Art research is on shaky ground but gains momentum with funding from Kone Foundation

Kuvitus: Marika Maijala

Kuvitus: Marika Maijala

When universities boast about their achievements, art research is not first on the list. This is what Ulla Tuomarla, Executive Director of Kone Foundation, found when negotiating the Foundation’s funding for Finnish universities. Yet year after year, a large number of students are interested in art research, which has suffered from funding cuts. This reflects the importance of the sector, despite the uncertain employment outlook. With a EUR 4.5 million donation from Kone Foundation, five universities will now have the opportunity to strengthen the role of art research and artistic research. 

When the Government launched the 2020–22 matched-funding scheme to recapitalise universities, Kone Foundation received inquiries about the campaign from many different universities. This started a round of negotiations lasting more than a year, which resulted in the Foundation donating a total of EUR 4.5 million to five different universities. The donations will be earmarked for the humanities, and the Foundation has expressed a wish that the funding will be allocated specifically to art research and artistic research. We hope that the funding will safeguard the diversity of these disciplines and the freedom of research.  

The dialogue, which lasted more than a year, provided an interesting insight into the current state of universities. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the meetings had to be held remotely. In the initial meetings, there was a lot of talk about being the best at something. Each university highlighted its own strengths, areas of focus, flagships and spearheads.  

At the Foundation, however, we became more interested in what areas might be pushed aside or even sunk by profiling and prioritisation. In the spirit of academic freedom, we wanted to know whether universities still allow research on subjects that are part of the university’s cultural mission, but perhaps not the hottest areas of research at the moment. We asked the universities a direct question: are there currently any fields or subjects at your university that are threatened? The answers gave us the distinct impression that art research and artistic research in Finland are in need of special support.  

Supporting the most successful fields of study is easy, but in some respects not very ambitious, and supporting weaker fields comes with its own problems. Individual donations are limited, and if the university does not commit to making its own contributions, the sector will die despite the donation. Many foundations are familiar with the common story of being asked to fund a professorship which the university itself will not invest in. This will hardly convince the funder either.  

According to the rules of the matched-funding scheme, donations of more than EUR 10,000 can be earmarked for a specific field of study. It is not possible to agree more precisely on the purpose of the donations made under the scheme. One of the things that came up in our meetings with the universities was the desire to strengthen university education in creative writing in Finland. It is therefore possible that education and research in creative writing will be strengthened, thanks to the donation from our Foundation.  

I have heard it said that the position of art research in Finnish universities has historically always been somewhat difficult. Perhaps it could also be said that the relationship between art and research has traditionally been a difficult one. Over the last ten years or so, faculties of arts have tried to offer a wide range of education in art research, relying on resources of two or three teachers in tiny academic subjects, to a large group of students who are interested in the subject, even though the job market in the cultural sector is uncertain and professional identity is unclear.  The teachers are exhausted, but keep bravely fighting to preserve their subjects and are also active in research.  

Cooperation between universities can provide more opportunities

The division of labour in the field became even more complicated when schools of art began to produce doctors. While music research, for example, has benefited from both musicians and musicologists bringing their own perspectives to music research, the Ministry’s position has seemed to be that there are unnecessary overlaps in Finnish education – and all the while people everywhere are whining about the lack of resources. 

There has also been a clash of principles on whether an artist is capable of studying their own artistic work and whether it can be called research in the same way as a researcher’s analysis of art made by someone else can. At Uniarts Helsinki, there is both artistic research (carried out by artists and focused on their own practice) and some art research being conducted. Cooperation in education in this field has been curtailed by fears that humanistic research in the arts would be transferred to universities of the arts. 

However, students interested in art research would benefit from greater educational cooperation between institutions. Hopefully, new opportunities will open up, as long as the struggle for survival can be reduced. 

Art research is also well established as part of the humanities curriculum. In my view, the attractiveness of faculties of arts and humanities lies precisely in the wide range of disciplines they offer, and art research is an established part of this wide range. The variety of humanities subjects was probably the reason, at least for the humanities students of my generation, why they didn’t rush to find the exit; it was wonderful to be surrounded by all that richness and study new things! 

During the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of art experiences has highlighted the importance of art, culture and a social life for our well-being. Just as the signs of the pandemic seemed to abate, Russia’s war in Ukraine pushed all of Europe into a new, chilling state of emergency. 

Surviving these and any other exceptional times requires hope, skills and knowledge from different fields: in human crises, it is an advantage to have an understanding of humans, and we cannot always know which field of research will prove to be vital next. 

Kone Foundation’s donation to Finnish universities this year is, we hope, a reflection of the Foundation itself, demonstrating a strong belief in the humanities, an inclination towards the arts and a commitment to diversity.