Infuriating boldness

Should Kone Foundation abandon its infuriating rhetoric about boldness? When boldness is being criticised, is it the word itself that is at fault or is it something else? The Foundation’s Head of Communications Heljä Franssila reflects on courage and boldness.

When Kone Foundation’s strategy was updated in 2012, its vision was crystallised into the concept of making the world a better place by facilitating bold initiatives in art and research. This vision was turned into the Foundation’s mission in the current strategy, which has been implemented since 2016.

In the Finnish Language Office’s dictionary, boldness is defined as fearlessness, bravery, courage and sisu, i.e. perseverance in the face of difficulties. In addition to these meanings, the Foundation’s strategy seeks to encapsulate a slew of other values the Foundation holds dear in the definition of the word ‘boldness’. These include looking at and listening to things in a different way, appreciating diversity and multidisciplinary approaches, encouraging people to cross the boundaries between art and research, and trusting in experimentation, incompleteness and a future that is not predetermined.

In this way, Kone Foundation has verbalised its profile as a supporter of art and research, with a special focus for its financial activities. Consequently, it stands out from many major foundations that provide funding for art and research generally, such as the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Alfred Kordelin Foundation or the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation. At the same time, it has a lot in common with many other foundations that also have clearly defined purposes, such as the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation and We Foundation.

First and foremost, boldness has helped Kone Foundation attract more of the kinds of applications for art and research that it wants to fund. In addition, it has unquestionably contributed to the Foundation’s visibility and helped it to build a recognisable, strong brand.

In less than a decade, bold initiatives have become a concept that most actors in the fields of art and research associate specifically with Kone Foundation. While this can be seen as successful communication, boldness is also criticised to such an extent that it is pertinent to ask whether we have, after all, failed to communicate what we mean by the word. Is it possible that boldness is misunderstood so completely or that people find it so irritating for one reason or another that it actually hinders the Foundation’s reputation and its achievement of its purpose?

In criticising boldness, similar arguments are repeated over and over. It makes some people anxious to have to swathe their project in the wrappings of boldness instead of feeling like they can simply apply for a grant for their artistic or research work (sic! Yes, you can). Seeking and presenting boldness is considered an artificial configuration which the grant applicants are forced to submit to in order to ensure their work, their livelihood. Boldness is also interpreted as the Foundation’s compulsive need to seek something new, which in reality is an impossibility for long-term research and artistic work.

At the Foundation, we have listened carefully to the criticism. Since bold initiatives are not just a communications gimmick but a real strategic objective, eliminating them simply because they do not appeal to everyone is out of the question. To us, questioning boldness signifies a greater question about how worthwhile the Foundation’s work is, and we have never had any doubts about our basic purpose. By deliberately looking at the fringe areas of art and research that remain unnoticed by others, the Foundation has been able to support diverse and multi-faceted art and research in Finland.

It is true that in their application form the grant applicant is required to define their project’s relationship with the Foundation’s funding profile, i.e. boldness. At the Foundation, we have sought to communicate that boldness has more meanings than just those given by the Foundation and that the applicant is free to interpret the word as they see fit. For the Foundation, boldness stands for the attributes manifested in its values, but it may stand for something entirely different in the applicant’s work. Not all the art and research funded by the Foundation are about crossing borders and looking at things differently, far from it. Instead, they include a great deal of basic research and other high-quality investigation and art.

What makes this challenging is the fact that the Foundation obviously does not own the word ‘boldness’ and cannot dictate the meanings it carries or how people understand it. Many other players have begun to talk about boldness too over the past ten years. Boldness is a popular value that has been adopted by the public debate forum SuomiAreena, Aalto University and the City of Vantaa, among others. Courage has even found its way into the communications strategy of Finland’s government. Boldness in the Uniarts Helsinki university’s strategy sounds very similar to Kone Foundation’s concept of it: “We encourage bold endeavours when creating art and conducting research. We dare to experiment and create new kinds of ideas, expression methods and activities. We respect the freedom of art and operate globally in a responsible way.”

We are also aware that some grant recipients find the concept of ‘bold authorship’ manifested by the Foundation difficult. It is understandable if you don’t want to brag about your grant if your colleagues have not received funding. Contrary to what some fresh grantees have thought, the Foundation does not expect grantees to use the phrase ‘bold maker’ in relation to themselves when communicating about their own project. The Foundation has always considered it important to give grantees the freedom to carry out their work as they see fit, and this also applies to how they communicate about their work. As the spearhead phrase of the Foundation’s communications, on the other hand, ‘bold makers’ has, in my opinion, provided an effective way of highlighting Finnish art and research, which is one of the objectives charted in the Foundation’s communications strategy.

While the word ‘boldness’ presents some challenges in Finnish, its translation is equally problematic. We have received feedback particularly from overseas applicants who say that it can feel alien to place their work under the umbrella of ‘boldness’, especially when Kone Foundation (or the Foundation’s Saari Residence for artists) is an unknown operator for them to begin with. I have had many discussions with our language expert, who is a native speaker of English, about whether some other translation could be used in place of the clumsy ‘bold makers’. So far we have not been able to come up with anything better.

 

The most recent criticism of bold initiatives was published in early January when Antu Sorainen and Jaakko Ruuska wrote in the Politiikasta.fi online publication that “heavily marketed rhetoric about boldness creates rifts between the researchers and artists who receive funding and those who don’t”.

According to the writers, there is a risk that researchers and artists will begin to glorify the significance of funding from Kone Foundation and associate the grant with significant symbolic, branded value. Sorainen and Ruuska’s article deals with the increased power of foundations, and their greatest criticism relates to the transparency of the decision-making and evaluation processes of Kone Foundation and other foundations. Director of Research Funding Kalle Korhonen from Kone Foundation has commented on the actual beef of this article on Twitter and Facebook. I shall only address the criticism of boldness here, but I will soon come to questions about the power of foundations.

Sorainen and Ruuska’s concern about the well-being and livelihoods of researchers and artists living in the midst of uncertainty and experiences of unfairness is more than justified. The wish they express that sponsors investigate how they could prevent the division of art and research communities and the acceleration of competition is, in my view, acute and will hopefully resonate with both private and public decision-makers in the funding sector.

It is an alarming idea that Kone Foundation’s ‘boldness’ could actually be a term that only increases toxicity in the art and research communities facing the extremely competitive circumstances of today’s funding.

Sorainen and Ruuska are not the first to point out that the support offered by Kone Foundation in addition to its grants and the status of bold authorship are likely to increase feelings of injustice in those who do not get funding. However, the Foundation’s purpose in providing support has never been about raising the status of the grantees. It would be problematic to fail to pursue our objectives on the grounds that the support cannot be extended to everyone making art and carrying out research in Finland.

What is it then that we aspire to? Foundations the world over are doing a great deal of work to raise the skills of the experts they fund, which is called capacity building. This work often seeks to increase skills that are not directly linked to the experts’ own sector. The capacity of applicants is also increased in order to incubate great projects, meaning that the foundations’ development support can also be extended to those who are not yet grantees.

In Kone Foundation’s case, at the beginning, increasing skills meant providing people with networks in the form of seminars and events that were associated with the grant application process. After that, we started to provide day-long communications training for researchers in cooperation with the Nessling Foundation which funds environmental research. We have also experimented with various workshops and mentoring programmes to support creative work. In addition, we have been able to provide some support to grantees through communication and event production.

The idea behind our capacity building is that the growth of researchers’ and artists’ know-how benefits the entire research and art community. Kone Foundation’s strategy also defines the meaningful support of grantees as a method of developing the effectiveness of the support.

As yet, few foundations in Finland engage in the capacity building of grantees, and at Kone Foundation we don’t carry it out as systematically as we could. If anything, however, it is likely that support for grantees will become stronger in the future rather than declining.

Highlighting bold makers, especially in the context of the grants awarded, has also served the Foundation’s vision of art and research flourishing in Finland. Our thinking is that by directing the spotlight at the grantees, we also communicate how vital making art and engaging in research is to humankind. Even when we describe individuals, we want to share a bigger story about how relevant the art and research projects currently underway in our society are.

 

I am still trying to figure out the root cause for why boldness is so infuriating. It is probably the fact that there is not enough funding available for artists and researchers, neither public or private.

Sorainen and Ruuska write that, as public funding decreases, foundations have sought to influence society more and more conspicuously with their funding. I would argue that this is an optical illusion. Foundations certainly want to contribute to the appreciation of art and research, but in comparison with the profiling pressures of, say, universities, I believe that foundations’ funding can rightly be regarded as relatively free. The contents come from the people engaging in art and research, they are not dictated by the foundations.

The cuts in public funding have undoubtedly increased the importance of foundations in people’s minds, which in turn has escalated the demands put on them in comparison to their actual size.

Public funding is still by far a greater sponsor of art and research in Finland than foundations – and that is how it should be. State subsidies for research and development in 2019 totalled almost EUR 2 billion and for art and culture EUR 448 million. On top of this, municipalities provide around EUR 900 million of funding, which includes general cultural activities, as well as financing for libraries, theatres, orchestras, museums and basic art education for children and young people.

These sums are multiple times larger than those provided by foundations, whose combined funding of research totals just over EUR 200 million per year and of art over EUR 60 million per year. There is nothing to indicate that the number or foundations or the amount of funding in Finland will increase substantially in the near future.

In addition, as far as I can tell and at least for the present, Finnish foundations engage very little in work that aims to influence art and research policies, which is an important consideration when weighing up the power they hold. Instead, Finnish foundations do have their own lobbying organisation, the Association of Finnish Foundations. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that some of the same people hold positions of trust in both foundations and universities.

To gain a sense of proportion, let’s compare the Finnish foundation sector with other western countries. Denmark had more than four times as many foundations as Finland and they award more than EUR 2 billion in grants per year – Finnish foundations award less than EUR 500 million per year. There are many gigantic foundations in the world, with equally large question marks about their power compared to Finnish foundations. The Greek Stavros Niarchos Foundation awards EUR 700 million worth of funding every year and also carries out multi-billion euro cooperation projects with the Greek Government. In Athens, near the port of Piraeus, stands the brand new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which has brought the Greek National Opera and National Library under one roof and will next start building three hospitals in three different locations in Greece.

If there was strong public funding for art and research, foundations working with private capital could focus on building a profile as sponsors of wild cards, if they chose to, without upsetting anyone, but in the current limited financial situation the strategic choices of a single foundation are put under a larger spotlight than warranted by its size. Some of the demands for fairness and transparency in public funding are transferred to foundations. At the same time, people forget that such obligations do not automatically apply to foundations. (By this I do not mean that foundations should not strive for transparency.)

 

This spring, Kone Foundation’s Board of Trustees and staff will be working on the Foundation’s new strategy, which is why this is a great time to have this debate about boldness (if you read Finnish, as well as the article by Sorainen and Ruuska, I recommend you read Taneli Viitahuhta’s article in Nuori Voima).

This is a great opportunity for us to ponder and thoroughly dissect this question. Should we abandon the concept of boldness? Should we simply communicate about it better? Should we hold on to boldness as the Foundation’s own magnifying glass, through which it views the world? If we abandon the concept, what will happen to the Foundation’s profile; will it lose its focus?

This is also an excellent opportunity to reflect on the Foundation’s role and status in Finnish art and research communities. How can Kone Foundation respond to Sorainen and Ruuska’s wish for foundations to prevent the division of communities? Finally, how can we answer an even more momentous question: how can we work together to defend the value of art and research when there are actors in politics whose interests are served by denying it?

One solution for building strong communities might be to found in the concepts of care and nurture. This is not my idea; I am borrowing it from Curator Jenni Nurmenniemi, who recently wrote an article contemplating the changes she has implemented in her curatorial work while practising post-fossil methods of work. Nurmenniemi describes how she fumbled towards forms of curating that involve reducing the scale and focusing on qualitative instead of quantitative evaluation criteria.

“I have been working with artists over a long period, observing processes that find their form slowly and that are sometimes hard to recognise as art. Often, the requirements they set on the curator are something completely different than the performance of expertise, authority or control. I have been learning tenderness and care, and have failed often,” Nurmenniemi writes.

Transferring Nurmenniemi’s approach – tenderness and care – to the Foundation’s framework is a radical, compelling idea. How could the Foundation take care of researchers and artists? What could we do to rebuild well-being and financial security in art and research communities?

The Foundation’s communications play a role in this. I believe we need less rhetoric about boldness and more kindness. As a whole, of course, what we are mainly dealing with is ensuring stronger funding for art and research and more secure livelihoods for artists and researchers in Finland, which is by no means an easy task in itself. On the other hand, there are few organisations better equipped to meet this challenge of care and security than Kone Foundation.

 

Author

Heljä Franssila