Artists Fight Sponsorship Agreement

‘We want the Fredriksen agreement to be terminated’, says Nikhil Vettukattil, one of the artists behind a call for Norway's National Museum to end the collaboration.

Nikhil Vettukattil and Kajsa Dahlberg are two of the artist behind a call against the National Museum’s controversial sponsorship agreement with Fredriksen Family Art Company Limited. Foto: Mariann Enge.

Alongside fellow artists Knut Åsdam, and Kajsa Dahlberg, Nikhil Vettukattil and Sille Storihle, who are participating in the exhibition I Call it Art at the National Museum in Oslo, which opens to the public this week, are behind a call against the museum’s sponsorship agreement with the Cyprus-based company Fredriksen Family Art Company Limited. Issued under the heading “A Gift we can Afford to Refuse,” the appeal demands that the museum put an end to the controversial collaboration. Vettukattil told Kunstkritikk: “We want the Fredriksen agreement to be terminated, as we believe this is in the interests of both the museum and the public. The agreement contains a clause for either party to end the partnership, and the museum should make use of it.”

The ten-year agreement with Cecilie and Kathrine Fredriksen was announced in 2019. In addition to having a separate gallery at the museum at their disposal, the so-called Fredriksen room, which will house a succession of exhibitions displaying works from their collection, the sisters will also produce their own exhibitions in the museum’s Light Hall and sponsor doctoral fellowship programmes. The works in the Fredriksen collection will remain the property of the Fredriksen sisters, while the museum undertakes to store, maintain, and present them to the public.

The criticism levelled against the collaboration concerns not only the nature of the agreement, but also the Fredriksen Group’s reputation. The appeal emphasises the problematic business relations cultivated by the sisters’ father, John Fredriksen, ranging from Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2015, Fredriksen received Russia’s “Order of Friendship” for drilling a large oil field, which was completed a week before Crimea was invaded and annexed in early 2014.

Dahlberg believes the appeal is about reminding the museum of its ethical obligations. “The deal gives too much space, representation and influence to a single powerful family,” she said. “It seems naive that the museum is unconcerned with where the artworks come from and what that says about culture, society, and value. You would think an institution that deals with representation would be more reflective on these structural questions.”

The appeal describes the collaboration as an abdication of authority and credibility on the part of the museum, asking whether the public’s trust and the museum’s professional integrity should not outweigh the financial benefits achieved through the collaboration with the Fredriksen family. Åsdam elaborated: “Of course it kills the professional integrity of a national public institution when they put so highly an evaluation controlled by wealthy people in tax exile. It’s not insignificant where money comes from. Particularly not in this case, where it was been strongly criticised over and over again?”

The artists are also reacting to the fact that the agreement was entered into in the aftermath of a number of recent cases concerning the organisation of museums and their funding, in Norway and internationally. They highlight the Astrup Fearnley Museum’s severing of ties with the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil, which has been under investigation for human rights violations, and the protest rallies that prompted the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Serpentine Gallery in London to terminate their sponsorship agreements with the Sackler family, which made a fortune on the controversial medical drug Oxytocin. “In that context, to go into this agreement signifies either a total disregard to that discussion, saying that it has no value, or being extremely poorly informed about the public debate,” Åsdam said.

The appeal describes the Fredriksen collaboration as artwashing, an attempt to clean up a company’s reputation through sponsorship of art. Vettukattil thinks it is strange that the museum, having received such extensive criticism for the collaboration, still insists that it does not need to look into the matter. “If not something like this, when would it ever apply that it should be reviewed who is donating money to the museum? It seems really strange that, after so many comments for years, the museum’s reaction is still to insist that everything is legitimate and that they don’t need to look into this,” he said.

Storihle asserted that if the collaboration continues, it would signify that the National Museum doesn’t listen to the public debate or to the professional art field. “Ultimately, this type of agreement is something politicians like the Minister of Culture Anette Trettebergstuen should publicly evaluate. In 2019, then-Minister of Culture Trine Skei Grande harshly criticised the criticism towards the agreement, which showed Grande’s lack of insight into the art field as a speculative economic market,” she said.

So far, the appeal (read it here) has attracted well in excess of one hundred signatures and will be published today, Friday 10 June, prior to the official opening of the museum.