefit. Moreover, considering the financial possibilities in Finland as well as the good working culture you mentioned, it is a duty for everyone living here to make, here, the things better because if the things are not done better in Finland, one cannot expect to have good examples coming from countries where these possibilities are just impossible and cannot even be imagined.

at – Sure, and of course, there are people that may not want to be involved with these issues too much. But a lot of other people are sincere and honest in trying to ameliorate the situation. I also think that the mere fact that decision-makers, institutions and individuals of the field are open to having these discussions is a sign of a healthy environment and desire for improvement. Otherwise the beautiful things, such as GAP ART SUMMIT, could not happen.”

I will publish within this year a booklet on the same topic, where will be articulated further the findings of my experience, some solutions implemented at EU which can be implemented also in Finland, as well as the full content of the interviews.

[1] Considering that this article is about “transparency”, I think is important for the reader to know that I firstly learned about the Summit in June 2021, from an email where my participation was suggested by Ulla Tuomarla, Director at KONE Foundation – the institution where at that time I was doing an internship – to Jaana Simula, Managing Director at G.A.P. In addition, is important for the reader to know that I was invited by G.A.P to be part of the Creatives Database and exhibited my work in the framework of GAP WINDOW exhibition series in October 2021.

[2] Cultural diversity in Finland: Opening up the field for foreign-born artists in European Journal of Cultural Management & Policy, Vol. 11, Issue 2, 2021, p. 27-28.

[3] I exchanged several emails and had a short interview with Veikko.

[4] I exchanged several email with Kalle.

[5] I exchanged several emails and had a long interview with Paula.

[6] This is not the case of the external evaluators of TAIKE for example, that, among other things, promotes the employment and working conditions in art and culture fields.

[7] The European Commission, in 2007, fined the Otis, KONE, Schindler and ThyssenKrupp groups €992 million – a record at the EU level at that time – for operating cartels for the installation and maintenance of lifts and escalators in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, in clear violation of EC Treaty rules that outlaw restrictive business practices. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_07_209

[8] A similar problem, involving the same four above-mentioned companies, was reported by the most important independent investigative journalism TV program in Italy, REPORT, aired on Rai 3, a channel of the Italian national network RAI, in December 2021, during a video service entitled The Fantastic Four, the transcription of which – in Italian – is accessible in the link https://www.rai.it/dl/doc/1640627155925_Le%20fantastiche%204%20-%20di%20Roberto%20Persia.pdf

 

Romeo Kodra

I have a Master degree in “Theory, Technique and Management of Arts and Entertainment” (Category: Entertainment and Multimedia Productions, Faculty of Human Sciences) and a Bachelor degree in “Public and Institutional Mass Media Communication” (Category: Communication Sciences, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures), both from Bergamo University of Studies, Italy. The interest of my theoretical artistic research regards the challenged spaces between the political power and arts in transitional and contemporary societies as well as the polyphonic organization of spaces and artistic productions. This interest in my practice is explored through video art, art performances, theater, curatorial events, photography, writings on culture, art and critique of art. From 2016, for my research as well as curatorial and artistic practices, I was selected as Invited Researcher by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, in Paris. At the moment, I work as Lead Expert Quality Evaluator of the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) of the European Commission and enjoy learning Finnish from my two-years-old daughter.