What is provincialism? The classic text on the subject was written by the art historian Terry Smith in Artforum in 1974. Smith states that: “Provincialism appears primarily as an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values”.
This is a quite exact description of what is happening right now when dozens of public and private actors on the Norwegian art scene wish to pay the Swiss fair Art Basel 3.4 million to tell us how Oslo can be developed into an international art centre.
A subsequent full-scale three-year project under the umbrella organisation “Art Basel Cities” is estimated to cost NOK 185 million. Nobody can quite say what such a project will involve, except that it won’t be an art fair. The pictures from the first Art Basel City, Buenos Aires, suggest that the result will closely resemble a kind of House of Literature set-up for the art scene, hosting seminars and lectures.
I have a hard time finding something favourable to say about this project. The price tag is horrifying, and it’s not hard to concur with the Ministry of Culture’s assessment when they say that raising that kind of money is “unlikely”.
Even so, the worst thing about the project is that it creates the impression that the Norwegian art scene needs a semi-permanent presence of the kind of authority that Art Basel represents. Oslo already has dozens of actors who organise debates and seminars weekly. Yes, Art Basel can contribute more of this, and probably consultancy services and projects and lobbying and networking too.
But these are things that Norwegian stakeholders are already doing every day, all year long! And if the Norwegian art scene does not always seem as “professional” and “international” as all the hubbub surrounding the fair in Basel, this is due to the local conditions in Oslo. They will not improve by bringing in an international corporation to tell us how it should be done.
On the contrary, we should be proud of the art culture we have developed in Norway and the Nordic region. Perhaps we could teach Art Basel and the rest of the international field to take better care of artists, curators, critics and other essential contributors to the art field. For in Basel, power and money rule the roost, and this is what is now being imported into Oslo.
One of the most important preconditions governing and shaping the Norwegian art scene is the question of funding. Of course, everyone’s struggling for every penny and it’s hard to get everything you want done –and to get it done to the level of quality you’d ideally like. The problem is, of course, that there’s not enough money to go round. So the various actors must continue to argue for increased funding and develop their own sources of income.
It’s easy to imagine how Art Basel Cities will remain aloof, unsullied by these political struggles. They want NOK 3.4 million – the annual exhibition budget of two or three Norwegian art venues – just to investigate how the Norwegian art scene might become more international. After that point, the Norwegian art scene must raise another 185 million in order for the project to be established in Oslo for three years and for us to feel even more provincial. Of course, the private corporation Art Basel won’t have to bother with the difficulties of Norwegian cultural policies, allowing them to concentrate entirely on developing the Norwegian art world.
If the project were to be actually realised, it’s easy to imagine what will happen: for three years we will be allowed to watch as Art Basel rolls out various projects from its elitist perspective, bringing in star curators, top-notch galleries and international art collectors. We must behave, listen and learn. Perhaps we’ll even be allowed to contribute to the Art Basel empire if we play along nicely and accept the corporation’s values and authority.
To me, this is a kind of horror scenario: that the Norwegian art world should subordinate itself to this multinational group, growing more “international” on these terms. This is not to say that I have anything against Art Basel as an art fair. Quite the contrary. It is a private enterprise that successfully brings together top-level galleries and art collectors. But this cannot be the basis for developing the Norwegian art scene.
Nor am I against the idea of developing the commercial aspects of the Norwegian art world. Perhaps it might even be interesting to bring in a consultant from Art Basel to assist us with this. But of course, this should be a project with clear-cut boundaries, commissioned by Norwegian stakeholders and executed on the terms and conditions that apply to the Norwegian art scene. We don’t need some monster project in Oslo, operating on a radically different economical basis than the local stakeholders.