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Art in the north - tourism and influences  
by Rósa Rut Þórisdóttir


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  With this research I examine the relationship between the growth of tourism and changes in visual art in Akureyri, Iceland. Akureyri though only having a population of 16.000, is the biggest town in Iceland outside the Reykjavik area and attracts tourists who visit the northeast part of the country.
  For the last 20 years, tourism has grown rapidly in Iceland and during that period of time, the practice of visual arts has grown extensively.  Today, Akureyri is known for its art life, there are many galleries and numerous exhibition spaces that have different exhibitions every month.  The opportunity to study a visual art is readily available, with both high schools offering excellent courses in addition to a specialized art school.  
  Alfred Gell once said, “the aim of anthropological theory is to make sense of behaviour in the context of social relations.  Correspondingly the objective of the anthropological theory of art is to account for the production and circulation of art objects as a function of this relational context” (Gell 1998: 11).  Thus, I’m not going to involve discussion of aesthetics that often seem to rule the discourse of anthropology of art, but rather examine the exchange of it here in the north with Iceland and the village of Akureyri as a focus point.
  The goal of this research was to describe and analyse the demand and consumption of Icelandic art by tourists and the reaction of the artists towards that demand, relating these processes to theoretical and empirical concerns.
  Ethnographic fieldwork was used to examine the experiences of art dealers, artists and the tourists themselves.  In addition I compared the situations of Iceland’s two closest islands; Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
  My subject is limited to what Graburn (1976 :6) has called ‘commercial fine arts’, art which although made with eventual sale in mind, still adheres to culturally embedded aesthetics and formal standards.  The customers, in the study, are both Icelanders and tourists.  There has also been a significant change of mind in Icelandic culture where people now prefer to buy Icelandic art instead of foreign reprints to decorate their home.   Icelandic art has become a popular gift.

Listfléttan art gallery situated side by side to one of the souvenirs shops

The foreigners I have interviewed have noticed and recognised this change of mind as something special.  Icelandic homes and public buildings are full of local art.  This visual interest Icelanders have for Icelandic art triggers the tourist to buy art because they see it as authentic.  The quest tourists have for authenticity of the things they bring back home with them rules in many ways what they choose to buy (Steiner 1994).
  I will exclude what has been called souvenirs and Graburn (1976: 6) categorises as art “when profit motive or the economic competition of poverty override aesthetic standards, satisfying the consumer becomes more important than pleasing the artist”.  This thus excludes vikings made of wood and sheepskin, and lava like ceramics, to name few.
  The field site
  Iceland is an island bigger than Ireland but with a population of 270.000 individuals. Iceland gained its independence from Denmark in 1944.  In some respects, one can categorise Iceland as a third world country, as imports far exceed exports.  80% of all national income is from fish but tourism is growing year by year and has now become valuable to the Icelandic economy.
  Even though Iceland fits into the categorisation of a third world country due to import vs. export ratio, one can not say that Iceland is an undeveloped country.  Iceland has undertaken great changes in general for the last 50 years.  The Icelandic population has become modern almost over night, mostly because of better transportation and communications with the rest of the world.  The Icelandic population was quite isolated for a long time but with modern technology, Icelanders travel abroad and get to know other cultures just as others come to see them and their country.    
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Art in the north-tourism and influences, by Rósa Rut Þórisdóttir.
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