Siri Kolu: Working on the arts council was a way of appreciating what is happening in the arts right now

Author, theatre instructor and long-time arts council member – Siri Kolu has many roles in arts. Now that Taike’s arts councils are looking for new members, we asked a veteran of council work about everything it involves.
Siri Kolun kuva.
Photo: Niclas Mäkelä

Becoming a member of one of the arts councils that decide on grants awarded by the Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike) typically involves being recommended by an art organisation or other expert body. This was also the case with Siri Kolu: in 2013, the Finnish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild proposed her for the National Council for Literature.

Kolu already had solid experience in creating art and working in her own field of the arts, but evaluating grant applications and other council work were new to her. In fact, most of her own grant applications had been rejected.

This was the beginning of several years of council work. Kolu served as Chairperson of the National Council for Literature in 2013–2014 and 2015–2016, and also as Chairperson of the Board for Grants and Subsidies to Writers and Translators in 2021–2023. 

Tuula-Liina Varis, my predecessor at the National Council for Literature, commented when she was leaving that she had now completed her military service in art. I further extended my own military service when I accepted one more term at the Board for Grants and Subsidies to Writers and Translators, Kolu remembers.

Vantage point on the arts

In the words of Siri Kolu, working on Taike’s arts councils is a bit like being a citizen of two worlds: enablers of art and artists at the same time. This provides an excellent opportunity to review your own art and its development:

– Evaluating applications offers a great vantage point on the arts. It helps you appreciate what is happening in the arts right now and how it is shaping up for the future.

It could even be said that arts councils play a key role in determining the direction in which their specific field of the arts develops. When deciding on the distribution of funding, they also serve as gatekeepers.

Despite the power and responsibility, there was no need to stress about council work. Taike’s special advisors support the councils in all their work, and members are carefully familiarised with the various tasks of the council. According to Kolu, council work can also be combined with your own artistic work, but it is still advisable to check the schedule for all the work phases with the special advisors and ask for a realistic estimate of the number of applications that have to be read.

– I have told everyone who is considering serving as a peer reviewer that Taike’s most valuable asset is its special advisors who work with the councils. If they don't know something, they will find out.

Evaluating applications offers a great vantage point on the arts.

Of course, council members also have to take responsibility for finding things out and taking matters into their own hands. Personal experience with creating art and knowledge of the arts sector are basic requirements for council work, but Kolu also mentions curiosity as an important characteristic of a council member. Council work is easier when you are interested in the art and artists in your own field of the arts and are willing to learn about new art with an open mind. Curiosity also adds to your own competence:

– I considered the review copies that I took home to read to be a serious task: I felt it was my duty to know the key works of the authors whose applications I was processing. I saw this as an opportunity to expand my own understanding of literary form, phenomena and genre development. When reading the applications, you can appreciate what is happening in the arts right now.

A role in the community

Kolu emphasises that, ultimately, council work is about a community and promoting the arts.

– Council work for me became not only a window for seeing where Finnish literature is heading in the coming years, but also a kind of family that wishes the best for its own field of the arts. We have made important decisions together, despite and perhaps because of the fact that the resources available have always been too few compared to the number of worthy applicants. I felt that council work emphasised togetherness, not independent or solitary evaluation work.

Taike’s arts councils wish only the best for the sector and all applicants.

Although the work essentially involves evaluating applications and sometimes having to make tough decisions, it is done with love and, above all, respect for your own field of the arts.

– Taike’s arts councils wish only the best for the sector and all applicants. Many excellent applications end up in the “maybe" pile that would be awarded funding if only it were available.

Diversity is key

The wish of both Taike and its arts councils is to include as a diverse group of members, mainly due to the nature of the councils:

– The diversity of our arts councils is their strength. The more broadly they can look at art and its phenomena, the more solid the understanding on which grant decisions are made. I'm always happy when someone brings to the meeting an issue or opinion that we haven’t thought of before.

The members of the arts councils are expected to represent the entire spectrum within each field of the arts and the diversity of the arts sector and culture in general. Extensive knowledge of your own field of the arts is an absolute prerequisite, but it is good to remember that a long career or previous success in being awarded grants is not required for membership in an arts council. Before starting her council work, Kolu also had experience with Taike’s grants, but mostly only through applying.

Siri Kolu offers the following advice to new council members and those nominating them as candidates:

– You get to understand the funding system for the arts much more when you work inside the structures. In addition, Taike depends on your viewpoint so that it can continue to make the best decisions in the future.

Taike is currently accepting proposals for members of its national and regional arts councils. Members are selected for two-year terms starting on 1 January 2025.

Arts councils serve as Taike’s expert bodies. The most important task of their members is to act as experts and peer reviewers within their own field of the arts and region. Art councils decide on the awarding of grants and prizes.