Shoplifter exhibition in Finland

Exhibition by artist Shoplifter (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) in the Finnish National Gallery. Photo @Shoplifter

Arts and Culture in Iceland

For a population of 360,000 people, Iceland has an enormous creative output. Remarkably, this creativity is not limited to one scene, but is thriving and prolific in many disciplines. Some of the most innovative contemporary artists hail from Iceland - and this has not gone unnoticed.

What Drives Icelanders’ Creativity?

A sculpture at the National Gallery of Iceland

Being a small population, many attest this creativity to the simplicity of networking on a smaller scale in which there are fewer degrees of separation between cultural organizers. Having fewer degrees of separation within the community also creates a less hierarchical society in general and therefore more awareness by those in power of how to be supportive culturally. While it is still arguable whether culture is its top priority and greatest asset, the government offers many opportunities for both Icelandic artists and foreign artists living in Iceland to flourish.

While the natural landscape is enormously inspiring to locals and tourists alike, and many would assume this to be the source of this creativity, there are many other factors. For example, in Iceland creativity is fostered from a very young age with many opportunities available both at school and at home for engaging with arts and crafts (especially knitting). Schools are also free and place an emphasis on play and exploration. An atmosphere and general attitude of openness and independence strongly correlates to creativity. Nevertheless, the underlying factor that is most supportive of enormous creativity and culture is a society where the basic necessities are accessible.

Exhibition Spaces

A man visiting an art gallery

In the visual arts, the myriad spaces that result in such flourishing activity are evident in a huge variety of spaces that play an important role in the artistic conversations on the island. The hub of all this activity, of course, takes place in the country’s cultural capital, Reykjavik. Besides a Museum of Photography, there are also three city art museums in Reykjavik: Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn. There are also independent galleries such as BERG Contemporary, í8 Gallery, Harbinger, Wind and Weather Window Gallery, and other artist-run spaces. Around the country you can also find outdoor installations run by local municipalities as and artist-run exhibition spaces in more rural areas. Many of these art spaces in rural areas have transformed fish factories, storage containers, and other abandoned spaces into thriving creative centers. There is also a major art museum in the cultural capital of the North, Akureyri Art Museum, as well as smaller galleries that give you a taste of the unique local art scene.


Book store at Keflavik airport

The city of Reykjavík nurtures the city's literary heritage which has culminated in the city being designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Famous as being a nation of bookworms,  Iceland has one of the highest rates of books per capita with 3.5 books for every 1,000 inhabitants and the most authors in the world per capita. There are over 30 publishers in Reykjavik alone, active at both the annual Reykjavik International Literary Festival and the Reykjavik Book Fair. The Iceland Writers Retreat claims that part of the reason for Iceland being home to so many writers is due to the influence of the Sagas, masterpieces of medieval European prose which are hundreds of years old and are part of the canon of lore that every Icelander grows up with. There is also the phenomenon of the Christmas book flood - jólabókaflóð - when publishers release hundreds of new titles on the market, and Icelandic authors are in the spotlight. Books are also a very popular Christmas gift, ensuring long winters in which to dive in to the latest voices  Icelandic literature has to offer.


People dancing

Iceland has long been known for its vibrant music scene and massive creative output. Internationally revered musicians such as Björk, Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Rós, Ásgeir, Emiliana Torrini, múm, Kaleo, Ólafur Arnalds, and Gus Gus along with composers like Hildur Guðnadóttir, Víkingur Heiðar, Anna Thorvalds, and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson have all played a part in establishing Reykjavík’s reputation as a unique place to enjoy live music.

This placement of Icelandic bands on the international music scene only seemed to inspire more Icelanders to experiment with more bands than ever before, seeing an increase in music festivals as well. The prolific music scene has been attributed to a general attitude of experimentation and ease of networking within the community. The Icelandic writer and environmentalist, Andri Snær Magnason, has also spoken of a precondition for a ‘minority complex’ stemming from being a small island nation formerly under colonial rule. However paradoxical, it is this ‘minority complex’ in which the world expects nothing from you that creates a drive to really be seen culturally.


Reykjavik International Film Festival 2021

Iceland offers festivals year-round. Some are pertaining to local tradition while others are huge multi-venue festivals that bring in thousands of visitors. The seasonal light provides a backdrop for staying up all night with the midnight sun. For music lovers, there is the Secret Solstice Music Festival, Iceland Airwaves Music Festival, Aldrei fór ég suður Rock Music Festival, Innipúkinn Festival, Dark Music Days. For art and design lovers, there is Culture Night in Reykjavik, Reykjavík's Art Festival, Sequences Real-Time Art Festival, and DesignMarch. For film lovers there is the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF).

Get inspired

You might also be interested in these articles.

Arts and Culture in Iceland