How can Stockholm’s cultural scene be more open to internationals?

How can Stockholm's cultural scene be more open to internationals?
Stockholm's libraries provide access to books in a wide range of languages. Photo: Carl Bredberg / SvD / TT
"Life needs to be about something more than just going to work, buying your groceries, doing the laundry," says Jonas Naddebo, Stockholm's Vice Mayor for Culture and Urban Environment. "We need culture to find meaning and find yourself in a complex world."

This is all the more true for foreign residents of the Swedish capital, who may be less likely than born-and-bred Stockholmers to have a wide social network, and who may experience culture shock after relocating.

Naddebo says the city can be proud of its varied cultural scene, pointing to the three main theatres and 40 libraries as examples of areas where residents can experience something new.

Work has already been done to make these open to Stockholm's increasing foreign-born population, including those who aren't yet comfortable with the Swedish language. Theatre productions are often available with English subtitles (via an app or screen) and most of Stockholm's libraries have an international literature section as well as events such as language cafes, children's activities and book clubs.

“Our city theatre and international library scene always attract really interesting international people. We are currently relaunching our international library because at the former venue there wasn't such a big possibility to have activities, but this will be easier at the new venue on Kungsholmen,” says Naddebo. 

“I would say that Stockholm has a lot to offer, but we also see that we need to create more opportunities for more people to participate,” he continues. “We want a broader, more diverse cultural scene.”


Vice Mayor Jonas Naddebo pictured in Stockholm. Photo: Malin Hoelstad / SvD / TT

One part of this is ensuring culture is accessible to children and youngsters, wherever in the city they live and attend school.

“At the moment the cultural offering is very different in different parts of the city, so this is a key area to address. We are working with a strategic programme: we are building lots of new homes and areas in the city, so we need to make sure culture is included in the planning and not just added afterwards, the same as schools and sports facilities,” the politician explained.

But what about international Stockholmers who don't just want to participate in the cultural scene, but also help to shape it?

One person who has done exactly that is writer Catherine Pettersson, who organized the Stockholm Writers' Festival. After a successful launch in April 2018, it will take place again this year on May 3rd-5th, and the idea came after Pettersson noticed a surprising void in the city's cultural scene.

“I found it strange that I constantly had to travel to other countries to learn more about the craft and business of writing,” she says.

Pettersson recalls asking herself why she needed to travel to countries like Italy for an international writers' festival, given the rich literary tradition and global outlook of her adopted nation. 

“It would really irritate me! Sweden has such a strong writing tradition, Nordic Noir, the Nobel Literature Prize, and it's also got an incredible bilingual ability, but there was no international festival. So after years of complaining, I thought 'if not me, who? And if not now, when?'”

The American was long-term member of the international Stockholm Writers' Group and used these contacts to create a board for the festival and start planning. She stresses that she and her network relied on “calling in favours like crazy”, managing to secure a venue, speakers, and donations of extra items such as pens and papers through personal connections built up over years in Sweden. 

“We were lucky enough to get some funds from a foundation which generously funded our literary prize, but 90 percent of the rest came from asking our network for favours,” she says.

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Catherine Pettersson (right) and US novelist Elinor Lipman, who was the festival's keynote speaker in 2018. Photo: Lumeah Photography

In the first year, the writer found it hard to get meetings or responses with many of the people and companies she reached out to. She says this has a lot to do with the fact the festival was unknown in its first year, but admits it might have been easier if she had had a stronger network in Stockholm.

Naddebo says the city is aware that foreigners face obstacles in setting up their own events, particularly with what he calls “the labyrinth of Swedish bureaucracy”. 

“The language barrier can be a difficulty, and if people are looking for subsidies, they need to understand the system and know where to look, without getting lost in the bureaucracy,” he explains. “Especially if you have a small idea, you may rely on subsidies. You also need to have allies within the cultural scene that can cooperate with you, and help you understand the existing cultural scene.”

His advice to international Stockholmers is to spend time getting to understand the existing cultural opportunities, and to look for a way their idea can complement existing initiatives. 

Naddebo says he also hoped to increase support for cultural initiatives taking place outside the current frameworks, by working with events and programmes funded by other means than government money.

“We need more things like this; cooperation between different parts of the ecosystem. Both the city and companies can play a huge role in creating a more attractive cultural scene, so we can think about how businesses can do more to bring more culture to people. There are initiatives which don't necessarily need government subsidies, but they need less regulation and a positive city to work with, so the city can help with that,” he comments.

In the end, this is the path Pettersson went down, with ticket sales for the festival subsidizing the costs of running the non-profit. In hindsight, she recommends that other internationals explore alternative funding models rather than rely on subsidies, since this can leave organizers with more creative freedom.

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One of the Stockholm Writers Festival events. Photo: Adrian Kunce

She was able to get advice from the Swedish Tax Agency on setting up as a non-profit, but says that more resources on launching cultural initiatives would be helpful. It's the starting out that is hardest, and if you can get the idea off the ground, Pettersson has found Stockholm a receptive city.

“Now in the second year, people have seen what we can do and we've already seen an uptake in Swedish publishers [taking part], and have been working with the vice mayor,” she says.

“I am a Swedish citizen now, but I will always be nysvensk; I wasn't born here and as a foreigner we have different eyes. The Swedish have a word, hemmablind, which means you become blind to what you're used to. So what I would say is to others is to use your different perspective. Then of course, the universal advice to startups applies: start small, test the market and scale.”

Pettersson also emphasized that the festival is not only for internationals, even if its popularity with native Swedes surprised even her. She says that her initial vision of the ticket holders was expats like herself from around Scandinavia, but was surprised that roughly a third of attendees were Swedish writers.

“Of course a lot of it is transferable skills – if you're learning the craft of dialogue, for example, it's the same techniques whatever language you write in,” she explains.

And an international perspective can be especially valuable to Swedes. The country's culture sector, like the economy more generally, relies on exports, with the most successful Swedish authors making the bulk of their sales internationally, if they can sell the foreign language rights to their books abroad.

And for Vice Mayor Jonas Naddebo, having diverse cultural events on offer doesn't just help the individuals who attend them, whether Swedish or international. He argues that having a vibrant cultural calendar contributes to boosting Stockholm's identity as an “exciting city”.

“If we aren't continuously developing cultural opportunities, Stockholm will be a boring city and we'll lose attractivity as a place to live and to visit,” he says. “We in Stockholm put a lot of tax money into culture, but as a newcomer to Sweden it could be complicated just to orientate themselves in the cultural landscape. It's important that we can help people do this, and help them find their place in Stockholm as a cultural city.”

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