Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hej Happiness: Children & Art in Scandinavia

With Songs From Above arriving from Denmark and pitching its delightful tent in the New 42nd Street Studios this month, I’ve been thinking about my own time in Scandinavia. Like the toddlers who will be exploring the everyday poetry of our world with Teater Refleksion and Teater My, the months I spent as an exchange student in Sweden broadened my sense of myself and my world. Eight years later, after a couple of additional trips through Scandinavia (including a whirlwind tandem bicycle ride around Iceland and the north of Denmark) I am an avowed Scandinaviaphile. I am impressed not only by the prevalence of high quality art and performance, but also by the ways in which Scandinavian children are valued as individuals.

Every Scandinavian country has its own Ministry of Cultureand children figure prominently in the work of these government agencies. The website for the Danish Ministry of Culture goes so far as to state, “Children and young people should have the opportunity of seeing and making use of high quality art and culture in their everyday lives and on their terms. This is a key focal point in Danish cultural policy.” Similarly, one of the missions of Sweden’s Ministry of Culture is to “pay particular attention to the rights of children and young people.”

Scandinavian children exemplify the notion (suggested alternately by Jean Piaget and Fred Rogers) that “play is the ‘work’ of childhood.” In Iceland, extreme care is taken to ensure that children are engaged in every cafe, restaurant, museum and public space, with sections designated to kids books and toys. I distinctly recall being captivated by an exhibit of photographsall taken by children under 5that was a wonderful perspective of the world from the vantage point of children. Another museum in Reykjavik even had an exhibit that had been curated by children, for children! 

This respect for the perspective of kids holds true in Scandinavian families and schools, as well. Denmark’s National Council for Children states that “Children’s right to participation in decision-making processes is laid down in various acts governing different sectors in society.” As Teater My’s Mette Rosleff shows us so beautifully in Songs From Above, there is no such thing as a child too young to have their perspective taken into consideration. Scholar Kirsten Dahl writes of Rosleff’s devising process, “[She] almost crawls into the group of infants and from there precisely sculpts the group’s unprejudiced and sincere wonder at life, with poetic flair and respect for the child.”

Songs From Above is but one wonderful example of the work for young audiences that is being created in Scandinavia. In Denmark alone, there are approximately 130 children’s theaters that offer professional performances to young people. Moreover, some 500-600 Danish productions for children are performed abroad every year. Here at the New Victory, we’ve even been inspired by the Seven Criteria for Quality that are used by the Danish Association for Children to evaluate and respond to theater for young audiences.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the arts are flourishing in Scandinavia is that the adult population 
had positive personal experiences with the arts as children, and then grew up to become artists or, equally important, supporters or patrons of the arts. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that this emphasis on childhood, the arts and children’s access to the arts might be one of the reasons that all five Scandinavian countries made the top ten list (the United States ranks 17th) of the world’s happiest nations in 2013.

This blog was written by Olga Putilina, Artistic Programming Assistant

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