One of the areas of focus in my PhD research is the discussion of diversity and inclusivity within the cultural landscape in Iceland and how they have been weakened and become de-politicized in the neoliberal context. Also, as an active member of the artist-led advocacy group AIVAG (Artists in Iceland Visa Action Group), our commitment to identifying and addressing lack of accesibility, inclusivity and diversity in the artistic field drives our key actions, which are all intended for catalyzing a change towards an equitable arts and culture sector providing desirable, fair, and sustainable living and working conditions. This is why I make an effort to follow the discussions within the Icelandic art scene, even though it can be challenging, as most of these discussions take place on social media or local newspapers and are held in Icelandic.
Recently, one of the issues that came to the forefront was the appointment of the new American curator at the National Gallery of Iceland, which has raised a discussion about the lack of a transparent selection process and the institution´s opaque power politics. The lack of information regarding the recruitment process has raised concerns, especially given the National Gallery’s prominent status as a public institution, where actions must indeed be perceived as fair and honest, yet regrettably, this does not seem to be the case. I will not mention specific names as my intention is not to put anyone on the spot, and I believe this issue is rather more systematic and should be addressed, especially given that this appointment has already faced criticism and is considered as not a proper practice. In response to this criticism over the selection process, those who had prior collaborations or interactions with the appointed curator chose to engage in the discussion in a more diplomatic way and expressed their support by sending congratulations on the appointment, which is of course a meaningful gesture to not to leave the curator feeling isolated or exposed to kind of undue scrutiny.
I would, of course, have liked to see this appointment as a positive step taken to diversify institutional positions in the art field. However, it appears that there has been no systemic change in this regard, as art institutions affiliated with the Icelandic government continue to be quite strict on enforcement of the language protection policy, even often using this as a justification for not increasing the opportunities for practitioners with immigrant backgrounds who do not speak Icelandic. Indeed, to my knowledge, all the staff in administrative and management positions at the state art institutions are proficient in speaking Icelandic, unless they happen to be of Icelandic origin. So this appointment can be considered as something of an exception, particularly so, despite the absence of an English advertisement for the job, which was announced on August 10th with only 15-day application window until the given deadline on August 25th, speaking Icelandic did not seem to be a criterion in the decision making. Why was the job announcement only made available in Icelandic then, not also in English? Why was the call not widely advertised, considering it was open to a broader pool of applicants without the language requirement of speaking Icelandic? Does not this reflect a somewhat semi-inclusive and partially diverse approach?
A similar lack of consistency also came to light during the “Horft til framtíðar” (eng. Looking to the Future) conference held on March 16th at the House of Collection (ice. Safnahúsið) of the National Gallery (ice. Listasafnið Íslands). The keynote speaker, who later became the appointed curator and joined the team of two members from the conference´s organizing team, was invited to deliver an English presentation at an event with Icelandic as apparently the designated working language. Even the opening remarks were presented solely in Icelandic, despite the presence of non-Icelandic speaking participants. The absence of translation services likely created not only a communication barrier, for speakers and audiences who are not bilingual, but also made fully engaging with the content difficult.
The conference was planned to discuss the future of the arts, announced on the press release as: ´Looking to the Future is a conference where our ideas, dreams and expectations for the art of the future will be discussed. As a result of the fact that the government’s art policy is in process and will see the light of day in the coming weeks or months, it was decided to create a platform where we reflect on the art environment from various perspectives and in the long term. We will ask questions, remind ourselves of what is important, what we can do to promote art and hopefully see things in a new light.´ So the event was meant to share and discuss the objectives and action plans of the new art policy. In alignment with the objectives of this new policy, the keynote speech effectively promoted Iceland as a hub for creativity but fell short of addressing crucial aspects like affordability, limited accessibility, and the privileges required to greatly enjoy Iceland as a destination for creativity. Nonetheless, this framing of Iceland complies well with the Icelandic Ministry’s new art policy with an upgraded neoliberal agenda, which seeks to maximize the market value of ´Icelandic art´, encourages market-driven international cultural exchange and international competitiviness, and promotes entrepreneurship in the cultural sector.
There is no doubt that the appointed curator will make an important contribution to the Icelandic art scene, significantly enhance the National Gallery of Iceland´s influence in the international art scene and expand the national collection´s reach out to an international audience, enrich the cultural experience of both residents and visitors alike, facilitate a favorable cultural exchange between Iceland and the United States – as can be exemplified by the past exhibitions from the aftermath of the financial meltdown such as Iceland: Artists Respond to Place (2014) at the Katonah Museum of Art in NY, and From Another Shore: Recent Icelandic Art (2008) at Scandinavia House – The Nordic Center in America. This, at least, seems to be the expectations of a certain segment of the artworld, which is often hesitant to depart from established principles, such as language protection policy, or from somewhat unspoken agreements, such as the practice of giving priority and ascribing greater appreciation to people with Icelandic origin. Considering the National Gallery’s frequently referenced significant role in the Icelandic cultural landscape, my question would be: would the art community have welcomed the appointment with the same enthusiasm if the appointed curator didn’t come from a country in the Western Hemisphere, with a significant role in global art market, or with a special cultural diplomatic relationship with Iceland, like the US, but s/he yet possessed a comparable level of professional experience and expertise in Icelandic contemporary art and history?
Alþingi (2010). Þskj. 870 — 533. Mál, Frumvarp til laga. https://www.althingi.is/altext/139/s/0870.html
Icelandic Art Center (2023, March 16).Horft til framtíðar [Facebook Events] Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/events/1045729856830978
Listasafn Íslands. (2023, August 10). Sýningarstjóri. https://www.listasafn.is/frettir/syningarstjori/?fbclid=IwAR3vdqLbknzIX1y3TS0_TcpmbHl9VwS_ysef-pV_tGPH1hUh3ZPkIZ-boVw
 For the advertisement of the job, see: https://www.listasafn.is/frettir/syningarstjori/?fbclid=IwAR3vdqLbknzIX1y3TS0_TcpmbHl9VwS_ysef-pV_tGPH1hUh3ZPkIZ-boVw