American Museum Builds Nordic Collection

Buffalo AKG Art Museum in upstate New York will open in 2022 and plans to boast the largest collection of Nordic art outside the region.

Artists Olafur Eliasson and Miriam Bäckström and architect Shohei Shigematsu/OMA at the press conference in Copenhagen.

Danish design chairs were lined up in neat rows in Charlottenborg’s canteen, which usually caters to the venue’s staff and the Royal Danish Art Academy’s students, but recently served as the setting of this year’s Chart Art Fair like the rest of “Charlottenborg Palace,” as the place is often called during the trade fair days. This was particularly evident last week, when the canteen became the backdrop for quite an exotic event: a press conference held by a museum from Buffalo in the state of New York.

Since 2019, the former Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been undergoing major refurbishments and expansions, partly overseen by the architectural firm OMA / Shohei Shigematsu as well as by artists Miriam Bäckström and Olafur Eliasson. When the museum opens in 2022, it will operate under the name Buffalo AKG Art Museum and incorporate a distinctive focus area that prompted the press conference on Danish soil: The AKG Nordic Art and Culture Initiative.

Even during the introductory video presentation of Buffalo and the museum’s present and future buildings, it was clear that this is an ambitious initiative and, what is more, it is planned to go on for sixty years. A substantial delegation from the museum, spearheaded by Director Janne Sirén, had come to Copenhagen to elaborate on how the museum intends to eventually house the largest collection of Nordic art outside the Nordic region – and perhaps, in time, even the largest collection of Nordic art anywhere in the world.

The initiative focuses on artists and creatives working in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and the Åland Islands. Or, as Sirén put it, art from “the Nordic land mass,” the area extending from the easternmost side of Finland to the western border of Greenland.

In their presentations, both Sirén and newly appointed curator Helga Christoffersen took pains to emphasise that the objective is to present neither distinctive national characteristics nor local hierarchies in art in the Nordic countries, but rather to examine the art and culture found on the Nordic landmass, created by Nordic as well as non-Nordic artists.

The museum’s first exhibition will be a presentation of its collection. This will include works associated with the Nordic initiatives, as numerous works have already been acquired. In her contribution, Christoffersen, now living in Copenhagen after a ten-year stint in New York, mentioned some of the programme’s recent purchases, which included names like Santiago Mostyn, Ida Ekblad, Pia Arke, and Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg.

Although Christoffersen now lives in the Nordic region, she will endeavour to preserve a New York perspective and use her knowledge of American museums and museum visitors in her exploration of the Nordic art scene. As an example, she cited the museum’s interest in the Swedish artist Barbro Östlihn (1935–95), who also lived in New York for a number of years. Given the project’s ambition to engage in exchanges rather than one-way exports, it is worth noting that Östlihn’s work is attracting attention among several younger artists in Sweden at present.

Two artists already involved in the project were also present during the presentation: Miriam Bäckström (Sweden) and Olafur Eliasson (Denmark/Iceland). The latter highlighted AKG’s sincere interest in an actual exchange as the decisive factor behind his agreeing to create Common Sky, a spectacular glass structure forming a covered square to connect the historic museum building from 1961 with the sculpture garden. According to Eliasson, it is rare for initiatives pertaining to the Nordic region to come from outside. He also sees this project as a way to “pay it forward,” pointing to the importance of public support for the arts (he specifically mentioned DCA, IASPIS and others) which he himself had benefited from as a young artist working in Scandinavia.

The visit from Buffalo is also a fundraising trip. The museum is looking for more partners in the Nordic region to help build what Sirén called “a transatlantic bridge.” To date, USD 7.1 million (EUR 6 million) has been raised for the initiative. The goal is to have raised USD 10 million (EUR 8.5 million) by the time the museum opens in 2022.

Barbra Östlihn, Erik’s House – Lego, 1965, oil on canvas, Moderna Museet collection, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén / Moderna Museet.