The recent policy changes encompassing adjustments in immigration policy regarding foreign nationals’ employment rights and the approval of the visual art policy until 2030 have the potential to notably influence the dynamics of the Icelandic art scene, if they can be effectively implemented and become truly responsive to the needs and realities of the wider society through inclusivity and openness.
The amended regulations on employment rights of foreigners now allow foreign nationals from outside the EEA or EFTA countries to obtain a work permit alongside a residence permit, extending the job-seeking period after graduation to three years instead of the previous six months. Although these changes present promising opportunities, they also raise concerns about discrimination based on skill sets and qualifications, thereby challenging the quest for a more diverse and inclusive art community. In essence, while the new regulations expand possibilities for specialised workers, they remain restrictive and discriminatory toward unspecialised workers. Therefore, this policy appears to perpetuate stereotypes about immigrants and fails to acknowledge the contributions of working immigrants in non-specialized employment. Furthermore, the complexity of the visa procedures and the realities of the domestic labor market and working conditions for migrants, especially from marginalized and underrepresented communities, highlight the need for a responsive approach to creating a just, equitable, and safe immigration policy. There is thus still much work to be done to address the existing barriers faced by migrants and bring about a radical change in this regard.
Before the recent changes were approved as law by Alþingi, the National Parliament of Iceland, the Artist in Iceland Visa Action Group (AIVAG), an advocacy group of which I am also a member, expressed their concerns about the bill. AIVAG highlighted the discrepancies between visa and work permit requirements and the realities of the local cultural sector and the arts economy, as well as the labour conditions. One of the key issues raised by AIVAG was the complexity of classifying skilled and unskilled workers within the arts fields, thus emphasising the need for adjustments that reflect the patchwork economy in which artists and culture practitioners often operate. Currently, the work permit restricts artists from working outside the cultural sector and requires a minimum monthly income, which poses challenges for artists who rely on multiple sources of, mostly irregular, income from various sectors due to limited paid work opportunities and funding in the field of arts. In essence, AIVAG have advocated for changes in the existing model and associated criteria to better accommodate artists who face unique challenges in sustaining their livelihoods in the fields of arts and have asked for a more convenient and flexible approach to recognize the diverse income streams that artists often rely upon.
Around the same time as changes to immigration policy, a visual art policy was also approved, aiming at establishing a dynamic, supportive, visible, and internationally recognised local art scene until the year 2030. Despite Iceland’s thriving art community, it faces challenges like nepotism, cultural paternalism, favoritism, and a lack of diversity. These gatekeeping practices not only create barriers for marginalized individuals to access opportunities, but also influence who is welcomed and accepted within the art community. Currently, the Icelandic art field is predominantly composed of a white, Icelandic, middle-class, and non-disabled individuals. For the art scene to genuinely become dynamic and supportive, it must address this lack of representation and inclusion. Hidden exclusionary and xenophobic structures persist in a society that was once culturally and racially homogeneous. The small-scale and tight-knit nature of Icelandic society can benefit the privileged and well-connected, who can more easily engage in the community through family, friends, or peer connections. On the other hand, it can lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion for those with no specific Icelandic connection and make it even harder for them to establish meaningful connections and friendships.
To foster a more diverse and inclusive art community, it is crucial to increase the percentage of new jobs and positions that are offered to underrepresented and excluded minorities. This can help break down the existing barriers and enable individuals from diverse backgrounds to enter and thrive in the field of the arts in Iceland. By embracing a more inclusive approach, the art community can truly reflect the rich tapestry of perspectives and talents present in broader society.
Despite the increasing diversity of the Icelandic population, there is a noticeable lack of representation in management, leadership, and administrative positions within art institutions which, as an excuse, is often related to the scarce job opportunities in the arts on this small island and to concerns about language barriers and cultural differences. This presents a significant challenge for artists and cultural practitioners of foreign origins who aspire to pursue a professional career within these institutions and who are eligible to obtain a residency permit, though only an employment contract. While there is a desire and support for their participation in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) events, the absence of open calls to welcome them to work with Icelandic peers is evident. This underrepresentation suggests that despite claims of progress in women’s rights and gender equality, a genuine commitment to overall equality and diversity, accompanied by necessary systemic changes, is still a work in progress.
I think it is essential for Iceland to address these issues of hidden exclusion and xenophobia and work towards fostering a more inclusive and diverse society where opportunities are not limited to those with existing networks and privileges. Implementing rigorous systemic changes and promoting genuine commitment to equality and diversity would be vital steps toward a more inclusive and representative art community and society as a whole. Recognizing and actively challenging these long-standing structures is necessary to create a more equitable and welcoming environment for all individuals, regardless of their background or identity.
To conclude, the challenge of aligning policy ideals with practical needs and issues in the real world is a persistent problem. Even though policies are often declared to be crafted with good intentions and ambitious goals, their execution can be complicated by the complexities of reality, like in the Icelandic case. This often results in a gap between the intended objectives and what can actually be achieved. To overcome this, policymakers must consistently assess and adapt their strategies, considering feedback from the communities and stakeholders affected by the policies. This could be one way to ensure that policy frameworks better meet the genuine needs and challenges faced on the ground. However, the challenge of gatekeeping and deciding who gets to engage in dialogue with policymakers very often remains an ongoing and complex issue. It is vital to establish transparent and fair mechanisms for involving a diverse range of voices in policy discussions. This inclusivity can foster a more comprehensive understanding of the needs and concerns of different communities, leading to better-informed and equitable policy decisions. And achieving this would require continuous efforts to confront the gatekeeping obstacle and to ensure that policy-making processes remain transparent, accessible, and inclusive, representing the interests of the wider population in a society experiencing increasing diversity due to migration, such as Iceland.