Money Problems

Do art institutions have a particular obligation to assess the ethics of their sponsors? Directors of museums and exhibition venues in Scandinavia answer that question.

Jan Steen, Beware of Luxury, ca. 1663. Oil on canvas, 105 x 145.5 cm.

In recent years, sponsorship ethics has been on the agenda in the international art world – including in the Nordic region. Fresh awareness of these themes has emerged through controversies such as the collaboration between the National Museum in Oslo and the Fredriksen family, the Munch Museum’s sponsorship agreements with the oil companies Idemitsu and Aker BP, the Astrup Fearnley Museum’s now-terminated sponsorship agreement with the oil company Lundin, the protests that prompted the Tate museums to end their long-standing partnership with British Petroleum, and the rallies against MoMA’s ties to controversial philanthropists. In the Nordic region, the issue has grown increasingly pressing as a result of a general change in cultural policy, where public institutions are expected to increase their revenues from private sponsors.

To investigate the current lay of the land in Scandinavia as regards sponsorship ethics and museum finances, Kunstkritikk approached selected museums and art venues in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. To what extent do state coffers, commercial sponsors, and private foundations contribute to securing the institution’s work and existence? What thoughts and reflections have you had on the discussions surrounding this topic in recent years? Is the museum an ethical fundraiser – and if so, where do you draw the line? Who can – and can’t – you accept money from? These were some of the questions posed.

The ‘acceptable’ is a constantly moving target

In Norway, the largest and most influential museums are public, supported by strong public funding. Overall, the Conservative Party’s (Høyre) recent tenure in government (2013–2021) saw a general focus on promoting greater collaboration between the public and private sectors within the entire field of cultural policymaking, including the arts. Art institutions have been encouraged to increase their proportionate rate of income from private sponsors. As an incentive, the Conservative government created the a donation reinforcement scheme  (gaveforsterkningsordningen) in 2013, which meant that the state would provide a matching contribution of up to 25 per cent of all monetary gifts donated by private individuals to art and cultural enterprises in Norway.

Director of the Kode museums in Bergen, Petter Snare. Photo: Kobie Nel.

The scheme was abolished this year by the current Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) government, but according to the director of the Kode museums in Bergen, Norway, Petter Snare, this has, paradoxically, made private money even more important: “It may not have been the intention, but when the scheme disappeared without introducing any other form of compensation, that was just how things turned out.” Snare told Kunstkritikk that Kode is positive towards the idea of private benefactors, and is in the privileged situation of being approached by many who would like to contribute. “I’m pleased about that, but sponsorship income is not a substitute for operating funds from the public sector; rather, they provide means that enable us to develop projects and offerings we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to provide.”

Kode is a state-run museum with an operating budget of around NOK 143 million (EUR 13.8 million), of which approximately 78 per cent comes from public-sector funding. At present, around 10 per cent comes from non-profit foundations and private funds. When asked about the scope of museums’ responsibility to ensure that their sponsors comply with ethical requirements, Snare said that issues regarding reputation and public image are matters which each museum must assess on an equal footing with other actors in society. “Of course, the museums should not become useful idiots hauled in for a bit of artwashing of dubious enterprises. One must be careful about receiving money that might dent one’s reputation, but what is regarded as acceptable is a constantly moving target, and such matters are often decided by posterity.”

Norwegian oil money

As regards the matter of private sponsors, the collaboration between the National Museum in Oslo and the Fredriksen family has been hotly debated. When the museum reopened in June of this year in its new building in Oslo’s waterfront district, 90 per cent of its operating budget of 696 million Norwegian kroner (EUR 67.3 million, which will go up to ca. 1 billion in its first full year of operation) was covered by government subsidies. Speaking to Kunstkritikk, the museum’s director Karin Hindsbo said that the Norwegian museums would not be able to withstand large public-sector cuts in their budgets, as has been a tendency across Europe, but that, as museums, they still have great potential for obtaining income from sponsors and partners. The total income from the private sector in 2022 has not yet been tallied up, but the museum states that, among other contributions, it has received NOK 12 million (EUR 1.2 million) from the Savings Bank Foundation DNB, and up to NOK 20 million (EUR 1.9 million) from the aforementioned Fredriksen collaboration.

On the matter of ethical criteria for the assessment of sponsors, Hindsbo said that museums must abide by the regulations of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), adding: “What is more, the National Museum also has its own ethical guidelines, which function as a supplement to the ICOM rules. At the same time, the cultural sector cannot be expected to have stricter ethical requirements than other parts of society, such as sports or the Oil Fund.”

Director of the Norwegian National Museum, Karin Hindsbo. Photo: Annar Bjørgli / Nasjonalmuseet

Hindsbo believes that the factors to be considered by a cultural institution in connection with sponsorship agreements and collaboration partners include sustainability, the environment, and human rights. “However, if Norwegian museums cannot say yes to funds that derive wholly or in part from the so-called fossil fuel industry, we would also have to say no to all funds transferred from the Norwegian nation. Because Norway makes a lot of money from the Norwegian oil and gas industry, partly through direct ownership and partly through tax revenues; money which is in turn distributed by way of the state budget,” Hindsbo said.

Her view echoes that of Petter Snare at Kode, who also pointed out where the money distributed as Norwegian state subsidies comes from: “Like it or not, Norwegian state budgets are largely financed by fossil fuels. It’s just that the funds have been ‘tax laundered’ by passing through the state sector before it reaches all of us.” “Having said that,” Snare added, “it goes without saying that any contributors must run their enterprises well within the limits of legality and common decency.”

The Astrup Fearnley Museum looks to the US

Even though Norway has strong public museums, the private Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo is still a leading actor in the field of contemporary art. The current director is Solveig Øvstebø, who took the chair after having spent seven years as director of the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art museum in Chicago. In her view, the most important concern for an art institution, whether the money comes from the public or the private sector, is that the artistic programme must uphold its autonomy. Øvstebø also urges institutions to work out their sponsorship agreements thoroughly and think carefully about boundaries when entering into collaborations. “Many different examples of this type of philanthropy exist, not least in the US, where the structures surrounding such agreements are governed by written rules and established conventions to a greater extent than here,” she said.

The Astrup Fearnley was previously sponsored by the controversial oil company Lundin, which at the time the agreement was entered into was under investigation for complicity in genocide. The agreement was terminated in 2020, although this was, according to the museum’s chairman, unrelated to the issue of the investigation. Under Øvstebø’s management, Astrup Fearnley has obtained a new main sponsor, the Bergen-based shipping and property company EGD Holding, but non-profit foundations continue to account for over 50 per cent of the museum’s budget. The museum has an operating budget of NOK 64 million (EUR 6.2 million), of which public-sector support makes up 1.7 per cent.

For Øvstebø, transparency is important as regards issues of sponsorship ethics. She also thinks that challenges within the field must be acknowledged: “Those of us who work in art and cultural institutions must always carry a compass around our necks to help us navigate this landscape in an aware and sensible way, doing what we can to achieve good cooperation with dedicated private actors who want to support the arts. Because we need that.”

The Astrup Fearnley Museum’s director, Solveig Øvstebø. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Øvstebø believes that it is the responsibility of each individual institution to establish its own position and guidelines through internal dialogue and in response to general developments in society. This way, it is possible to create platforms for artistic production and communication that the institutions can vouch for and where artists can feel comfortable exhibiting. “I generally see a great willingness, both here in our country and internationally, to strive for a more sustainable operation. There is growing awareness in the field, which, for example, also means that in cases involving cooperation with energy producers, the ones chosen are those who are mindful of supporting the transition to green energy,” Øvstebø said.

Norway’s limited supply of commercial sponsors

The newly appointed director at the public museum Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum (NNKM) in Tromsø, Katya García-Antón, came to the institution in 2022 from her job as director at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA). She told Kunstkritikk that she believes museums should ideally be fully funded by the state, employ an arm’s length principle, and provide free admission for all. Still, she observes that the era of full state support seems to be a thing of the past across all of Europe.

According to García-Antón, there is currently a limited supply of private foundations and commercial sponsors in Norway to which museums can reach out, although this may change in the future. “The tradition and practice of corporate and private sponsorship of the museum sector in Norway is at an early stage. An advised code of good practice is needed, and posts for development professionals on the corporate side and in museums would be essential to make sure that partners on both sides understand each other and that codes of practice are abided by for a culture of sponsorship to grow that reflect the ethics of society at large.”

NNKM has an operating budget of around NOK 32 million (EUR 3 million), of which 96 per cent comes from public-sector grants. The museum has no commercial sponsors, and the remaining part of its budget comes from non-profit foundations. Still, García-Antón maintains that the most important thing about collaborating with private-sector stakeholders is that the responsibility lies with the museums and the state-sector funders in a robust dialogue with the sponsors. “I hope that Norway has sufficiently solid foundations for the cultural field to set benchmarks which the corporate sector will engage positively with, and be proud of doing so. I also think it is important not to demonise the corporate sector, as I have come across examples of private and corporate funders whose codes of good practice are noteworthy.”

Katya García-Antón, Director of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Photo: Eirin Torgersen.

García-Antón points out that as long as a given sponsor does not break the law, a museum can in principle accept support from it, meaning that it is the law that must be changed in order to reflect the current ethics in society. Still, given that museums are places which foster cohesion, engage in issues that are important to society, and generate ideas about the present and future, they must play a major role in setting ethical standards for the art sector. “Defining these standards collectively is complicated, but I believe we must do so in an ongoing dialogue with the Ministry of Culture and the Arts Council Norway,” she said. 

More private-sector funding in Denmark

In Denmark, the wish to have museums bring in private capital in addition to state support is not a new thing. The overall shift towards the right in Danish cultural policymaking, involving efforts to attract more private capital to cultural life, began in the early 2000s during Brian Mikkelsen’s (Conservative People’s Party) tenure as minister of culture. The trend gained further momentum in 2017 under minister of culture Mette Bock (Liberal Alliance), who wanted to promote increased private funding for the field of culture through initiatives such as greater tax relief for private foundations.

If we consider, for example, the funding structure of Denmark’s largest art museum, the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), 55 per cent of its operating budget of approximately DKK 110 million (EUR 14.8 million) comes from state support, whereas the corresponding figure for Norway’s National Museum is 90 per cent.

Speaking to Kunstkritikk, SMK’s director, Mikkel Bogh, said that he sees both advantages and disadvantages to the current practice of securing funding for state-sector museums in Denmark: “Compared to institutions in the US and other countries in the world where the state and municipal coffers make only minimal contributions to the museums’ finances, I am happy that here in Denmark, we get more than 50 per cent of our budget covered through government grants. However, in the other Nordic countries, the government grants account for a larger proportion of the budget than in Denmark, giving them greater financial security.”

Director of the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), Mikkel Bogh. Photo: SMK.

However, Bogh believes that striking a balance that combines state support, private support, and own revenue creates a favourable dynamic by stimulating partnerships that contribute to developing the institution. Still, in order for that to be possible, tax breaks and other incentives for supporting culture must be in place.

On the topic of sponsorship ethics, Bogh holds that each individual museum has a responsibility to check the ethical and climate-related aspects of the foundations and enterprises from which they receive support. Twenty-five per cent of SMK’s income comes from the private sector, but the museum does not collaborate with businesses that produce fossil fuel or which do not have a green profile. Even so, it accepts support from large Danish foundations that make money from the sale of tobacco and beer. “Our considered opinion is that we can live with that, as these enterprises are very aware of the importance of environmentally responsible production,” Bogh said.

He added that museums must take into account the fact that the public is becoming increasingly aware of where the money comes from, and that “receiving funds from companies that do not have a clear CSR and climate profile could prove costly. On the other hand, one also needs to consider how much support you can afford to reject without ending up losing the basic income required for your operation and development as a cultural institution.”

No specific policy yet

Brandts Kunstmuseum in Odense, another public institution in Denmark, has a budget of approximately DKK 33 million (EUR 4.4 million), of which 63 per cent comes from public funding, while 18 per cent is from sponsorship funds provided by commercial sponsors and private foundations. Director Stine Høholt, told Kunstkritikk that the museum works with forty-five partners from the business community who support the museum’s finances and development, as well as with two sponsors, and that it has never faced any ethical dilemmas associated with any of them.

Høholt holds that the same ethical demands must be applied to museums as to other cultural institutions, adding that “sponsored activities must not compromise the museum and its public, and the museum must always maintain control over the content and integrity of its work, as described in ICOM’s rules.”

Director of Kunsthal Charlottenborgs, Michael Thouber.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg – another public institution in the Danish capital – is part of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Visual Art. Hence, there are no precise numbers for how much of its budget is covered by the state, but the school’s principal, Lars Bent Petersen, estimates it is around 60 per cent. The remaining money comes from both private and public foundations, as well as from own revenue. At present, the venue does not have any private businesses as regular financial sponsors, but occasionally receives discounts or sponsored products for selected projects.

Speaking to Kunstkritikk, Director Michael Thouber said that the kunsthalle is aware of the discussions currently taking place internationally regarding the ethics of private sponsorships, adding: “We ourselves do not yet have a specific policy on this, but given that our institution is facing an organisational change and will have a board of directors next year, this may well be one of the topics which the new board will focus on.”

Louisiana: difficult to set up firm principles

In Denmark, several private institutions hold a strong position on the national art scene, such as the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen Contemporary, and Arken. Marie Laurberg, director of Copenhagen Contemporary, told Kunstkritikk that the kunsthalle, as a private institution, receives only 10 per cent of its total budget from public grants, meaning that it is entirely dependent on private actors whose ethics it continuously assesses. “It goes without saying that museums must fully comply with all current legislation in all areas. In addition to this, we at Copenhagen Contemporary see ourselves as an active resource in society, one that promotes values ​​such as democracy, equality, sustainability, education, and citizenship. We continuously discuss this set of values internally and use it to navigate by in all aspects of our work,” she said.

Copenhagen Contemporary is supported by a wide range of foundations and commercial sponsors. These include several large Danish foundations known as active players on the Danish cultural scene, such as the New Carlsberg Foundation, the A.P. Møller Foundation, and the Beckett Foundation. All three have also supported the private, state-recognised museum Louisiana, which is Denmark’s most visited museum. The director there, Poul Erik Tøjner, takes a positive view of museums having a mix of both public and private-sector support – which is the model that Louisiana has always had. “But given that museums are important for society as a whole by virtue of their production of knowledge, insight, and experiences, it is crucially important that the state also supports the museums, partly with money and partly by sending the signal that these institutions hold a central position in society,” he said.

Director of Louisiana, Poul Erik Tøjner. Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen / Ritzau Scanpix.

In 2019, the last operating year not affected by the Covid pandemic, Louisiana had an operating budget of DKK 219 million (EUR 29.3 million). Government subsidies then made up 15 per cent of the museum’s total income; donations from funds and private sponsors accounted for 14 per cent, and own revenue for 71 per cent. In February that year, one of the museum’s sponsors, the Swiss banking giant UBS, was convicted and fined for tax evasion and money laundering. At the time, Louisiana postponed making a decision on whether to end the partnership until the case was settled, as UBS appealed the verdict. The sponsorship was terminated as agreed at the end of 2019, and no new agreement was negotiated.

Louisiana’s main commercial sponsor from 2022 to 2024 is the Danish furniture design company Fritz Hansen. Other than that, the museum receives support from, among others, the above-mentioned foundations. When asked what criteria should reasonably be followed when evaluating sponsors, Tøjner said that it is difficult to set up firm overall principles: “Ethics as a supplement to the law is not a simple matter, so the answer must be careful deliberation from case to case. The museums do, of course, have a responsibility on the issue of sponsors, just as they have a responsibility regarding all the other factors and issues you face as an institution. Overall, one can also say that getting involved with industries that everyone, or most, agree should be phased out – even if they are still legal – is not a very positive signal to send to the world.”

Moderna Museet: private support must be sustainable

In Sweden, too, recent years have seen political pressure to bring more private capital into the world of culture, and in the 2000s a number of private art venues were established, such as Bonniers Konsthall, Artipelag, and Fotografiska. Even so, public museums still hold the strongest positions and remain the most influential. The nation’s largest public museum, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, has worked with fundraising from the private sector since the beginning of the 2000s – and has done so in order to keep the museum’s ambitions running high. The museum’s director, Gitte Ørskou, told Kunstkritikk that since then it has “worked with various strategies to generate income and reduce the costs of the museum’s operation, as well as to develop and enrich the collection through private donations.”

Direktør for Moderna Museet, Gitte Ørskou. Foto: Morten Fauerby /

In 2016, Sweden’s government introduced a so-called free admission reform, which meant that state-run museums were compensated for giving the public free admission. The reform scheme will end in 2023, and compensation will no longer be forthcoming. For Moderna Museet, this will mean that the museum’s relative share of self-financing will go up from 20 to 32 per cent.

Moderna Museet has a budget of SEK 208 million (EUR 19 million), of which approximately 83 per cent comes from government funding; around 4 per cent of its budget comes from private support. Today, the museum’s sponsors include the news and marketing agency Bloomberg, the consulting firm Acne, and the law firm Mannheimer Swartling. In addition, the museum receives private donations and support from funds and foundations. Ørskou said that the choice of collaborators and partners is based on trust and respect for the museum’s operations, values, ​​and vision: “The museum does not accept donations or gifts that do not support our enterprise or that could damage the museum’s role as Sweden’s main museum for twentieth and twenty-first century art. We have drawn up guidelines for this and keep an eye on what is happening in the world around us.”

According to Ørskou, potential sponsorships or donations must always be in line with the museum’s ethical assessments. The museum’s core values ​​include democracy, legality, objectivity, freedom of opinion and speech, respect for equal value, freedom, and dignity. Moderna Museet does not accept money or gifts from either the arms and tobacco industries or from organisations that exploit people or have links to dictatorships. It also avoids cooperation with the fossil fuel industry. “In each individual case, we use our ethical compass to judge whether the support being offered is appropriate and sustainable, and whether it substantially supports the museum,” Ørskou said.

Mårten Castenfors. Foto: Mattias Lindbäck.

Swedish ‘no’ to weapons, oil, and alcohol

Among the public art institutions in Stockholm one also finds the kunsthalle Liljevalchs. In 2022, the venue has an operating budget of SEK 48 million (EUR 4.4 million), approximately 70 per cent of which comes from public-sector grants while the remaining 30 per cent is own revenue. Liljevalchs works with private sponsors, but these only account for around 3 per cent of the venue’s own revenue.

Director Mårten Castenfors believes it is important that public institutions are guaranteed firm financial foundations, but that private funds can strengthen the institution and its activities, providing an icing on the cake: “External partners can enrich the institution with both money and knowledge. There is, however, a risk that in future the public sector will increasingly believe that the private sector (which can be more temporary and irregular in nature) should function as a substitute for public support – meaning that it gets used as a way of avoiding financial responsibility.”

In 2009, after arranging an exhibition about Ikea on the occasion of the company’s 50th anniversary, with Ikea itself as sponsor, Liljevalchs received a lot of criticism in the Swedish media for allowing private interests to influence its exhibition programme. Castenfors was not asked to comment on that collaboration specifically, but he emphasised that it is important for any museum to be careful when assessing possible collaboration partners in light of the institution’s ethical guidelines, stressing that in Liljevalch’s case “it would be wrong for the institution to be associated with companies or individuals who can be linked to weapons, oil, alcohol, or who do not stand for democratic values, diversity and so on.”

Competition for sponsors in Sweden

The Gothenburg Museum of Art is to a very great extent funded by public-sector subsidies (around 66 per cent), with a small proportion (8 per cent) of its funding coming from sources such as the Stena Foundation and Torsten Söderberg Foundation. The remaining 26 per cent comes from own revenue, which covers ticket revenues and miscellaneous income. In 2020, the museum’s operating budget was around SEK 40 million (EUR 3.6 million).

Patrik Steorn, director of the Gothenburg Museum of Art.

The museum’s director, Patrik Steorn, has a positive attitude to private sponsorship, seeing it as a means of being able to carry out exhibitions that would not typically be part of the usual program. Even so, he also believes that there is an exaggerated faith in the extent to which private contributions can stand in lieu of public support. “In practice, there is often fierce competition for those sponsors who have the means to offer larger sums and a long-term perspective, and there are not enough of them to cover all of Sweden’s cultural scene, especially in times of economic crisis,” Steorn told Kunstkritikk.

As regards ethical guidelines on the choice of sponsors, Steorn believes that it is important that these are in line with what the museum stands for. At the same time, he thinks institutions sometimes need to be bold enough to try out new collaborations in order to be able to develop their business and keep up with the general changes in society. “Museums generally hold a high level of credibility in society, and we run public-sector activities made for the sake of the general public, so we must not jeopardise their trust or their loyalty to the institutions,” he said.

According to him, collaboration agreements are based on mutual trust, but also openness: “As a museum, it is important to ask the right questions, build a real relationship, and talk openly about the moral expectations you have of a long-term collaboration partner.”

In contrast to the Gothenburg Museum of Art, Malmö Konsthall does not actively work to obtain private sponsors, as the venue is fully financed by the city of Malmö. In 2022 they will receive around DEK 23 million (EUR 3.1 million) from the city. To bolster its financial position, Malmö Konsthall has also collaborated with other public bodies through regional and state-run funding schemes. Even so, Director Mats Stjernstedt said that the kunsthalle is not adversely disposed to private sponsorship, as long as institutions remain aware of their own guidelines and values: “The institutions are responsible for making their own assessments when undertaking that kind of work. Obviously, it is important that this aspect of one’s activities is in accordance with one’s own guidelines and values, and that the institution and its partners act in a manner which is in keeping with the image it wants to convey.”

On the issue of ethical assessments of such collaborations, Stjernstedt believes that collaborations with private sponsors in general should be compatible with goals for society’s sustainable development, concerning, among other things, the environment, equality, and representation.

Direktør for Malmö konsthall, Mats Stjernstedt. Foto: Åsa Lundén / Moderna Museet.

Similarities and differences between the countries

Despite some scepticism regarding the politicians’ expectations of increased private funding, respondents in all three countries share the view that private capital can be a positive supplement to an institution’s operations. The directors also seem to agree that individual institutions hold the responsibility for carrying out ethical assessments of any sponsors in order to safeguard the institution’s reputation among the general public – which is increasingly concerned with this issue.

In Norway, none of the institutions Kunstkritikk spoke with singled out specific industries they do not want to cooperate with. Several pointed to the fact that the money they receive from the state comes partly from the oil and gas industry in any case – making it financially unfeasible to distance oneself from this sector in any consistent way. Danish and Swedish institutions such as SMK, Louisiana, and Liljevalchs, on the other hand, were outspokenly sceptical of collusion with the oil and gas industry, quoting climate concerns as the reason.

While Moderna Museet’s director Gitte Ørskou mentioned tobacco as an example of an industry that the museum would refuse money from, SMK’s director, Mikkel Bogh, considers money from both alcohol and tobacco production to be acceptable because the industries “are aware of the importance of environmentally responsible production.”

In Sweden and Norway, where the institutions generally receive significantly more in public support than in Denmark, there are few private sponsors who can offer large sums and long-term collaboration, meaning that competition for their favour is fierce, as pointed out by both Patrik Steorn from the Gothenburg Museum of Art and Katya García Antón from NNKM.

Like García Antón, Solveig Øvstebø at the Astrup Fearnley Museet has worked with museum operations outside the Nordic region; both spoke about how structures for public-private cooperation are currently lacking in Norway – and presumably in Sweden and Denmark too – and asserted that such structures need to be in place in the long term to ensure good practice.

The Munch Museum in Oslo did not respond to Kunstkritikk’s queries.