Museum of your dreams

A conversation between Audun Eckhoff, director of The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Gunnar B. Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, and André Gali concerning the new museums in Fjordbyen (Oslo’s burgeoning waterfront). 

André Gali: This autumn, the Astrup Fearnley Museum will be opening a new building at the very edge of Tjuvholmen. And if everything goes according to plan, the National Museum will be opening at Oslo West station in 2017. There’s an enormous development going on in this area and these museums will be centrally located in that development. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the museums’ profile and what dynamic you think will arise, setting yourselves up in Fjordbyen?

Audun Eckhoff: It’s going to be very exciting and I think the interplay between our institutions will be clearer than before. Up until now, we’ve been neighbours, Astrup Fearnley in Dronningens gate and the Museum for Contemporary Art across the street, but the new National Museum will be something wholly different and much more than the old Museum of Contemporary Art.

Gunnar B. Kvaran: The common thread in this is that both institutions will attain a different category as far as the presentation of art, communications, and contact with the public are concerned. With the museums in place, the whole landscape of the city will change. As Audun said, there’s been a close relationship between Dronningens gate and Bankplassen, but we’ve both had trouble with our buildings. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s bank building has been a problem. And our museum has been a sort of introverted and modest institution. Now, both museums will have a completely different position in the city layout, among artists, and for the public in general. It should be said that we have very different institutions. It’s obvious that the National Museum is the larger institution with how many square metres?

AE: 55 000 square metres in total and over 12 000 square metres exhibition space.

GBK: We’ll be at 7000 square metres in total, so the National Museum will be a huge museum in comparison. Another fundamental difference between the two is that the National Museum is a government museum and we are a private museum. That has certain consequences. We collect and communicate international art while maintaining a dialogue with Norwegian art, that’s our job. The National Museum has another and much more wide-ranging responsibility vis-à-vis Norwegian artists. I think the differences will be more apparent with the new museums in place, and it will also be more apparent that the Astrup Fearnley Museum is a complement to the National Museum.

AE: To follow up some of what Gunnar is saying, I’d like to point out that location is very important. Both the place where these museums are to be built, but also the place the museums are going to create when completed. The fact that the National Gallery sees ten times the number of visitors than the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, or the Museum of Contemporary Art sees, doesn’t just say something about the art at the National Gallery being more popular than that of the other museums, but also something about its placement within the city. Now, when we’re bringing it all together – apart from the Museum of Architecture – in one location, to the ‘tenderloin’ of Oslo, that in itself, will have enormous importance.

As far as the relationship between the museums goes, you can’t really speak about competition. The National Museum has its primary task: being a museum, the responsibility of which is to make Norwegian art visible. Our role is to be a frame of reference and a seed of inspiration and an institution that shows a continuous art history that we have previously been unable to show the Norwegian public. In regards to the international aspect, which has always been important, we may have points of overlap with the Astrup Fearnley Museum.

AG: In Bergen, as you’re both previously familiar with, there is a lively dynamic between the different institutions. But, in Oslo, it seems the distances are so great that there’s a lack of contact and clear divisions of labour. What are your thoughts on this?

GBK: I’d like to see more large institutions. Today, there’s too large a size and capacity gap. The National Museum is quite obviously the biggest, and we’ve also attained a standing. But, it might be interesting for Norway’s sake, for Norwegian art, to experience two or three medium size players that could work across borders producing exhibitions and events. That would allow for more synergy and energy in the city, and a more nuanced picture in the communication of art. Like Tegnerforbundet [Illustrators’ Association], Kunsthall Oslo, and so on – they’re doing an excellent job, but they’re too small.

AE: The ones you’ve mentioned are small, but I think there’s been a positive development going on the medium-size range, like Kunstnernes Hus [The Artists’ House] and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, which in recent years have celebrated old glories and are now entering an exciting phase. But, of course, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter is outside town and targets a different audience. It’s important to have other capable institutions.

AG: You’ll be significantly bigger, as you mentioned earlier. How will that affect your programme?

GBK: In our case, there won’t be such a big change in that area. Mostly, it will be our permanent collection that will see an increase in space. There’ll be about 1500 square metres for temporary exhibitions. And our economic capacity won’t allow more than three or four productions a year. But, we’ll have a more institutionalised feel, with a park, a café, and a museum shop, which will give a different profile.

AG: How will this affect your museum, Audun?

AE: We’re going to have substantially more space. One of the most important innovations in the new museum is that we’ll have an exhibition space for temporary exhibitions that makes it possible for us to show productions of an entirely different calibre than has been possible previously. We can do large period exhibitions that show a wide spread of artistic expression and that give historical insight, maybe even a fresh view on art history – in addition to making ‘block-buster’ exhibitions possible. We’ll also have the capacity to take on younger artists. We expect different rhythms, with big, heavy exhibitions in the alabaster hall upstairs, and a smaller area on the ground floor where we’ll continually have various smaller projects.

AG: Will this widen the gap between you and medium-sized institutions?

GBK: Yes, I’d say so. The challenge is, as we increase our volume and our position in the city layout, if the other institutions will remain where they are today. That would be a problem, as our institutions also need critical discourse with the community. New curators and new ideas, and young artists that we haven’t picked up on have to have a point of entry. That’s why it would be interesting to have a couple of medium-sized institutions that could work on their own terms, analytically and critically in conjunction with our institutions.

AG: As you travel for work and meet the international art community, do you feel that there is a lot of awareness concerning the plans in Fjordbyen?

AE: There is. There’s a watchful eye, and that eye hasn’t become less attentive after seeing what happened to the Munch Museum. That was extremely embarrassing for Norway. You might say there’s an eye on Norway, first and foremost influenced by an awareness of Norway’s prosperity. People expect us to be rich, and that we would do that to the Munch Museum is hard to comprehend. But there is also a great deal of interest in what we do here; this is a place you can really develop things; elsewhere it’s cutbacks and cancellations wherever you go.

GBK: You also notice that Norwegian art is in a different situation internationally. Never before have there been so many Norwegian artists on the international art scene at the same time. Not only has Norwegian art become more visible, but people are taking note of what’s going on in Oslo and of our building, of course, which has been designed by Renzo Piano, one of the most famous architects of our time.

Oversiktsbilde Vestbanen. © MIR AS, Kleihues + Schuwerk Gesellschaft von Architekten mbH, Statsbygg.

AG: How do you see the future of the art in Oslo, when the museums are finished?

AE: I think it will depend strongly on how the other institutions work. Obviously, just two big, strong institutions do not make a dynamic and vibrant art scene. Other things are needed, too. One mustn’t forget the number of small and medium-sized institutions, where ambitious professionals have the chance to develop. We depend on institutions other than those like us, that are still artistically ambitious, but there just hasn’t been much of a market in Norway. It has to be supported by galleries if it’s going to work.

GBK: I’m an optimist about how things are developing now, and I’m certain that in ten or fifteen years, art in Norway will be in a really interesting and dynamic situation, not least because of artists’ circumstances. I think the Norwegian model of art and culture in general, and the support that Norwegian artists receive from the government in particular, is a good model. The fact that artists like Gardar Eide Einarsson, Matias Faldbakken, Bjarne Melgaard, and Knut Åsdam have achieved international recognition is – of course on the merit of their art – but, in part, also because of the Norwegian financing model.

AE: The fact that there’re now five Norwegian artists contributing to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, while during the entirety of Documenta’s history there has only been one artist, Olav Christopher Jenssen in ’92,  says something. Certainly, OCA has done us a great service in that regard, but it’s also a starting point that’s more international, viable, and interesting. Progress will probably continue unabated, and considering the great opportunities Norwegian prosperity will offer in the years ahead, there’s no reason to think that it crash to a halt – I think we’ll see good progress over the next ten years, and that the gap between the so-called international and the homey Norwegian markets will become less apparent.

AG: There are still a few years until the National Museum of Art opens its new doors, but can you tell us anything about what you’ll be showing us once you do?

AE: It’s a bit early to say what our opening exhibition will be, but clearly there’re pieces and selections we can point to in our collection that there will be plenty of opportunity to see. By way of example, our newly purchased, large video installation Ten Thousand Waves by Isaac Julien, our considerable Arte Povera-collection, our installation Celle VIII by Louise Bourgeois and our growing collection of German Expressionist paintings (deposited to the museum by Sparebankstiftelsen DnB NOR). Our collection of design and crafts is growing at a furious pace, and you’ll be able to spend far more than a day pursuing it. Not to mention all the other exciting work we’ll acquire in the years until we open West Station!

Oversiktsbilde Vestbanen. © MIR AS, Kleihues + Schuwerk Gesellschaft von Architekten mbH, Statsbygg.

AG: What about you guys, Gunnar? You open 29 September, how’s the programme coming?

GBK: The Astrup Fearnley Museum at Tjuvholmen will be launching with To Be With Art Is All We Ask, an exhibition of selected works from the Astrup Fearnley collection, featuring some of the world’s most innovative contemporary artists. These pieces, collected over the last thirty years, reveal the personal, social and artistic commitment of artists who have been pioneers of art history. Together, they represent a cosmopolitan, urbane vision, spanning different cultures and historical eras. The themes touch on politics and economy, religion and power structures, violence and sexuality, identity and memory, objectivity and subjectivity, fiction, beauty, and art, and constitute a shared experience of the modern day.

The programme for 2013 will start with an exhibition by Paul Chan, a young American artist, who has revolutionised video art. Spring will see the opening of an exhibition by Cindy Sherman, focussing on the ‘grotesque’ aspect of her art. Autumn 2013 will feature an exhibition of young, Brazilian contemporary art, in keeping with our ‘regional’ contemporary exhibitions. And, in addition: every Thursday at 17:00, there will special events at the Astrup Fearnley Museum at Tjuvholmen!

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