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Not just your own thing

A concert series making diverse use of international star performers and a joint marketing project between dance and circus are examples of a new type of cooperation in the cultural sector. There is every reason to learn from the model they provide says the rector of the UniArts Helsinki.

Juha Merimaa Avatar

Photo: Magenta Haze by Milla Koistinen. Ilkka Saastamoinen/Dance House Helsinki

One December evening, there is a keen atmosphere in the Sibelius Academy Concert Hall. The Sitkovetsky Trio, awarded by the BBC, goes through its diverse programme: Sam Perkin’s playful Show tests the limits of the trio’s instruments, Beethoven’s allegretto and Mendelssohn’s piano trio play dexterously but assuredly.

The same premises, which citizens knew as the stark, temporary relocation of the Finnish Parliament during renovation of Parliament House, is now alive with the power of music.

And little wonder. After all, it was exactly for this purpose, chamber music, that the concert hall had been designed when it was completed in 1930.

All the same, public concerts had seldom been heard there in recent years. At the turn of 2021, musician Jukka Untamala and classical music enthusiasts Hannele Eklund and Minna Lindgren decided that something needed to be done about the situation.

This gave rise to Helsinki Seriös, a series of chamber music concerts based on the idea of bringing internationally high-calibre chamber music ensembles to the classical music hall.

“We require no special programme, and nor do our seasons have themes. The idea is that the performers choose a programme that they themselves want to play in their concert”, is how Hannele Eklund, Executive Director of Helsinki Seriös explains the idea behind the concert series.

Making the most of star performers

From the very outset, the basic idea behind the concert series has been to make as diverse use as possible of international star performers.

“For example, symphony orchestras in the Helsinki Region often have interesting soloists, many of whom also play in smaller ensembles. We then find out whether it’s possible we can get this line-up if the soloist is in Helsinki for a few days anyway”, Eklund says.

Cooperation could work the other way round, too. Even though Helsinki Seriös only has concerts in Helsinki, it has also contacted other concert halls to see if they, too, are interested in the same programme.

Together with UniArts Helsinki, which manages the Sibelius Academy Concert Hall, opportunities to use visitors in teaching are also explored. The Orsino Ensemble, which visited Helsinki Seriös in the autumn, also held a master class for students in conjunction with their concert. More master classes are on the programme for the spring season.

Hannele Eklund

CEO of Wellspoken Oy

Producer and Executive Director of Helsinki Seriös, a concert series with chamber music of Kamarimusiikkia kaupungeissa ry funded by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation 2021–2023

Other partners include Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, which records the concerts and posts them on Areena to be listened to. This generates a small income for the concert organiser, too, but the most important thing is the ability of broadcasting to bring the concerts within reach of the public.

”From our perspective, it’s about publicity work more than anything else. We hope people will find the concert series also through Yle.”

“Arts are currently very atomised, with many people doing their own thing. Other factors can be seen more as competitors than partners”

Kaarlo Hildén

Eliminating bottlenecks

“The willingness of Helsinki Seriös to cooperate is an example of an approach that should be more widespread in the arts”, says Kaarlo Hildén, Rector of UniArts Helsinki.

“Arts are currently very atomised, with many people doing their own thing. Other factors can be seen more as competitors than partners”, Hildén explains.

The dominant approach emphasises institutions. This is not always best from the point of view of the big picture since although there are very many actors, there is a shortage of resources.

”The result is unnecessary bottlenecks. For example, we have plenty of spaces that are only used for the performances of the actor in charge of the premises. There is clear room for improvement in this respect.”

Hildén believes that going forward, the arts, too, will have to adapt to more agile systems, the sharing economy, networking and cooperation.

“These are on the way everywhere else in society, too. It would pay the arts sector to be a leader rather than an inhibitor.”

Ari Tenhula

Managing director of the Centre for New Dance Zodiak

Member of the steering group of Loisto, a joint project between the Centre for New Dance and the Centre for New Circus Cirko, to develop the production and touring of dance and circus funded by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation 2022
(Photo: Ilkka Saastamoinen)

Loisto extends the lifespan of performances

Another example of a new way of doing things is Loisto, a joint project between the Centre for New Dance Zodiak and the Centre for New Circus Cirko, to develop the production and touring of dance and circus. According to Zodiak’s managing director Ari Tenhula, the project started from an observation that the lifespan of most contemporary dance or circus performances ends after just a few performances.

“When an expensive production stage ends with the première, funding usually dries up at the same time. The work is performed perhaps 5–6 times, which generally reaches an audience interested in the topic in the capital region”, explains Tenhula. ”After that, the works usually just fade away. A lot of work goes to waste, even though there could be a demand for at least some of the performances elsewhere.”

This doesn’t need to be the case. An interesting performance could well go on tour in Finland or abroad for that matter. Costs would be low, the expensive initial production work would have already been done.

In practice, efforts are already being made now to market works. However, the time window is too narrow to promote works when they are being performed and marketing results have been meagre, Tenhula explains.

“Our idea would be to start building co-productions and tours and the associated promotion work and marketing in good time before the pre-production phase, develop marketing measures and create national and international cooperation models.”

“It begins to slightly resemble a start-up business: it definitely won’t be possible to find co-producers and tour markets for all the works, but where these open up they should be found during initial production”, Tenhula sums up.

”Since the sectors face the same challenge, it was natural to work together. It would have made no sense for each of us to try and solve the same structural problems alone”

Ari Tenhula

Common problems, common project

Freelance artists suffer the most in the current situation. They receive a grant for a performance but once the performance is ready the only way they can continue working is to apply for funding for their next work.

Zodiak and Cirko are also similar production houses that are familiar with the problems of the lifespan of performances. Dance House Helsinki does not have its own production but recognises the situation.

Experts in the field are needed for marketing and, for example, video production for promotion. Building production models requires negotiations. This all costs money. In order to share costs, the project has been done together from the outset.

”Since the sectors face the same challenge, it was natural to work together. It would have made no sense for each of us to try and solve the same structural problems alone”, Tenhula explains.

Cooperation in the project, which launched in autumn 2022, has got off to a good start under the lead of Katarina Lindholm, head of development at Zodiak”,  Tenhula enthuses. While the team is small enough to ensure managing the project does not consume too many resources, working together makes things easier.

Change is also painful

Everything seems to support wider cooperation in the cultural sector. So why is cooperation so difficult?

“Change is also painful”, says Hildén at UniArts.

”People in the arts are generally very ambitious and want to do their work as best they can. This is why stepping outside the comfort zone can feel threatening.”

Cooperation also increases diversity. Even if, for example, the owner of performance premises wants to open up their premises to outsiders, this requires considerable agreement and adjustments to the terms of use and responsibility. This can seem a bit inconvenient, especially to the party managing the premises.

Resources also pose a question of their own. Many people in the arts live from hand to mouth, which leaves neither time nor resources to think about working practices.

Kaarlo Hildén

Rector of UniArts Helsinki 1.12.2020–30.11.2025
(Photo: Veikko Kähkönen/UniArts Helsinki)

At this point, Hildén also hits the ball into the funders’ court.

“Quite a lot of funding is still tied up in individual actors or projects. For example, central government transfers cannot be allocated to guest performances. This does not exactly encourage the pursuit of cooperation patterns.”

According to Hildén, we should turn our eyes towards performers and consider how we can promote their goals. Safe, familiar operating models are not the only solution. Funding needs to take a bolder approach with regard to new types of cooperation patterns.

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