– I don’t see the new director calling me every other day

Partnership between Kunsten in Aalborg and Louisiana in Humlebæk will make Poul Erik Tøjner responsible for programming at both venues. The job as director in Aalborg is posted anew.

Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg is designed by Alvar Aalto, Elissa Aalto and Jean-Jacques Baruël. Built out of marble, the edifice was raised in 1968–1972 in a former gravel pit. Photo: Allan Toft.

Beginning in 2020, a new partnership agreement will enter into force between the Danish museums Kunsten in Aalborg, Jutland, and Louisiana in Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen. In terms of organisational formalities, the new partnership means that Louisiana’s executive director, Poul Erik Tøjner, will hold overall responsibility for the art programmes presented at both institutions, while the new director of Kunsten, who will replace recently appointed director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm Gitte Ørskou, will refer to Louisiana’s management as regards programming and exhibitions.

The new agreement also means that the vacant position of director at Kunsten Aalborg has been advertised again to ensure that prospective applicants are aware of the new conditions for the job, “even though we are fundamentally looking for the same kind of independent, distinct, senior profile as ever,” says Christen Obel, chairman of Kunsten (and, incidentally, chairman of one of Denmark’s most important and influential foundations, the Obel Family Foundation). His statement was made in a press release that also highlights Louisiana’s resources and brand as a key asset underpinning the decision to formalise the collaboration between the two museums.

Kunsten and Louisiana have previously worked together on projects such as the current exhibition Twilight Zone, for which Kunsten is exhibiting a range of works from the Louisiana collection. The two institutions also engaged in a partnership on the William Kentridge exhibition presented at Louisiana in 2017 and at Kunsten in 2018. Based on these experiences, the two museums have now decided to further expand and formalise their collaboration, extending it to the entire exhibition programme at Kunsten.

In the future, Kunsten will be able to borrow from Louisiana’s collection, which numbers approximately 4,000 works. These can be combined with Kunsten’s own collection, which similarly contains about 4,000 works. At Louisiana, the museum emphasises how this collaboration will help it reach an even wider audience that does not necessarily visit Humlebæk with the same frequency or ease as its Copenhagen audience. In 2018, Louisiana attracted approximately 755,500 visitors, while Kunsten welcomed some 104,000 people.

The question is whether this new collaboration will essentially reduce Kunsten to a provincial offshoot of Louisiana – a “Provinciana,” as one observer wittily suggested on Facebook. Will it be possible to maintain a local identity and a distinct curatorial voice at Kunsten? Should we be concerned about the overall museum landscape in Denmark becoming more uniform? Kunstkritikk asked Poul Erik Tøjner about the plans for the future. 

How will this new collaboration affect the profile of Kunsten going forward?

It’s really too soon to say at this time, because that will greatly depend on the director who’ll take over the seat at Kunsten. I know that many will speculate whether all this means that I’ll make all the decisions, and that the Louisiana concept and model will be transferred wholesale to Kunsten, but that’s not the idea. The key to Louisiana’s success is that it is a radically site-specific museum with a rare sense of consistency between the architecture, the museum’s location in the landscape, the entire spirit of the museum, and the way we talk about art to our audience. Insofar as we’d want to transfer anything from Louisiana to another location, it would be the importance of being site-specific. That’s also why you can’t just relocate our big exhibition on the moon to Aalborg, and doing that sort of thing isn’t the idea behind ​​this collaboration either.

Rather, the idea is to nurture the emergence of a new scene and environment spearheaded by a new director who will seek to radicalise the entire idea of ​​site-specificity. At Louisiana we have greater experience, a larger international network, and greater critical mass, quite simply because there are more of us working here; we have a larger curatorial team and have arranged more exhibitions. That’s why we believe that this may be a very interesting, mutually beneficial experiment involving  two institutions that are both doing well already. Many venues start experimenting because things are going belly-up and anything would be better than the status quo, but Louisiana and Kunsten are both in great nick, and this sets us free to implement a new structure that can help both institutions grow and evolve.

What will be the true nature of your collaboration and interaction with the future director of Kunsten? When you’re responsible for the exhibition programme, doesn’t this mean that the new director’s responsibilities will primarily concern the administrative side of things? 

That’s not how I see it. In order for this idea to be fruitful, you need structure – otherwise the whole thing will just be wispy declarations of intent and good will. I think it’s great to have a firm framework in place for your work, but that’s not something that you activate in your day-to-day work, where things are more about how you work together. My name may be at the top of the organisational chart here at Louisiana, but I’m surrounded by talented, creative people, all of whom have firm opinions and offer up their ideas on what our exhibition programme should be like. Our collaboration with Kunsten will be similar in feel, and I don’t see the new director in Aalborg calling me up every other day to ask if he or she is allowed to do this or that.

The director of Kunsten will be hired by the board of directors, and I’ll be part of the recruiting committee myself. If any of the applicants see themselves as mere administrators of other people’s ideas, they won’t be right for us. I hope for a very dynamic and independent director who has real ambitions for the place.

Poul Erik Tøjner. Photo: Klaus Holsting.

So the idea isn’t to turn Kunsten into a kind of branch of Louisiana, just like major museum set-ups such as the Tate or Guggenheim have branches?

No, not at all. This is a collaboration between two institutions, not a merger or a branch. But I’ve talked to Christoph Grunenberg [former director at Tate Liverpool] about what it was like to work with Tate when you’re in Liverpool as director of one of four museums. He listed three things that had been important to him: maximum autonomy, maximum access to the Tate collection, and maximum access to the Tate brand. I don’t see any of these three things as incompatible with the collaboration we’ve established with Kunsten.

These days there’s a lot of talk about diversity in the art world. Doesn’t the kind of partnership now arranged between Kunsten and Louisiana entail a risk of the Danish museum landscape becoming more centralised and uniform?

I don’t think there’s any cause for concern on that score. We focus on the site-specific aspect, and I believe the practices employed in Aalborg and Humlebæk are quite different. As far as what’s going to happen in Aalborg is concerned, I believe that Kunsten will seek to boost its level of activity, which means that they will actually do more different things than before, just as the offerings provided at Louisiana are quite diverse in scope precisely because we engage in such high levels of activity. I don’t envision all museums being like Louisiana.

Still, in actual practice, won’t the fact that you’ll be responsible for the exhibition programme of both venues prompt greater uniformity? It’s true that Louisiana puts on many different activities, but I still think you’re very good at setting up your exhibitions so that they always feel like a Louisiana exhibition.

That’s right, and of course I think that doing exhibitions the way we do them here at Louisiana is a great idea. But I still think the Danish museum scene is big enough to accommodate many voices, and I don’t really think that our way of doing things is over-represented. We still have museums that arrange exhibitions of older art in a very traditional way, while others take a more actively engaging approach to exhibiting older art. For me, diversity may not be so much about the sender, but more about the user interface: we’d like to get a lot of different people to see this, and if collaboration can help us generate even greater interest in art overall, that will also promote diversity in the audiences attracted.

When I saw the news about this collaboration, I thought it was very much in line with the cultural politics prevalent in Denmark these days, wishing to spread and disseminate art throughout the country. What’s your take on that development in general?

I don’t buy into that whole mythology claiming that people who live a given number of miles out of Copenhagen or Aarhus are ignorant Neanderthals who can’t be proper members of the community unless the library bus comes by, but I think most can agree that it’s always good to live in an environment that’s well-stimulated intellectually and culturally. Generally speaking, Denmark is a country of great mobility, but if we can do something to further increase cohesion in our society – for example, by ensuring that you don’t  necessarily have to live in a big city in order to enjoy a great art experience – then that’s all to the good. 

What do you think is the biggest difference between running a museum in North Jutland and in the Capital Region?

I haven’t really given much thought to that particular issue. Louisiana is a local, regional, national, and international museum all at once, so we are already used to working with a very diverse audience. We take the somewhat bourgeois-liberal view that it’s perfectly possible to speak to intelligent people of all kinds without going overboard on demographic segmentation. And I am quite sure that Jutland is full of intelligent people too.

Our agreement states that Kunsten will remain an autonomous, self-governing institution, and I explicitly take the position that Kunsten should be seen to be Aalborg’s museum. We know from Louisiana, where we’re inundated with international tourists, that it’s incredibly important to maintain a sense of local ownership. So the new director in Aalborg must connect firmly with the soil there, just as we do with ours.

The Calder terrace at Louisiana. Photo: Poul Buchard / Brøndum & Co. Credit: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.