Art in Other Channels

Contagion measures have prompted many Norwegian exhibition venues to move their mediation to commercial digital platforms, while others stress the importance of keeping open.

Photograph from Miriam Watsemba’s series Beyond the scars, 2019, which was to be included in an exhibition at Entrée in Bergen, scheduled to open 18 June. The gallery is closed for the time being.

Since 12 March, the Norwegian government has implemented a series of measures to limit contagion, and the closures and quarantines have changed the way we live and communicate. Not least, access to culture is severely limited. The impediments to physical congregation may be difficult to get around, but what alternative strategies do exhibition venues employ to stay in touch with their audiences during the coronavirus pandemic?

At artist-run Entrée in Bergen, founder Randi Grov Berger has kept the gallery closed since 11 March. She describes the situation as dismal. Even if she believes that some projects, such as planned film premieres, could work on digital platforms, others will have to be postponed. Nonetheless, she describes it as an important period. “We get a chance to reconsider the way we work, to look inwards and reflect on our lifestyle,” she says.

In neighbouring Bergen Kunsthall, exhibitions with Simone Fattal and Adelita Husni-Bey are in their last days. Like Entrée, the kunsthall mainly works with international artists, and its program is affected by travel restrictions. Director Axel Wieder and Head of Education Hilde Marie Pedersen said that the first event they had to cancel was a workshop and talk with Adelita Husni-Bey, who was scheduled to arrive from Northern Italy. They have also cancelled important research trips for artists as well as gallery staff. At present all employees are working from home. “It is challenging, since handling these circumstances adds both extra work and costs, but the greatest challenge is the unpredictability of the situation,” Wieder and Pedersen emphasised.

Still from Berndnaut Smilde’s Nimbus Atlas II, 2016, included in the exhibition In the Clouds: Clouds in Art From the 19th Century and From Our Time, which opens 20 March at Stavanger Kunstmuseum, but will only be available online.

Kunsthall Stavanger had to postpone the planned exhibition Air Conditions: Kunsthall 2025 with Marte Eknæs, scheduled to open on 26 March as well as the screening of Boombox (2009) by Ely Kim, which is part of the project Art Videos for Kids. Both Stavanger Art Museum and Kunsthall Oslo were in the process of installing new exhibitions when the government announced its precautionary guidelines. Hanne Beate Ueland at Stavanger Art Museum reports that despite uncertain times, not least with respect to expected income, it will announce on the museum’s Facebook page a digital opening of the planned exhibition In the Clouds: Clouds in Art from the 19th Century and from our time. “This period will obviously have consequences for further operations and our coming exhibitions. We can already experience rising costs for transport of artworks from abroad,” Ueland said.

Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) is particularly aware of the effect coronavirus measures have had on logistics, transport, their grant holders, international loans, and the production of new artworks for Art and Solidarity, an exhibition it is curating and organising in collaboration with Kunstnernes Hus, and which is scheduled to open in November 2020. OCA’s director, Katya Garcia-Antón, says she also realises that much more is at stake, asserting an interest in the new attitudes which are developing with respect to art and social life post-coronavirus, calling it a time of collaborative thinking and mutual support.

For many venues, ranging from large to small – among them The National Museum, KUBE Art Museum in Ålesund, Kunsthall Stavanger, Kunstnernes Hus, Kunsthall Oslo, the Astrup Fearnley Museum, The Association of Norwegian Sculptors, and the gallery Golsa – the contagion measures have sped up the evaluation and implementation of digital mediation. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter offers a digital tour of their exhibition Picasso 347, Trondheim Kunsthall shares downloads for phones as part of Jenna Sutela’s exhibition NO NO NSE NSE, and the Munch Museum in Oslo affords, besides its digitised collection of Munch’s drawings and writings, a virtual tour of the museum in collaboration with Google Art Project.

Installation view from Jenne Sutela’s exhibition NO NO NSE NSE at Kunsthall Trondheim. Their premises are currently closed to the audience. Photo: Aage A. Mikalsen.

Akershus Kunstsenter is among several institutions deploying social media to share artworks they can no longer show to the public. According to Director Rikke Komissar, the art centre’s branches for public outreach, the Pilot Gallery, which makes art available in schools through public programs, and Kunstvisitten (Art Visit), which offers art mediation in hospitals and social institutions, have also had to close down. The only art exhibit that remains open is a smaller display in the vitrines at Oslo Bus Terminal, showing works by Aaron Irving Li.

From north to south, arts administrators are working from home. Many exhibition venues are in a position where not only staff, but also educators, guides, and others working on an hourly basis will still get paid for planned and contracted work in the time to come. Kathrine Wilson, managing director at Kunsthall Oslo emphasised that many of its weekend and part-time employees are themselves artists, and as such part of a complicated economy. Stefanie Hessler, director at Kunsthall Trondheim, points out that artists and culture workers are among the most exposed in this precarious situation, and that it is important to be ahead of the consequences they are facing. “If we fail to do this,” she warned, “we risk opening an even larger inequality gap, that it will be extremely difficult to patch up.”

Where the state is carrying the economic burden, or a part of it, as in the public museums and the kunsthalls, there is more respite than at private galleries. Emilie Magnus from OSL Contemporary in Oslo informed Kunstkritikk that the entire gallery staff is in quarantine because of travels to the United States. The gallery, therefore, has been forced to keep the doors closed. Magnus noted the changes: “The activity is extremely sparse and our operating basis has crumbled. Exhibitions are extended and postponed in the hope that they get the attention they deserve. Collaborative projects that have been going on for a long time, scheduled to be realised this spring, are put on hold indefinitely. Collectors retract and suspend their purchases.”

At the National Museum, which is currently in the process of moving to a new building, the Department of Architecture was the only open section before the museum closed last week. As a consequence of the relocation, the museum has not experienced the immediate losses in budgeted income that other institutions are experiencing right now, Director Karin Hindsbo explained. But the situation will undoubtedly create complications and lead to changes in its overall plans, both in the short and long term. Hindsbo finds it disquieting how fast the cultural sector was stricken, and the National Museum has decided to increase its purchasing budget for 2020 to NOK 30 million (EUR 2.5 million), as an extraordinary measure. “We have a national responsibility within our field and see such a move as part of our own social mission and our general public responsibility,” she said, adding, “the seriousness of the situation is growing every day, making it important to follow up on the developments and to find ways to help each other.”

Erin Sexton and Yohei Hamada’s exhibition Contingency Planning at Kurant in Tromsø is presented online as a series of livestreaming events and an open discussion forum. Photo: Rasmus Hungnes.

Artist-run Kurant in Tromsø views the situation more opportunistically. Collaborating with the artists Erin Sexton and Yohei Hamada, it is moving the entire exhibition Contingency Planning, including an artist talk and a workshop in collaboration with the University of Tromsø, onto digital platforms. “Things move fast around here, and we have a low threshold for action, so it could have been worse. There is a certain charm in going digital, even if it is just for a while,” said Humle Isabel Rosenkvist, who co-manages the space with Ruth Aitken.

With swathes of the population quarantined in their homes, the threat of cabin fever is impending. Artists Marit Følstad and Ole Jørgen Ness have decided to keep their venue 222T in Oslo open. They argue that it is important for our mental health not to close cultural spaces which are safe according to current measures. “Physical and spatial input leave a deeper impression, because they involve a greater part of us. It is nice to see another human being, even if it is a on a few meters’ distance, and it is important for body and mind to experience other surroundings than our private sphere,” Følstad said.

Ciprian Mureşan, Choose…, 2005. From the exhibition The World Turned Upside Down at 222T, one of few Norwegian art venues still open to the public. Photo: 222T.