A Place of Conflict

The Oslo Biennial was going to invigorate the local art scene and pioneer new curatorial methods. Now, it’s being brought to an end two years ahead of schedule. What went wrong?

Jan Freuchen, Sigurd Tenningen og Jonas Høgli Major, Oslo samlede verk OSV., 2019. Photo: Niklas Lello.

When Kunstkritikk met the Oslo Biennial’s curators, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho Bodero, back in March 2019, they hoped that the city of Oslo’s new major investment in contemporary public art would become a “force” to be reckoned with on the city’s art scene. The biennial’s first five-year instalment was to be a catalyst, coordinating public resources and paving the way for new curatorial methods and cooperation across local institutions. In doing so, the curators wished to strengthen the city’s artistic infrastructure and arts policy, for the benefit of the entire Oslo art scene and the general public. “The public space is a legal matrix where we are constantly negotiating what is possible. It must be, and should be, a place of conflict, not consensus,” González-Sancho Bodero told Kunstkritikk.

And conflict there was. One year later, on 22 May, the newspaper Klassekampen (Class Struggle) published the first in a series of articles about the biennial’s poor financial management. The Oslo Biennial had spent NOK 6 million (EUR 550,000) more than budgeted, and the revelation triggered a landslide of accusations against the biennial, with particular focus on its low visibility and lack of contact with the local art scene. “When I, being greatly interested in art, struggle to find out when and where things take place, I fail to see how others will get anything out of it,” said artist Eline Mugaas to Klassekampen. Artist Ole Jørgen Ness described the biennial as a “parasitic growth that is stifling Oslo’s art scene,” while the chairman of the board of The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), Ruben Steinum, asked the biennial management to accept responsibility and resign. “Without the trust of the art field, I no longer have any legitimacy,” Eeg-Tverbakk told Kunstkritikk the following week, and resigned as curator. González-Sancho Bodero has been on sick leave ever since.

With Eeg-Tverbakk’s exit, the conflict over the biennial changed tack. In a joint appeal, NBK and four other organisations stated that the biennial’s structural problems needed to be investigated and elucidated. The biennial is funded by Kunstordningen (The Art Scheme), a foundation which has, in recent years, managed more than NOK 300 million (EUR 28 million) of public funds. The various artists’ organisations claimed that the dissolution of the foundation’s board in 2018 had weakened its ties to the art field and brought about “a concentration of power in the Oslo City Department of Culture.” The head of Young Artists’ Society (UKS), Ida Madsen Følling, told Klassekampen: “Now the department operates unchecked and allocates the funds in a way that is both undemocratic and lacks the necessary transparency.”

Independent curator Helga Marie Nordby told Kunstkritikk: “It was actually rather a relief to be set free from the board work with the Oslo Biennial. I had this feeling of being part of something that did not work quite as it should. But at the same time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong.” She sat on Kunstordningen’s board between 2015 and 2019, the period when the pilot project Oslo Pilot was evaluated and the biennial got the go-ahead. Nordby describes a decision-making process that left much to be desired, as well as an inadequate flow of information between the Oslo City Department of Culture and the board.

Before the summer, Rina Mariann Hansen, then Oslo’s vice mayor for culture, announced that a thorough clean-up would take place, and last week Kunstkritikk reported that the biennial’s first instalment will come to an end next year, almost three years ahead of schedule. “It is very relevant to question whether the biennial ought to have been arranged under the auspices of the Oslo City Department of Culture,” the department’s director, Stein Slyngstad, conceded.

Curators of the Oslo Biennial, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva González-Sancho Bodero.

A demanding and unclear mandate

Since 1979, the City of Oslo has allocated public funds for art in public spaces. Back then, 2 per cent of the total budget for all new construction projects was earmarked for art. In 2013, authorities adopted a new funding model, setting aside 0.5 per cent of the city’s total investment budget for public art. While the foundation spent approx. NOK 27 million (EUR 2.5 million) from 2005 to 2012, Kunstordningen has allocated more than NOK 335 million (EUR 31 million) since 2013.

To coincide with the new funding model, the Oslo City Department of Culture drew up new strategies for Kunstordningen: it would allocate funds towards permanent and temporary art that may potentially be located anywhere within the public spaces of Oslo, and it would make acquisitions for and maintain the municipality’s art collection. In addition, the scheme was to “initiate and launch the Oslo Biennial of Public (Contemporary) Art,” a task which initially involved planning a preliminary pilot project. The objective was to collaborate with the city’s existing actors, both public and private, to create Norway’s largest biennial and make Oslo an internationally renowned pioneer of contemporary public art.

Artist Anne Biringvad told Kunstkritikk: “The idea of ​​a biennial was launched right from the start, at the first foundational meeting. The reason I remember this so well is because it provoked me. We naturally wondered where the idea came from, for such a task fell far outside our usual remit.” Biringvad was a member of the board of the old 2 per cent foundation, as well as the first board of the new Kunstordningen from 2013 to 2015.

According to Biringvad, the proposal for a biennial was not greeted with enthusiasm, and on 26 September 2013 she sent a letter to the board expressing concerns about the biennial’s unclear objectives and planning work. “I am afraid we have now – having sent out a call for consultants – already initiated something that will be difficult to reconsider,” she wrote, adding that it felt as if the proposal was rushed through without firm backing from the board.

Lise Mjøs, head of the Oslo City Department of Culture, told Kunstkritikk: “The biennial proposal came from the Oslo City Department of Culture’s representative, Hilde Barstad, who was director of the department at the time, and those of us who work with art in public spaces. But of course, the board of Kunstforeningen are the ones who discuss and makes decisions on the strategies.”

According to the Telemark Research Institute (Telemarksforskning), which evaluated the new Kunstordningen in 2016, the biennial assignment came on top of an already broad, demanding, and unclear mandate. While the board could spend a long time discussing small sums, decisions related to large sums and projects tended to slip through the board meetings “without much deliberation.” The auditors also criticised the organisational model. Even though the board was assured that the arm’s length principle would apply in its dealings with politicians, the balance of power with the Oslo City Department of Culture’s bureaucrats appeared skewed. The report found reason to raise the question of whether “the Oslo City Department of Culture has rather too much de facto power and that the board does not always have any real influence on administration of Kunstordningen.” As Biringvad put it, “I got the feeling that the Oslo City Department of Culture would rather allocate the funds alone.”

Marianne Heske, House of Commons (Underhuset), 2015. Photo: Niklas Lello.

From pilot project to biennial

In the autumn of 2014, following an international call for applicants, the Oslo City Department of Culture brought in Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk and Eva Gonzalez-Sancho Bodero to lead the pilot project. Known as Oslo Pilot, the project was carried out in 2015-2016, involving initiatives ranging from poems presented in public spaces (The Word’s Head) to Marianne Heske’s Underhuset (The House of Commons), in which the artist relocated a dilapidated mid-nineteenth century wooden house to the front of the Storting building – the seat of the Norwegian Parliament. Other initiatives included the performance festival Soppen (Mushroom) under the auspices of the collective Trollkrem, and a reconstruction of Siri Anker Aurdal’s sculpture Bølgelengder (Wavelengths, 1969) in Vigeland Park. These were supplemented by a range of more loosely organised debates about the future use of Oslo’s public buildings, feminism, and the symposium The Giver, the Guest, and the Ghost: The Presence of Art in Public Realms. The pilot project cost NOK 14.8 million (EUR 1.4 million) and exceeded the budget by 2.3 million (211,000). The deficit was covered by Kunstordningen.

Although the job description issued in the original call stated that a description of the preliminary project would be “desirable,” no evaluation report on Oslo Pilot exists. Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk claims that he and González-Sancho Bodero were never asked to submit a report, but to suggest a model. “What we delivered was a concrete proposal for a model for a biennial. After we delivered the model, it took a long time before the Oslo City Department of Culture made up its mind.”

The Oslo City Department of Culture used the curators’ model to write up a decision, but Kunstordninen’s board felt that the documents were inadequate. In the winter of 2017, prior to his resignation, then-chairman of the board Knut Even Lindsjørn, issued a three-point call for the preparation of a new steering document. Nordby confirms that the documents were sent back to the Oslo City Department of Culture several times. “The board thought the organisation was far too weak. We asserted that certain precautions must be in place when spending that kind of money, including demands that the organisation must be securely anchored and have a proper organization chart. But these things were never made quite ready before the board was dismantled,” she said.

Wanted to keep the curators

The final steering document describes the biennial’s five-year model as a breath of fresh air in an international art world where the “traditional” festival approach to biennials is “associated with a certain degree of fatigue.” The document, which is signed by Mjøs and Tore Somdal-Åmodt, continues: “Now – as a next step – we will be able to transfer the pilot idea to the biennial format itself, creating a biennial that is continuously experimental in terms of structure and modus operandi. We can establish a permanent testing ground for trying out new possible models, a pilot biennial.”

Peter Clough performing at Soppen performance festival, 2016. Photo: Margit Selsjord.

Including an extra year of planning, the Oslo City Department of Culture estimated that the five-year biennial would cost NOK 127.5 million (EUR 12 million). The plan was to produce one to two main projects a year, in addition to some smaller and medium-sized initiatives. According to a “Milestone Plan,” the biennial would produce a total of 14 projects between 2019 and 2024; this means that each art project would cost NOK 9.1 million (EUR 835,000).

The steering document was up for consideration by Kunstordningen’s board during the spring of 2017. Alfhild Skaardal, who took over as chairman that spring, told Kunstkritikk that the process had come so far, so much had been invested and so many promises made that it was difficult to slam the brakes on the project. “We felt that we did not have a real opportunity to say no. But we asked that the costs should be reduced.”

The Oslo City Department of Culture went on to advertise two vacant curator positions and one project manager position, all as permanent positions under the auspices of the Oslo City Department of Culture. But the steering document was not made accessible to the public. “We understand that it may be unfortunate that the decision was not published before the positions were advertised, but a lot needs to fall into place before the biennial can be launched,” then-head of communications at the Oslo City Department of Culture, Kjersti Tubaas, told Kunstkritikk.

In an earlier document from 2017, the Oslo City Department of Culture states that the prerequisite for moving forward with the biennial is that “the curators’ engagements […] are expanded and continue throughout the first instalment.” According to Nordby, “one thing is a hundred percent certain: when the pilot project ended, the Oslo City Department of Culture just wanted to go on with the same curators in the job. But the board said this was a pilot project that had to be evaluated and the positions had to be advertised again.”

The positions were indeed advertised, but only in Norway, in the middle of the summer holiday, and competing applicants had no access to the description of the biennial formulated in the steering document. Even so, Stein Slyngstad denies that this appointment procedure was undertaken for appearances only. “We discussed whether we should proceed directly with the same curators or whether we should advertise the positions anew. The Oslo City Department of Culture is the employer in this context, and the board of Kunstordning was not responsible for either the budget or for the employment,” he explained to Kunstkritikk.

In the autumn of 2017, the curators were given permanent positions as consultants to the Oslo City Department of Culture. According to Mjøs, “in the City of Oslo organisations, only department heads have tenure – with a few exceptions. We have project employees brought on board for positions lasting up to three years. Beyond three years, you are regarded as a permanent employee of the municipality.” Given that Eeg-Tverbakk resigned as curator of the Oslo Biennial, he has been relocated and given new tasks within the organisation. Consultants are paid by Kunstordningen, which, following a change in its articles of association in 2019, has increased its administration budget from 15 to 25 per cent of its total funds.

Javier Izquierdo, Crimes of the future: A film about a film about a book about a city, 2019. Still from video.

Will there be another biennial?

Hilde Barstad was director of the Oslo City Department of Culture from 2011 to 2017. She took part in determining the new strategies for Kunstordningen and, having the right to attend and make proposals at its board meetings, followed the process from pilot project to biennial. However, Barstad declined to speak to Kunstkritikk.

Stein Slyngstad took over the position as director in January 2018. Responding to Kunstkritikk’s presentation of criticisms raised by both the Telemark Research Institute and former Kunstordningen board members, he disagreed with the claim that the biennial is a result of democratically weak processes. “We have had a professional, competent board of the Kunstordningen, issued with a particular responsibility, and it is rather strange if former board members now, in hindsight, deny responsibility for decisions that were in their hands all the way.”

“The biennial was set up as an experimental initiative to help further develop Kunstordningen. What is regrettable in retrospect, however, is the substantial overspend in 2019. There were no signs warning us that the budget would be exceeded until just before Christmas in 2019, but of course this is a responsibility that rests with me,” said Slyngstad.

Slyngstad was also not aware of the pilot project’s overspend of NOK 2.3 million and forwarded to Department of Culture bureaucrats Kunstkritikk’s question as to why the biennial’s budget overrun still came as a surprise. “We believed that by organising the biennial as an autonomous project led by a day-to-day manager who would have this as their full-time position, the budget management would be well conducted,” they stated in an e-mail. The executive director of the Oslo Biennial, Ole Giskemo Slyngstadli, has explained the budget gap by pointing to high ambitions and a tight schedule. From May to October 2019, the biennial presented twenty-four projects rather than three as originally planned. Since then, the Oslo City Department of Culture has taken over the administration of the biennial, and Slyngstadli now reports to Mjøs and project director Lars Inge Merok Olsen.

Whether the Oslo City Department of Culture will launch another instalment of the Oslo Biennial is currently undecided. According to Slyngstad, “a discussion about whether the biennial ought to have had tenured curators and be arranged under the auspices of the Oslo City Department of Culture will of course be part of the overall assessment when we decide whether there will be a second instalment.” In the meantime, the Oslo City Council has reduced Kunstordningen’s allocation by 0.1 per cent. The cut amounts to around NOK 15 million (EUR 1.4 million) a year, according to a statement from UKS.

The Oslo City Department of Culture cannot afford to replace Eeg-Tverbakk or González-Sancho Bodero. Slyngstad also does not believe that any other curators would be able to carry out and expand the biennial given that the programme has already been set. When the Oslo Biennial completes its current projects by the end of 2021, it will likely be without a curator at the helm.

The collective Rose Hammer’s studio in Myntgata 2, headquarters of the Oslo Biennial.