Spring Alliances

While Danish museums celebrate record-high visitor numbers, others want to shut down the Ministry of Culture. In a way, the two are connected. Also, institutional collaborations have become the order of the day.

Ebbe Stub Wittrup, Devil’s Bridge #8, Ponte Diable Ariene, 2009-2010. Courtesy the artist and Martin Asbæk Gallery.

I can’t recall ever having received quite so many press releases or seeing quite so much coverage on the issue of visitor numbers as I have this month. It appears that 2019 was a year in which numbers went up all around. Several institutions, among them Louisiana and the Glyptotek, have even beat their own records, while the National Gallery of Denmark is finally seeing an upturn after admission fees were reintroduced a few years back. 

All this tells us two things, at the very least. One is a cause for celebration: the general interest in viewing art continues to grow steadily. The other is less encouraging: it appears that the institutions have, to a certain extent, adopted a view of culture that assesses everything in terms of financial merit and quantifiable units.

Not that I blame anyone. I understand exactly why they do it. Still, it is a little disheartening to see museums indirectly contribute to the impoverished cultural outlook that has gradually permeated most of the political spectrum in Denmark: what cannot be translated into huge visitor numbers has no value or legitimacy – from which it may be inferred that it should not receive the same level of public funding.

Given this state of affairs, we got a quite refreshing bit of truth-telling when a former minister of culture, Brian Mikkelsen (who held the position from 2001 to 2008), recently came straight out and said it: Danish cultural politics is dead; nobody fights for or cares about cultural politics, least of all the politicians.

Mikkelsen’s comment was supported by a couple of museum directors, including Jane Sandberg (from Enigma – Museum of Post, Telecommunications, and Communication), who in an interview with the newspaper Berlingske stated that when culture is no longer seen as a fundamental value in society, but mostly as an embellishment, the cherry on top, then you might as well shut down the Ministry of Culture and divide up its activities among other ministries: the museums’ research could fall under the auspices of the Ministry of Science; work with children and young people would be overseen by the Ministry of Education; while the international exchange of music, visual arts, and films could be placed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and so on. A polemical assertion, indeed, but given that growth and business acumen have become the only yardstick of cultural policymaking that the politicians seem to be able to come up with, it might not be such a bad idea to have a bit of a shake-up.

In related news, the current state of cultural-political affairs is part of the reason why so many of us heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced, shortly after New Year, who will replace Christine Buhl Andersen when she leaves the director’s chair at the Glyptotek to move on to the New Carlsberg Foundation.

With the ever-greater focus on business mindsets and managerial skills when appointing people to the top positions at the country’s institutions of art and culture, we have also seen growing concern – with good reason, I think – that such competencies will eventually be accorded greater importance than the actual art-related proficiency of the candidates being considered. With this in mind, we should rejoice that it is an art historian, Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen, who will now skip a few links in the usual chain of command when she leaves behind her position as director of Faaborg Museum to take the helm at one of Denmark’s most important museums in early March.

By that time, what promises to be a more than decent exhibition season will have already opened.

If we focus on the museums first, three solo shows in particular attract attention. Two of these feature star American artists: feminist activist Nancy Spero’s works on paper at Louisiana and Louise Nevelson’s monumental wooden wall sculptures at Kunsten in Aalborg. The third is a retrospective featuring Anna Ancher (1859–1935) at the National Gallery of Denmark – a collaboration with Skagens Museum, where the exhibition will be shown this summer.

Nancy Spero, Bomb, Dove and Victims, 1967, Gouache and ink on paper. The Estate of Nancy Spero, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation of the Arts / VISDA 2019.

While Spero (1926–2009) and Nevelson (1899–1988) hold well-established international positions, the Ancher exhibition is partly a revisionist project intending to showcase her as more than ‘just’ one of the Skagen Painters. The ambition is to raise her oeuvre into an international context, a move which the two museums believe is merited by her works. It will be interesting to see where these endeavours lead.

The New York collective DIS is about as far removed from the Skagen Painters as you can get. This spring, the group presents an exhibition of works from the video platform dis.art. The exhibition title, What Do People Do All Day? is a quote from a work by Danish artist Simon Dybbroe Møller, who is among the contributors. The show takes place at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, was created in collaboration with Tranen – Space for Contemporary Art, and is presented in collaboration with the film festival CPH:DOX.

Notice that final list of multiple credits. These days, it seems that collaboration between institutions has become de rigueur. Collaboration driven by financial necessity is one thing. It is quite another matter that institutional collaborations have also to a great extent become an organisational, at times even curatorial, trend. Tellingly, the incoming director of the Glyptotek, Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen, told Politiken that co-operation with other museums would be high on her agenda in her new job.

Collaboration as a curatorial trend is also evident in other exhibitions this season. Next week, for example, will see no less than two interlinked solo shows featuring Danish artist Ebbe Stub Wittrup, who is particularly known for his photographic work, at Copenhagen Contemporary and one at Gl. Holtegaard.

With this move, Copenhagen Contemporary repeats the approach taken in the autumn of 2019, when the venue collaborated with Kunsten in Aalborg on a double dose of Carsten Höller. On the one hand, this may seem a bit OTT on an art scene as small as Denmark’s. On the other hand, perhaps this is just the thing we need in order for art to attract attention amidst the general media din. The issue calls for a proper evaluation at a later stage when we can take a more detached view.

Another male Danish artist will also get double exposure this January: Albert Mertz (1920–90). At the Copenhagen gallery Tom Christoffersen, artist Tal R has curated an exhibition featuring selected works by Mertz. So too has artist Asger Dybvad Larsen at the exhibition venue SE! in Aarhus. Still, these efforts do not seem to have been deliberately coordinated, except for the fact that 2020 marks the centenary of Mertz’s birth. Marking this occasion, Sorø Kunstmuseum, in collaboration with Holstebro Art Museum, will present a major solo show of Mertz this autumn.

At the tail end of spring we hit upon one of the excellent traditions out there: this is when the entire art scene turns its attention to the degree shows held at the country’s art academies. The Jutland Art Academy and the Funen Art Academy will both present their degree shows in early May; this year, the presentations are curated by Anna Weile Kjær and Irene Campolmi, respectively.

The degree show at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen will open a few weeks earlier, this year curated by Helga Just Christoffersen. She is also the director of the new Art Hub that recently kicked off the year with an event held at its great venue in Kødbyen.

The evening marked the launch of Art Hub’s new website and the start of a year featuring  – very apropos – a number of collaborations. A seminar (created in collaboration with artist Ed Atkins and writer Steven Zultanski, both of whom have recently settled in Copenhagen) and a lecture series (in collaboration with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) were mentioned, while the real core of the project still seems to be a work in progress. So there is still a lot of anticipation about what kind of creature the Art Hub – launched on the basis of generous funding from the Bikuben Foundation – will turn out to be. The level of attendance attracted on a dark, dismally drizzly January day confirmed that interest in the project is certainly great.

One thing I’m particularly looking forward to this spring is when Den Frie Udstillingsbygning transforms into Ghosthouse in late April. Curated by Anna Weile Kjær, this performative exhibition will take place over the course of a single weekend, with visitors being shuttled around inside a ghost train. Everything, right from the individual cars to the video and performance elements, will be created by invited artists (DIS, Esben Weile Kjær, Adam Christensen, Richard Thambert, and more). It all sounds unheimlich in the grossest way imaginable – and may be just what we need. 

Olivia Orlanger & Luis Ortega, Garage, 2019. Featured in What Do People Do All Day? at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.