Culture at Heart

Kiasma's Director Berndt Arell challenged Stefan Wallin, Minister of Culture, to a debate on some the topical issues of the day.

We meet in a cosy café and have a unique opportunity during a long lunch to discuss, undisturbed, certain central issues in culture, both those that our new Minister of Culture and Sports has introduced already at the start of his period of office, and also issues raised in earlier discussions.

Questions concerning the art sector in particular are our primary concern, and our first conversation revolves around the new culture voucher. The voucher is intended as a kind of parallel to the exercise voucher. Together with the Ministry of Finance, the Minister has appointed a working group, which in the coming autumn is expected to draw up a bill for a revision of the income tax law. The culture voucher should be ready for launch in the beginning of 2009. It is still debated where and how the voucher should be applicable, but one possibility is to make it valid in all cultural institutions that enjoy government support. This in itself is a quality control measure that should function well.

Our thoughts move next to issues involving free admission, reduced admission price in the form of a culture voucher issued by employers, and what effects it can have. The Swedish example of free entry to state-run museums, which as we know was concluded in the beginning of this year, was positive. Visitor numbers increased in all museums, sometimes dramatically, and people were generally happy with the system. Free admission applied to basic museum exhibitions, but not special exhibitions. When it was withdrawn, visitor numbers dropped very quickly. The culture voucher is a refinement of the concept of free entry. The reduced admission price entails entry to permanent collections as well as special exhibitions, and would not be restricted to state-run museums. Our discussion examines such issues of principle, and Stefan Wallin wants to emphasise that it is precisely this, that the admission fee is not scrapped altogether, but that instead people are offered a voucher which in itself has a value, that can be seen as the more valuable option. The fact that the voucher could be used anywhere one likes, that it would not be limited only to museums, but would also apply to theatres, concerts, and the like, would undoubtedly bring the voucher greater added value.

This discussion leads us unbidden to questions about the general significance of culture in society. The Minister has obviously just come from heated budget negotiations, because we spend a great deal of time discussing issues that involve measurability, the ever-present burden of proof laid on culture: how to demonstrate that cultural experiences have a real effect as part of the quality of life, and also as an important building block of the welfare society. Stefan Wallin says that it is possible to show that the deteriorating physical condition of the population is costing the country about 400 million euro every year. Similar figures can also be cited about culture. A Swedish study undertaken at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm in 2001 shows that culturally active people use 57% less health-care services than people on average. I am particularly taken by the fact that it is possible to measure the effect of cultural experiences on us. The endorphin content in the body increases after art experiences, and it is clearly measurable. Wonderful, I think to myself, that's what it has often felt like after a really good concert or art exhibition.

We finish our lunchtime conversation by touching upon the situation of state-run cultural institutions. The Minister assures me that the state will also, in the future, be an active financing body committed to maintaining operations at a certain level without allowing them to flag. He sees the contributions of the business sector in this area as something exclusively positive, especially the fact that increasingly more businesses today like to be associated with culture as a natural part of their profile. The new government has taken this into special consideration by including in its new budget a proposal for increasing the tax deduction of donations to science and culture from the current 25,000 euro to 250,000 euro. The minister is also working to have the deduction extended so as to cover not only businesses but private individuals as well, and that this should happen during the current election period.

To conclude our conversation, I cannot resist asking Stefan Wallin about his own relationship to art, contemporary art in particular. His diplomatic answer is that he "is working on it", while he also stresses that there are no short cuts to contemporary art. All you can do is to see as much as possible. Among the summer's most interesting art experiences is the exhibition of Maire Gullichsen's art collections at the Pori Art Museum, and Sigrid Juselius's mausoleum in the same town. The strategy is to include an art exhibition in every visit to a new place. That means many endorphin-inducing experiences!