Nestled between two fancy restaurants on Lækjargata is an impressive white house that overlooks the town pond, with a castellated tower called “Gimli.” It´s oddly discreet for such a grand building, semi-obscured by trees, and marked only with a small silver plaque. But it´s not another upmarket eatery – its the warren of white-cube offices that house the Reykjavík Arts Festival Team.
The festival director Hanna Styrmisdóttir arrives at just the same time as I do, smiling and offering a whistle-stop tour of the building’s rooms and hallways, many of which are adorned with photographs of performances that have taken place in recent years. Behind each door are smiling faces, ringing phones, and the sound of fingers tapping furiously at keyboards—the place is buzzing, with the 2014 festival just a week away.
It’s the second time Hanna has helmed the event. “I took the job in October 2012,” she explains, as we settle down for coffee around a meeting table. “I didn’t inherit a complete programme, which was unusual for a festival of this size. So I had this opportunity to put my mark on it from the beginning. It was both great and challenging, because I couldn’t just quickly put together a lineup—it has to be meaningful and coherent.”
The festival has a long history, having been founded in 1969 with the inaugural event following a year later. Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian-born conductor and pianist and the organisation’s honorary president, was living in Iceland after having married an Icelander. Ashkenazy became interested in establishing a classical music festival, coincidentally at the same time as The Nordic House had been built. Its first director got involved, and the idea of an inclusive, cross-discipline festival of the arts was born. In the context of Icelandic society then, it made perfect sense,” Hanna says. “There was very little culture on offer here at that time and the role of festivals then was to fulfill every cultural need that the population might have. It was a development of the traditional Icelandic town festival in that way.”
Maintaining An Expansive Approach
This spirit has lived on through the years with the Reykjavík Arts Festival continuing to foster an expansive approach, combining a diverse range of art, theatre, dance and music, with a focus on creative fusion and crossover. This broad remit, combined with an extended month-long time frame, makes space for ideas that connect many different art organisations and gives the festival the heft to shepherd large-scale projects, many of which are created especially for the festival.
“We often commission new work and help produce it,” Hanna explains. “It takes financial commitment and we work closely with the artists. We want to be serious in our support for new work. We often take the first step, contacting people and telling them we’re interested in working with them; then we see whether it’s something for the near future, or further off. We find ways to fund the work, via grants, sponsorship, partnerships and our own funds.”
It’s not all one-way traffic, however, with many artists pitching projects or applying via open submissions. “Hundreds of artists apply each year,” Hanna says, “and that’s a very important door to keep open. It’s important to keep a flow of new ideas coming in.”
Being Creative Is Not Just A Lifestyle
After the financial crash of 2008, the festival took a big hit and today operates on a fraction of its former budget. But Hanna makes a strong case for funding the arts, even in times of financial hardship.
“There is a reason that culture is funded,” she asserts. “Even in the United States, with their huge art marketplace, there are major culture funds.
“I don’t see the difference between hiring a doctor or a parliamentarian, and hiring an artist to create culture.”
Being creative is not only a lifestyle, it’s also a survival strategy—solving problems, adapting, evolving. Creativity is not just about decoration, or to make life more fun—it’s the foundation for everything else. So we fund the arts here, and we should continue to do so. I don’t see the difference between hiring a doctor or a parliamentarian, and hiring an artist to create culture. Just like we’re funding health care for when something goes wrong, we’re also funding independent thought.”
With training in visual arts, Hanna as also worked as a curator, doing a stint in gallery education that left her with a strong desire to help articulate the arts to a wide audience.
“I believe that no matter how complex a work of art is, and how alien it may seem to someone who isn’t intimately involved with it, there is a way to make it accessible,” she says. “It doesn’t mean simplifying anything—it just means making the extra effort to communicate. It’s important to me that we don’t maintain the idea that art is just for a small part of society. It’s not by the few, and it’s not for the few either.”
Remaining Dedicated To The City
The festival’s dedication to connecting with the city has helped capture a largely Icelandic audience of between 30–35,000 people each year, most of whom attend the free events. This year it will once again present to Reykjavík new work by choirs, composers, artists, dancers, writers and musicians both from Iceland and around the world.
“The open events draw most of our guests—when our funds are cut it inhibits our ability to produce open events. I take this role really seriously,” Hanna says. “We’re putting forward this programme in all sincerity, we really stand by each and every event, and we want to do our best to communicate what the artist is doing. We can’t control the audience’s experience—but we can do our best to help people think about what they might see, and what they might enjoy. Some events are just a lovely evening, some are very complicated and challenging, and some might stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Each year the festival attracts around 10% of the nation.