Car Salesman or Museum Director?

When the Munch Museum, spearheaded by Director Stein Olav Henrichsen, uses Munch as a kind of zombie influencer to sell cars, it has crossed a line.

Press photo from the launch of the sponsorship agreement between the Munch Museum and Polestar. The museum’s director, Stein Olav Henrichsen, is on the left. Photo: Polestar.

Earlier this year, I wrote a critical piece about the Munch Museum’s sponsorship agreements with the oil companies Idemitsu and Aker BP. So perhaps I should be pleased that the museum has now obtained a sponsorship agreement with the presumably more climate-friendly electric car manufacturer Polestar. But the way in which the museum has presented this agreement is incredibly distasteful.

During the opening of the new Munch Museum on Friday 22 October, several Polestar cars were parked rather prominently right outside the building – obviously, as part of the museum’s foregrounding of the car company. But the space in front of the Munch Museum is a no-parking zone. As the local newspaper Vårt Oslo reported on 24 October, photographer Adrian Bugge documented this and started a discussion about the issue on Facebook. The discussion on social media has also drawn attention to the press release announcing the sponsorship agreement and sent out in connection with the opening of the new museum. In it, the museum’s director, Stein Olav Henrichsen, made the following claim: “Edvard Munch was keenly interested in technical innovations, and I am quite sure that if Munch had lived today, he would probably have acquired a Polestar.”

The snippet has now been wisely edited out of the press release on the car company’s website, but one can still read lofty assertions. For example, that Polestar’s premises will “act as an extended arm of MUNCH, offering a hub of experiences where like-minded people come together to engage with common values ​​on design, innovation, technology and sustainability.”

Instead of accepting the criticism, Henrichsen announced that his statement was meant to be humorous – in the online magazine Forskerforum, he claimed: “Edvard Munch had a great sense of humour himself. I think he would have thought all this was funny.” As director of Munch’s museum, Henrichsen ought to have far greater respect for the fact that the artist he represents in fact cannot speak for himself. Munch has no opinion on this. Furthermore, Munch is not supposed to have any opinion on this – neither about Polestar’s cars nor about what is and isn’t funny. Anyone with the slightest interest in Munch’s art, on the other hand, ought to respond to the fact that the museum charged with stewardship of his art treats him in this manner. Indeed, the reactions were not long in coming.

One might wonder whether Henrichsen is a museum director or a car salesman. At any rate, using Munch’s name in such a blatant manner to sell cars seems a strange way to care for the artist’s legacy. Munch’s days as an active artist are long gone. The man is dead, and the museum which manages his art and legacy ought to be above pulling him from the grave as a 158-year-old zombie influencer. The museum is carrying on as if “Munch” is a brand that can be adapted and tweaked to any (financial) need.

Not least, one expects better from a public museum that exists because Munch himself bequeathed his life’s work to the city of Oslo. I understand that the museum needs private sponsorships, especially when creating such a large and expensive museum as the new Munch museum, but at some point you have to ask yourself if it is worth the money. When you are willing to use Munch as a commercial tool in this way, you have clearly not just crossed a line, but pole-vaulted a tall, electrified, barbed-wire fence.

In my opinion, the Munch Museum should make some serious changes in their approach to their sponsorship partners. First of all, the museum ought to display greater ethical awareness in terms of the kinds of companies it collaborates with, for example, by avoiding companies that actively contribute to the climate crisis. Secondly, it should make sure to treat Munch’s art and legacy with a little more respect – and finesse – in terms of the favours offered to its sponsors in return.

Mariann Enge is the editor-in-chief of Kunstkritikk. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.