The Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) has made headlines in the last couple of years with issues of discrimination, racism, high staff turnover, and freedom of expression. A heated debate in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests culminated when former rector Måns Wrange resigned on 27 October last year, halfway through his four-year tenure. Wrange quoted “personal reasons” for leaving the chair, and Markus Degerman has been acting rector since Christmas. Last Friday, Degerman was officially appointed as new rector and will lead the academy together with Vice-Rector Heidi Marian Haraldsen until 2023. A key point of their election programme was to settle things down and get to work.
“Instead of inventing something new, we must address what is already where, what we know. That is the core of our election programme. One often sees this knee-jerk response that ‘we must have more money and more staff’. Of course we would like that, but even with more money, the academy’s fundamental problems would still be there,” Degerman told Kunstkritikk.
He believes that the merger in 1996, when six independent institutions combined to form a single academy, still haunts KHiO. “We must find better ways to work together. The administration is very centralised and was set up even before the various schools and academies moved in. This fact, combined with an operation based on decentralised departments, makes for some very labour-intensive processes. There may be too few interfaces, and we will look into the opportunities for setting up more committees or councils. Of course, this entails additional bureaucracy, but then democracy and co-determination does require commitment, time and resources,” Degerman said.
Degerman is a trained artist, having studied and graduated from the Royal Institute of Art and Konstfack, both in Stockholm. Before he became acting rector, he was dean of KHiO’s department of Art and Craft, and prior to this he was a professor and head of department at the Academy of Arts at University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway. “I think it is an advantage to have a background in what you’re appointed to lead. I have that, and I understand what should be protected,” he said.
Degerman believes that art academies attract people who are interested in creating and problematising questions about identity, and mentions this as a reason why all the Nordic institutions of fine art education have seen major debates about diversity and inclusion during the past year. He also points out that art students often constitute a socio-economically homogeneous mass. “In a Swedish context, I know that the student body is quite homogeneous. Had there been greater diversity in the schools, the discussion would have been different because you would already have had a more dynamic setting,” he said.
Regarding the situation at KHiO that prompted his predecessor’s resignation last autumn, Degerman said he does not think there are many who are against inclusion and diversity, but added that when complex issues related to identity and personal experiences are at stake, things quickly get emotional. He further stated:
Wrange wanted to set up a committee for equality and diversity, and this had full backing at the school. While there were some students who asked questions, I did not perceive the internal debate as polarised. Then the media took over and pushed the case forward. For my part, the debate at KHiO was troubling and painful. One forgot contexts that characterise where we are. The largest minority group in Sweden is the Swedish Finns. I come from that background myself, and this has given me a certain orientation in relation to the questions being discussed. Norway is not the US, and Sweden is not Norway. If you believe that, you oversimplify things, and then you overlook problems. It is important to better analyse where we are and where we stand.
In an essay published in Kunstkritikk last year, visual artist Ane Hjort Guttu claimed that art students are being trained to become project managers. Degerman does not put it quite so severely, but agrees that fine art education has changed enormously: “In the 1990s, an academy with sixty to seventy students had only one person in the administration. There were no fixed requirements or exams, and much was left to the the student, who occasionally met with a professor. Our present-day academies involve completely different requirements, both from within and from without, including ideas about internationalisation and a constant pressure to measure things.”
He thinks the Bologna process that started in the late 1990s, and which prompted the creation of bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes as well as artistic research PhDs, has obviously effected fine art education. There has been some criticism, he agreed, but added that many have found the PhD programme as an excellent opportunity, offering three years’ paid employment and time to focus on one’s work. “The question of academicisation is up to those of us who work here. We have the opportunity to influence what the academy should be, ” he said.
Asked whether he sees any connection between the the crises at the art academies in recent years and the implementation of the Bologna model, which transfers power to the administration, Degerman pointed out that schools often have been free to choose how to implement these requirements. In this regard, he finds there are grounds for introspection and self-criticism about how applicants are assessed in the admissions and employment processes:
Perhaps it has become more important who you are than what you do, which would contribute to a streamlining of the social demographic. What has put the administration at the centre of things is not infrequently those requirements of reporting and documentation that are imposed on all public activities. At the same time, we see several signs that the New Public Management era is coming to an end. It has become increasingly obvious that it requires too many resources, and that the work being done does not focus on the various enterprises’ main tasks.