Three days before the planned opening of House of Commons, the eleventh Momentum Biennial in Moss, curator Théo-Mario Coppola was fired. In a press release, the director of Gallery F15 and Momentum, Dag Aak Sveinar, claimed that the decision arose out of a serious breach of contract. According to Sveinar, Coppola has not delivered important texts, including a curatorial statement, work descriptions, and artist biographies.
The biennial was first postponed indefinitely, but will now open this weekend, without its curator. “We intend to continue in line with Coppola’s intentions. We are caring for the curator’s work. We have an obligation to the artists, compelling us to go through with the biennial,” Sveinar told Kunstkritikk.
Having taken over as artistic director of the biennial, Sveinar describes Saturday’s event as a “soft opening.” The exhibition venues are opened to smaller groups of visitors in line with current infection control rules, while the biennial’s performance programme will be shown in August. Momentum has not published any written material or a more detailed description of the biennial other than what is stated in the original press release.
The parties are now speaking through lawyers. Sveinar believes Momentum has tried to reach out to and accommodate Coppola, but refused to go into details on how. “The ball is in his court. Our position is that we will terminate his contract upon failure to deliver what he was supposed to deliver,” Sveinar said.
Artists in a pickle
Ten of the biennial’s twenty-seven featured artists have signed a petition to have Coppola reinstated. The petition has not been signed by any participants with connections to Norway. As yet, no artists have withdrawn from the exhibition, and it is unclear what kind of authority Coppola can wield in support of his demands.
President of the Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK) Ruben Steinum has been in touch with several of the participating artists, and says that some have experienced indirect pressure to withdraw in the wake of media reports. “It is problematic that an internal conflict jeopardises the artists’ opportunities to show their works. Neither Momentum nor Théo-Mario Coppola will be well served by that,” Steinum told Kunstkritikk.
Sveinar believes the appeal in support of Coppola arose from Momentum’s failure to communicate with the artists. “We subsequently reached out to the artists and explained the conflict. We are engaged in an ongoing conversation, and no-one has withdrawn so far,” he said.
International and local ambitions
In an interview published on the website of the French Institute in Norway, it is obvious that Coppola wants an international reach for Momentum 11. Coppola described the biennial as an experimental platform, or a “production agency,” capable of forging ties with partners in different countries, “making it the very opposite of the idea of a particular national and aesthetic corner of the world.” His ambitions have also had institutional implications. For example, he removed the regional subtitle “Nordic festival for contemporary art” from the biennial’s name.
Sveinar said that Coppola’s project of finding collective solutions and building a sense of cohesion and community proved decisive in the recruitment process. At the same time, he emphasised that the biennial is an instrumental political collaboration between the biennial and the municipality of Moss. What is new this time is that the biennial’s centre of gravity is shifting from the Møllebyen district in Moss to the landscape conservation area on the southern coast of Jeløy island. The area is a manor house site, and Gallery F15 is set in one of the former residences. “The surroundings, which include gardens as well as landscape conservation areas, are shaped and infused by natural and cultural history alike. We are working on creating municipal planning for the landscape. That is part of the fundamental premise of this instalment of Momentum, and we talked to Coppola about all this,” Sveinar said.
Asked whether Momentum’s resources are scaled to the biennial’s international ambitions, Sveinar stated that Momentum has no ambitions to grow. “Essentially, we stick to the format and consider the financial framework available. In fact, this instalment has shrunk some due to the pandemic.”
“We have usually worked well with our curators, getting to know them and finding solutions. That hasn’t happened this time, and this puzzles me. We haven’t done anything different or made major changes in terms of mandate and vision,” Sveinar continued. He is not worried about Momentum’s future or the prospect of hiring new curators, and points to the biennial’s robust organisation and extensive experience of producing contemporary art. “This won’t be a setback that affects us for very long – perhaps it will actually prove a boon for us to have put our foot down and made this decisive choice. When the other party to a contract fails to deliver on what was agreed, you have to address that. It is about proper conduct.”
The pandemic has prevented all participating international artists from visiting Moss. The last time Coppola was in Norway was in October. Speaking to Kunstkritikk on the phone from Paris, he claimed that the information provided by Gallery F15 is inaccurate and inconsistent, but he would not address the accusations regarding breach of contract or answer why the collaboration foundered. He only stated: “I can assure you that the situation is not resolved. If I am not reinstated as curator, House of Commons must come to an end.”