– I am gentle, but also tough as nails

On September 1st, Stina Högkvist took over as head of the Norwegian National Museum’s entire staff of art professionals. She will no longer be curating, but remains obsessed with art.

Stina Högkvist. Photo: Pernille Sandberg.

– When I was ten years old, my teacher told me that I was good at writing, and that I wrote like a man, relates Stina Högkvist, the newly appointed director of collections at the National Museum in Oslo, Norway.

– I was a little taken aback. How strange that I, a little girl, wrote like a man. It was intended as a compliment, but I’ve always had a big mouth on me and made the teacher see that it wasn’t me who was in the wrong, but her ideas that were too narrow-minded, says Högkvist. Later in life she has been consistently eager to open up new perspectives.

Kunstkritikk meets the director of the newly established department at the National Museum’s library a few days before she takes over the chair. She calls the place her sanatorium – and comes here at least once a day to pick up new ideas and impulses, try out ideas and read books.

Even so, Stina Högkvist is not the kind of curator who hits you over the head with academic concepts and difficult discourse. Rather, she seems to have the courage to be emotionally affected by art, and to create tender and humours exhibitions.

The person chosen by the National Museum for the position as director of collections is not your typical managerial powerhouse, but an art professional recruited from the museum’s own ranks and a person with a genuine enthusiasm for art. Stina Högkvist has worked as a curator at the museum’s department of contemporary art since 2006. Now she is tasked with heading and managing the vast department that will replace this and the three other previous departments: architecture, design and older art. She will be responsible for expanding and developing the collection, for the museum’s exhibition programme and for ‘nurturing innovative projects’.

She approaches the task with respectful humility, emphasising the importance of collaboration with the various art professionals and experts at the museum. The exhibitions will arise out of the staff’s fields of interest, says Högkvist.

Moving on from the library, we walk the ten minutes across Oslo’s main street Karl Johan down to the harbour and the building site at Vestbanen, the former train station where the new National Museum will open in 2020. Having arrived inside the space they call the Alabaster Hall, I fully realise the sheer size of this new building. It is going to be huge.

Kunstkritikk: The new National Museum will be big and expensive, it will attract increased attention, and expectations are running high. How will you manage to fill this new museum?

Stina Högkvist: At the National Museum, we span a great range of subjects, and we want to show this fantastic, colourful and diverse spectrum in its entirety. We’ll demonstrate how you can have really tiny objects and narrow fields of interest coexist with the monumental and the spectacular. Audiences will get to experience things they did not know they wanted. In a time where so much is digital, it is wonderful to have this huge analogue resource right in the heart of the city.

The exhibitions will be site-specific, anchored in their particular space, time and part of art history, and they don’t need to look any particular pre-determined way. Every angle must be carefully considered, and nothing can be taken for granted. We must come up with unique answers. When visitors leave a Picasso exhibition, we want them to go ‘Yo, Picasso!’ The new museum offers up many new opportunities, but it’s also like moving into a whole new, vast body; we’ll need to learn how the building works.

Tori Wrånes, Hot Pocket, 2017, installation view. Curator: Stina Högkvist. Photo: The National Museum / Frode Larsen.

Do you feel under pressure to attract large audiences with your exhibitions?

Of course, we feel the pressure. Opening a museum like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But that pressure mustn’t control us; we need to work with confidence and dare to take risks. When things are done with love and a lot of careful work, when they are driven by a strong will and sense of purpose, you can just tell. It doesn’t matter whether it’s all about 1970s car tyres or the paintings of Monet. It may sound very romantic, but I do believe that ‘you can’t fake it’. If you try to be clever, you fail.

Will you make it?

I hope that we will feel steady-handed, calm and secure enough to work in that way, and I am determined to do my part to make that happen. We need to bring forth the individuals within the institutions and their special, distinctive interests, as well as our local and national characteristics. When I visit an art museum in Lisbon, I don’t go there to see yet another Donald Judd. I want to get a feel for the local flavour, get it right under my skin, find markers and signs that tell I am actually in Portugal, says Högkvist to Kunstkritikk.

New readings

Having completed her studies in Sweden, Högkvist moved to Oslo in 2005. Her first job as a curator was with Riksutstillinger (the National Museum’s department for touring exhibitions, then still a separate department) and involved a concert tour featuring KILLL, a band operating in the field where rock music and the visual arts intersect. Their concerts are intense; the band warned audiences of a very real risk of triggering epileptic fits. Music has followed her productions ever since. Together with Sabrina van der Ley she curated the group show I Wish This Was A Song at the National Museum’s museum of contemporary art in 2012, and music and songs were important elements of the exhibition Hot Pocket featuring Tori Wrånes in 2017. The interplay of different art forms, popular culture and history appear to be important to Högkvist. She often uses the concept of ‘new readings’.

– I have worked at the National Museum since 2006. Here, I been given time to do research, and this long-term horizon appeals greatly to me because it gives me time to work with art history, to engage in new readings of already established work. Many have this idea that doing research of that kind must be terribly dull, but really it’s the most exciting detective work imaginable.

For the Sidsel Paaske exhibition Like før / On the Verge (2016), I took over her estate from her son. This was not a new reading as such, given that there was almost nothing written about her. I had to start from scratch, which made me very aware of the power I have as an historian; how important it was to show humility when positioning her within an historic context as an individual and as an artist.

Why is art important to you?

That’s almost impossible to answer, but art is certainly a language that makes me see the world in a different way. My brother has been very important to me; we don’t come from the kind of home that was interested in the arts. My father was an engineer who made me play golf. But my brother and I carved out a space where we could just be ourselves; he studied theatre and acting in New York and brought back John Waters films when he came back. So we would loaf around at home, watch movies, read, play music and subvert the bourgeois fantasies that my parents lived by. He was overtly queer from a very early age, writing his own variety shows where he’d perform in drag before the entire village in Dalarna.

Stina Högkvist. Photo: Pernille Sandberg.

This summer, I visited my brother’s holiday cottage, where I leafed through his art books. I was struck by the fact that his books consisted almost entirely of pictures, while my art books are full of text. I am definitely fascinated by the formal and aesthetic aspects of art, but I am also very interested in the complex history of which art is part. For me, images and texts and a kind of narrative all go together; perhaps that was why I became a curator.

I later went on to study art history and work as a guide at Uppsala Art Museum and in the artist’s home of the Swedish painter Bror Hjorth. This was when I began to think about exhibitions as a discipline, about how art was presented and the stories related. There must be a better way to do this, I thought. Then I enrolled at the curator programme at Konstfack in Stockholm back when it had just been established. Our year was the second year of the programme, and there were just four of us.

Upon graduating, you opened the gallery Simon Says with Norwegian curator Marianne Zamecznik. What kind of gallery was this?

We were at an art fair in Berlin and could tell that no-one would listen to us if we didn’t have a gallery, so it all began as a little white lie. Simon Says was a non-commercial effort; we never had a fixed address, but were invited to show our exhibitions at various places and did a number of projects and solo shows.

For example, we did a cat exhibition intended as a comment on the art world’s narrow view of what art is. A kind of critique of a standardised view of beauty. We invited a cat society to arrange a beauty contest. An authorised cat judge measured tails and assessed the lustre of the cats’ fur. We also invited the artist Fia-Stina Sandlund, who in turn had a modern-day Dr Doolittle talk to the cats. It was a brilliant day, and the critics absolutely hated it.

Then we did an exhibition in Oslo featuring the artist Bjørn Kjelltoft at Galleri 21:24, 21:25, the project gallery that Michael O’Donnell from the Academy of Fine Art launched in the early 1990s. That gallery was located in Vestbanen, the very same place I will now be director! I hadn’t really thought about that until now, but in some sense things have come full circle.

Up until now, Sidsel Paaske had been left out of art history, Kjartan Slettemark may have positioned himself outside of it, and last autumn you and Geir Haraldseth curated the exhibition Luringen (Trickster) in Bogotá, where Tori Wrånes created a performance featuring transsexual sex workers. It seems as if ‘outsiders’ loom large in the exhibitions you create?

I don’t think of people as outsiders, but I feel great empathy with those who go their own way or don’t quite fit in. I’ve always liked people who just do their thing, have real integrity and dare to think differently.

I have worked a great deal with counterculture, John Waters, Kjartan Slettemark. I have a very broad field of interests, with a particular penchant for hippie modernism and underground LSD paintings. But I love Russian icons too. I often have love affairs like that with a lot of things all at same the time. I am not monogamous in that sense.

One of my great heroines is Marcia Tucker, who launched The New Museum in New York back in 1977. She was a curator at the Whitney, but was fired. The next day she launched her own project, a small window gallery, and voila: The New Museum was born. She went on to create exhibitions that were almost always poorly received by critics, but which have become cult shows in retrospect. She may have been one of the original Guerrilla Girls, and she also had a secret career as a stand-up comedian.

Installation view from the exhibition Like før. Sidsel Paaske (1937–1980), curated by Stina Högkvist. Photo: The National Museum / Annar Bjørgli.

You will be the head of many people, all of them highly skilled, and manage a very large professional field. What is your approach to management?

I am gentle, but also tough as nails. But I’ll set out to have big ears and a small mouth, as the saying goes (laughs). It’s about being receptive, about really listening to what people want to do, but also setting out a firm direction. As regards the task of developing and renewing the museum’s entire collection, from older art to the art of today, it’s important that the ideas arise out of the individual art professionals’ expertise. It’s going to be great fun, and I can’t wait to get cracking.

Are you comfortable leading people?

I think that working on a project basis is really cool, and I love it when collaboration creates synergy – a good project where everyone wants to work on the same thing, where you can engage in plenty of professional discussions. That gives me a kick.

I need to see things; my triggers are visual. As an art critic writing for Aftonbladet I was given the assignment of reviewing the new IKEA catalogue. I concluded my review by stating that I would like to see more open shelves and cabinets where you can see everything; I don’t understand why everything needs to be hidden away. I wrote that society is unfair because everything is arranged to suit people who are bloody pedantic. I need some kind of chaos.

In my new office I’ll have a long table where I can put out all my things so that I can see them; the brain works more freely like that. That’s why I pace the museum’s library at least once a day like some Rainman character: I form connections. Of course, I don’t like things filthy and messy, but strict order and things neatly arranged in rows is to my mind rather unquestioningly and inexplicably ranked higher than things lying on the floor. That doesn’t work for me.

As director, you will also be responsible for the museum’s collection; are there any things that you feel the collection is missing?

Expanding and developing our collection will be something that we do together. In recent years we have focused on what we need in order to do a presentation of Norwegian art history. For example, we have been working on deciding which women artists to incorporate into our collection. We’ll continue to fill in those gaps, but we’re still working on the exact strategy.

At the new museum at Vestbanen you are responsible for the exhibition room representing the 1990s. How will you tell the story of that decade?

We have chosen to show one particular aspect of the 1990s; in brief, the emphasis will be placed on Norwegian art, artist-run initiatives and DIY culture. It is a very complex decade, characterised by the transition to the digital world, by the rapid rise of video art and photography, and issues such as identity and representation. We have made some new acquisitions.

Are you going to be the most important curator in Norway from now on?

No, I won’t be a curator.

Will you work less with art in your new job?

No. I’ll be working in a different way, but I’m still obsessed with all things associated with the realm of art. My brain’s still the same.

Are you going to miss being more ‘hands-on’?

Not as long as I get to work creatively and take part in discussions about art. I am also keen to think more generally about museums and what they do. About how we will build up a shared energy and common ground, and about how the new National Museum will be a unified project. And if I get to miss it a bit at times, I can always visit the storerooms and look at the art there. Or be at hand when new exhibits arrive and the crates are opened. That’s always an amazing feeling.

Kjartan Slettemark, The artist as a poodle, 1975. Photo: Brita Olsson.