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So What’s This I Hear About Bankers Defunding Poets?

So What’s This I Hear About Bankers Defunding Poets?

Photos by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Published October 29, 2015

In 2011, a teacher named Þórarinn Hannesson established the Poetry House (“Ljóðasetur”) in Siglufjörður, a small fishing hamlet up north. Its operations have been mostly funded by the founder himself, with the help of various private donors. The largest of those, a local savings bank, was recently taken over by a much larger banking institution, Arion Bank. Shortly after, Þórarinn learned that Arion Bank is not particularly interested in sponsoring the Poetry House in Siglufjörður.

Do poets need money? I thought they lived on souls and human happiness.

You are thinking of the Dementors, the Harry Potter baddies. The Poetry House is entirely run by volunteers, so it’s clear the bank wasn’t saving millions of krónur by cutting off the funding. Nope, the now-discontinued grant totalled 2,100 Euros per annum. For a small organization, that kind of money goes a long way. For an institution like Arion Bank, that’s the sorta money they use to stuff the cushions on the CEO’s personal lavatory. In the first half of 2015, Arion Bank made a profit of 135 million Euros. And, as we’ve learned, none of those Euros will go towards running the Poetry House in a small northern Icelandic town.

With that amount of money you could stuff the CEO’s toilet seat and make some sort of crazy mechanism that somehow uses gold coins to flush.

Which makes the bank’s reluctance to support the Poetry House that much more annoying, especially since the bank’s namesake is a legendary ancient Greek poet. Þórarinn Hannesson and other townspeople recently renovated an old house to serve as a museum of Icelandic poetry, and a venue for readings. It is not a very expensive institution to run, but as a teacher, entrusted with the Iceland’s youth, rather than its ones and zeroes, Þórarinn is not exactly the kind of person who can afford to light his Cuban cigars with five hundred Euro bills. Very much unlike the CEO of Arion Bank, Höskuldur H. Ólafsson, who brought home well over 350,000 Euros last year.

You need a big sofa for that many cushions. You can flush a lot of poop with that many gold coins.

Icelandic financial institutions have a fairly long history of supporting Icelandic art and culture. Banks in Iceland have traditionally decorated their outposts and offices with paintings and sculptures by local artists. After the 2008 financial crash, it was pointed out that when combined, the art collections of the three main banks amounted to one of Iceland’s biggest museums.

Considering those institutions’ collective fuck-ups, it’s a wonder they haven’t used the paintings as toilet paper by now.

Banks all over the world patronize the arts, but Iceland does not have a great selection of private institutions and/or persons of wealth to look to for patronage. Therefore, Iceland’s banks have historically been been especially prominent supporters of arts and culture. During the bubble years, many Icelandic artists, arts collectives and cultural organizations were funded in part or in full by the nation’s blossoming banking institutions, in what were commonly considered fairly benevolent PR strategies. In general, artists and writers do not make a lot of money, but they do have relatively easy access to media. Thus, when banks tossed a few thousand Euros their way, they usually received more than their money’s worth in terms of favourable media coverage.

You can’t trust them. When poets thought Voldemort was going to win, they joined his side.

You’re still thinking of Dementors. We are mostly not talking about Dementors. Anyway. Those public relations exercises were relatively benign. Before the crash, Landsbankinn and its owners gained a reputation as benevolent patrons of the arts. After the collapse, their reputation plummeted as quickly as their stock market value. Two events have become particularly notorious.

I love stories of money-crazed bankers. Did they force painters to act as footstools in their rich person saunas? Were poets made to scrub banker taint?

The people who got rich during the Icelandic Bubble were not sophisticated enough for that kind of debauchery. These were businessmen from a community of a few hundred thousand people who suddenly found themselves rolling in money. They were small-town people who got rich and never quite outgrew that classy small-town way of maximal thinking. The two events both involved Björgólfur Guðmundsson, one of the owners of Landsbankinn and its chairman, wanting to avoid embarrassment. In 2004, the bank opened a facility with free studios. It was managed by a gallery, Kling & Bang. During the opening, the gallery was supposed to be represented by artist Snorri Ásmundsson. However, since he had been convicted of a few petty crimes in his youth, the chairman was worried that it would be bad for his image to be seen in such foul company.

And nowadays it would be bad for the image of the petty criminal to be seen in the chairman’s company.

The other event was when a large book publisher owned by Björgólfur Guðmundsson published a book, by historian Guðmundur Magnússon, about the family of the bank chairman’s wife. The book contained a section about her former marriage to George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, who manages to make for even more embarrassing company than a bank chairman. The entire first edition, which contained the offending chapter, was destroyed, and a new edition was published which barely mentioned Rockwell. I suppose it is only fitting that a Nazi ex-husband would be the cause of a secret book burning.


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