Ann’s report on the Nordic research visits


Forming Ideas is a curatorial development programme that aims to stimulate debate around craft practice for curators working in the UK. It also aims to forge relationships with art and craft professionals in and outside the UK to encourage the display of challenging craft in mainstream arts venues.  


The progamme has attempted to pin point hot-spots of craft development for curators to visit. Scandinavia has long had an enviable reputation for its craft and design and Iceland’s recent increasing profile in the arts prompted Forming Ideas to programme a visit all five Nordic countries. 


We were wanted to see outstanding examples of craft practice; organisation models of best practice and meet people we might work with in the future.



What we encountered 


In Denmark we found an excellent example of professional support for emerging and established designers in Danish Crafts. Their programme of cultivating selected groups of designers was very focused and clearly of enormous benefit to the individuals. The approach to re-branding Danish Craft presented interesting curatorial opportunities and with a small staff they achieve huge profile by their presence at major design events across the world and permanent display at MoMA NY. The group felt that the work promoted by the organisation was craft activity that closely interfaced with the product design sector as opposed to other areas of contemporary craft practice.


Another excellent model we found was Statens Vaerksteder for Kunst hog Handvaerk – the National Workshops for Arts and Crafts. We were amazed at the high level of equipment and support that artists could draw upon to help them produce large commissions. We have nothing similar to this in the UK and the group has been discussing what partners and resources would be required – and what obstacles would be faced – in order to provide similar support to practitioners here in the UK. 


Visits to independent galleries like Galerie Metal and Gronlund and the time spent with  Danske Kunsthandverkere - the Danish Arts and Crafts Association gave us our first inclination that the same challenges face the Nordic crafts sector as our own. Challenges particular to Denmark were that the funding system seems difficult to navigate for a maker. Then Nordic wide, whilst the average standard of living is above our own it means fewer very wealthy who can afford to collect unique pieces. So egalitarianism isn’t necessarily good for the craft and art market.


Overall we found in Denmark that Design had the higher profile and experimental craft was struggling to find a way of asserting itself. The group has maintained contact with Danske Kunsthandverkere and is working with them and Kunstandverk in Norway to develop outcomes from the visit.


In Sweden the Swedish Institute arranged for us to meet several artists who kindly gave presentations about their work. There appeared to be more opportunity for experimental craft practice in Sweden with the group We Work in Fragile Materials being and example. The group comprises 9 members all who studied at Konstfack and sustain individual careers as well as working on collaborative projects together. They also seem to successfully circumvent both the arts and crafts sectors. We also met with artist and Konstak professor Zandra Ahl - a strong and influential figure in arts and academic sector. An interesting gallery we visited was Crystal Palace – they cross the boundaries of art and craft showing the work of Nordic and international artists. In Gustavsberg we had chance to visit studios and Konsthall.


An organisation that we all felt inspired by was IASPIS, its purpose is to facilitate creative dialogue between artists in Sweden and the international art scene. They have a fantastic space in Stockholm that offers a project space, studios and international residencies and other spaces in Malmo, Gotenborg and Lulea. We intend inviting IASPIS to take part in our ongoing debates.


Finland’s highlight was Fiskars. The vision and support of the company Fiskars has been remarkable in helping build what must be one of the most vibrant creative communities anywhere in the world. The village is home to some of Finland’s finest designers and makers and is visited by 150,000 people each year. As well as homes and studios there are two superb exhibition spaces, a hotel and restaurant – all set in 50,000 acres of woodland and surrounded by numerous lakes. We wondered if anything like this could happen in the UK?


There did seem to be more energy in Finland although again the market was depressed with few collectors. We met with two galleries Norsu and Anhava and they confirmed that most sales were made to international buyers.


The largest designer/maker organisation in Finland is Ornamo and Arists O are a sub-group focusing on craft practitioners; we spent an afternoon with Paula Susitaival and visited a studio complex which was a former military base on the island of Harraka. This was a great chance to meet with some textile artists and discuss what we had experienced on our travels so far. 


We ended our visit to Finland with another great example of how industry can help and benefit from working with artists. Arabia and Iitala are synonymous with the best of product design – built on the close relationships they have fostered with artists and industry. At Arabia they still support nine ceramic artists working on site in their own studios – mostly the artists work on their own commissions but at times will make a proto-type that might be developed for production. 


The strength of these two brands– Fiskars and Arabia/Iitala (now owned by Fiskars) – are extraordinary the former is 360 years old and the latter 130 and both are still going strong commanding enormous loyalty in their home markets. 


Four months later we embarked upon the second leg of our research visit to Norway and Iceland. In Norway our itinerary had been prepared for us by Kunstandverk (NK) and our first port of call was Bergen. We visits comprised a mix of museums, art centres and independent spaces. We were impressed by the exhibition design at display the museum of decorative arts. At Hordaland Arts Centre (HKS) we had an excellent discussion with the Director Anne Karlsen around the positioning of craft within the arts sector and particularly the language used to critique craft. HKS works with artists from both visual arts and craft sectors and plays a strong role within the Bergen arts community. Under a different publishing role (Ctrl+Z) Anne had just completed a book to debate the effects of the ‘biennale’ on a local community – Bergen Kunsthall was closed whilst we were in the city, preparing for a conference to be held on whether Bergen should have its own Biennale.


In addition to venues we were invited into some studios at the former United Sardine Factory, now a studio complex and arts centre. We saw the work of makers who were producing hand-made objects and products but who also worked on public realm projects. Before leaving for Oslo we visited Galeri Format and the independent Glass studio S12. 


The focus of our visit to Oslo was the annual exhibition for makers organized by NK and hosted by the National Museum of Decorative Art and Design. Prior to the exhibition opening we were invited to series of talks given by two artists – a jeweler and a glass artist and then the curator Synnove Vik who had guided us around Bergen. The exhibition Utstillingen 09 was then opened – a group exhibition selected from open entry of members by a panel of appointed judges. A generous cash prize is awarded to one artist on the merit of their work and this year the prize was awarded to the glass artist who had presented earlier Tanja Saeter. The exhibition had some very interesting work but as a show it might have been stronger with less work and a theme to connect the works – but this is difficult to achieve in an annual membership exhibition. NK’s Galerie Format in Oslo is beginning to introduce curated displays as well as continuing to provide commercial opportunities for its membership. NK is certainly trying to increase the profile of its membership and push craft firmly into the spotlight.


After the exhibition we visited another creative island idyll a short boat ride away from the city. A networking event was held at artist run studio complex and bar situated on a picturesque island  - the studios were wonderful and the two artists who invited us into their studio spoke eloquently about their work. What was interesting was whilst they were both using textiles they were both being exhibited in the parallel annual exhibition for ‘artists’ to Utsillingen 09 which is for ‘makers’. It would have been useful to have visited this exhibition to compare quality and trends but time did not permit.


Whilst in Norway we visited the Nordic Biennale in Moss Momentum. Held over two sites in very different buildings it was an excellent opportunity to get a feel of what was current in the Nordic visual arts scene. 


Gallerie RAM was interesting because again it worked between arts and crafts but by inviting site specific installations for its own gallery space. When we visited there was an installation of bone-type relics made in porcelain by artist Mona Naes. 


Whilst our programme was full and stimulating we might have benefited from meeting with the Office for Contemporary Art (OCA) and the Design and Architecture Centre  (DogA). It would he been enlightening to discuss with them the positing of craft within the Norway’s creative sector. 


Following on from Norway we traveled to Iceland and Reykjavik and this was a real shift. I don’t believe that we were prepared for the aesthetic difference due to the lack of visual tradition in Iceland – visual art and design is relatively new here. The predominance of handicraft was surprising and the investment in the development of a design industry exciting. It became apparent that the kind of work we were looking to engage with would be found elsewhere being made by artists. Christina Schoen of Contemporary Icelandic Art (CIA) came to the rescue and we had a wonderful meeting with the three women who comprise the Icelandic Love Corporation. The visual arts sector in Iceland seems without boundaries and artists happily work across disciplines. Schoen and the role of CIA seem pivotal to the health of the contemporary arts in Iceland but whilst we were there Schoen was preparing to return to his native Germany.


Reykjavik Art Museum (Harbour House) was a fantastic building and we liked the openness to programming (that included craft and design alongside contemporary art) and pragmatism of the Director Hafpor Yngvason. This is the kind of open programming policy we would like to see in the UK.


In summary what we found were, that the same tensions and debates exist between the art/craft/design sectors as we have in the UK. That craft skills are in decline, particularly stemming from a reduction in craft based courses offered by Higher Education. The struggle to find a language to critique craft is common, as is the value disparity between the unique craft object and contemporary art. Few artists are able to successfully straddle both camps. Nonetheless, despite and partially because of these issues, there now exists cross border relationships between the Nordic countries that want to debate and push things on. Not only has this research visit brokered sound relationships between the UK and our colleagues in the Nordic countries but it has provoked more joined up working amongst Nordic organisations.


Individual artists have more opportunities to access state funding than UK artists but at times this works to the disadvantage of organisations, for instance an artist might apply for producing a body of work but the organisation cannot apply for funds to exhibit it. We were amazed at the support artists and makers are offered by way of sustaining grants over periods ranging from months to years. However there are fewer market opportunities and fewer homegrown collectors for artist to sell to and most gallery clients are based outside the Nordic region.