Not your average museum director

Today a good museum director is something of an expert in art semiotics. Sailing a sea of ​​creators, media, and meanings, from which he tries to retrieve something new,  Pontus Kyander has convinced me that he is one such expert.

Pontus Kyander in front of a piece by Sten Are Sandbeck

Pontus Kyander in front of a piece by Sten Are Sandbeck. Photo: Maria Passarivaki

KUNSTforum meets the new director of Trondheims Kunstmuseum (TKM) at the opening of a unique exhibition at the Gråmølna branch of TKM. Wandering among the fashion ghosts created by artist Sten Are Sandbeck, one can guess at the museum’s revitalized profile. The image of a museum director as faintly preppy must be a myth, because Pontus Kyander doesn’t really fit that mold. He is clearly resourceful and shows tremendous affection for the artists. Through his Finish-English accent, I can hear that he is taken aback by my barrage of questions.

Pontus Kyander was born in 1959 and brought up in Tampere, Finland. With a background in Art History from Lund University in Sweden, Pontus Kyander has made himself a well-known authority as a scholar in the arts. For the past 16 years, he has written art critique for various newspapers and art magazines – mainly on contemporary art – as well as curated various exhibitions in Scandinavia. He has also been the editor in chief of a TV-show on cultural  for  Swedish Television, a professor at the EWHA Women’s University campus in Seoul, and was formerly the  director of Sørlandets Kunstmuseum. Altogether, this has given him a great opportunity to reflect on how challenging it is to work with museums.

He came to work at TKM almost by accident, while he was looking to change careers. ‘I was an academic forever – doing my thesis, watching my four children grow up, but then at some point, the kids grew up and I divorced. I worked for a long time as an art critic, made television, and travelled extensively when I was out of work.’Then, one year ago, he landed in the director´s chair, and committed the TKM to an ambitious development program.

Good art in bad spaces
Just a stone’s throw away from the majestic Nidaros Cathedral, the Bispegata branch of TKM has just opened a second floor that not only shows progress, but illustrates that old and historical venues are not the only things Trondheim offers for citizens and visitors to enjoy. Housed in a square building, this part of TKM shows the audience big white rooms, where they can peacefully learn about and interpret modern art – from both inside and outside Norway’s borders.

‘TKM was undergoing a huge deconstruction development project. So, we closed the main building because it really needed a loving touch. Because of that, we were able to bring it back to its original proportions and architectural lines. You know, with contemporary art the demands are quite precise: you can´t deal with good artists in bad spaces’, Kyander explains.

‘We came from where most people didn’t even know where the museum was, so I guess we’re on a better road now’, he continues laughing.

A high level museum
Sensing a sort of cultural turning point, Kyander played a formative role in the reversal of TKM’s fortunes. Personally, the first thing I saw was a blend of paintings and installations by Ole Sjølie, Gerhard Nordström, and Eemyun Kang, which was absolutely mind-blowing. Nevertheless, Kyander and his team went a step further, initiating a series of talks and discussions to run parallel with the exhibitions.

Kyander’s reputation was established with one remarkably successful show last summer: SAMMEN [Together], an exhibition dedicated to human values and the communal spirit. Vaguely alluding to the exhibition’s theme, a bomb threat resulted in the cancellation of the official launch and raised issues of nation and nationality.

KF: I assume that anything that has to do with your involvement with the public requires you to stay true to your principles. Are you prepared to endure things what you hear?

PK: What we’re aiming to do is not to create another museum to be compared with other Norwegian museums. We want to be on par with the best regional European museums. I really want to make this a good museum. I really want to work with the collection – it needs to be viewed, reviewed, and renewed. It’s interesting to see how it’s possible to do a great job with both contemporary and historical art without being stuck between borders.

Pontus Kyander amongst art works by Sten Are Sandbeck, in the exhibition 'Fashion Ghost' at TKM

Pontus Kyander amongst art works by Sten Are Sandbeck, in the exhibition ‘Fashion Ghost’ at TKM. Photo: Maria Passarivaki.

Being a relevant museum
KF: Considering this, I find it strange that most of Trondheim is dominated by Norwegian art. Surely that is a limitation.

PK: We are a young museum, so our focus ought to be on new things all the way.We should invite Norwegian artists because they are great at what they are doing – also, because they’re closer to us.

There is no such thing as national art. Museums ought to be more relevant in our lives, and that’s how we can double our future audience, too.

Coming to Trondheim and TKM was a revelation for Kyander. He grew his love for modern art into a passion. Still, it is quite obvious that TKM doesn’t interact in a sufficiently with other local art institutions. In an update on the museum’s Facebook page, Kyander stated that ‘there won’t be any national flags flying outside TKM’, which was more than enough to spark a long debate against his vision.

The best possible art
Nevertheless, he wants to support his fellow museums and discuss with them, to enable a series of collaborations spanning the whole Trondheim art scene. This is because he truly believes that that is where the art community has both energy and potential.

I ask him: ‘So, what do you need to get there?’

‘We need to deal with issues that are relevant to society through the way we engage with people visiting the museum. We need to talk about homelessness, xenophobia, the new poverty – which we have in the richest countries of the world – and we need to talk about art as well,’ he tells me.

He admits that they also need to become more appealing to the younger echelons of society.

‘We still need to get more involved with the community in general. That is a long term process, and we need to be more concerned with talking about issues related to the arts and society. The international agenda is our ultimate vision. We aren’t here to support the local scene, we are here to provide the audience with the best possible art,’ he says finally.

Not a feminist show
Social issues are bound to have an impact on any museum’s discussions. Yet, Kyander enthusiastically encourages us to forget – just for a moment – the social and political issues of the day and just see works of art.

Relying on his team, he has today created a striking counterpoint to the city and a wonderful place that can be revisited time and time again. TKM’s boom this past year has been remarkable to behold. And Kyander isn’t keeping next year’s plans under wraps, stating:

‘Last year, we were re-establishing the museum as a dignified venue for art. Now, we’ve mostly done that, so next year, we will deal with the collection – for example, the lack of abstract art. We have the third biggest collection in Norway, so a lot of things need to be taken especially good care of. As far as next year’s summer program goes, we’re going to exhibit the Creation and maintenance of female identities due to the Centenary of women’s rights in Norway. It’s not a feminist or antifeminist show, it just shows different perspectives and angles on the subject matter.’

Long term art
On closing, I ask him: ‘What are the characteristics of a good director? Do you have to be good at communicating art?’

‘No, but you need to have seen a lot of art and also have a direct relationship with the artists. It is all about continuous dialog. And then, you can’t give up or cry whenever things don´t work out. You need to find another way to make them happen,’ he proposes.

Lately, art has een seen as a spectacle. But Pontus Kyander is more interested in art in the long term.

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