The National Museum of Norway Linked to Russia

Controversial sponsorship agreement attracts renewed criticism after invasion of Ukraine.

From left: Cecilie Fredriksen, Kathrine Fredriksen, director of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Karin Hindsbo, and Director of Exhibitions and Collections, Stina Högkvist. Photo: Morten Qvale / Nasjonalmuseet.

In 2019, the National Museum of Norway announced its collaboration with Cecilie and Kathrine Fredriksen, daughters of Norway’s richest man, John Fredriksen. According to the agreement, the museum will borrow and manage the Fredriksen Family Art Company’s art collection; other aspects include funding for a research programme and the development of exhibitions. Large parts of the art and museum scene voiced strong criticism of the collaboration, objecting to how this would place too much power in private hands and  threaten the museum’s independence and credibility. Others believed that the assets ​​(worth several hundred million kroner) added to the museum were more important than the influence given to the sisters. In recent days, the debate has taken a new turn as the Fredriksen family’s fortune has been linked to trade with Russia.

Former director of The Northern Norwegian Museum of Art (Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum) in Tromsø, Jérémie McGowan, was first to voice concerns about the Fredriksen family’s connection to Russia, in an article published in the newspaper Klassekampen on March 12. McGowan told Kunstkritikk that he responded to the fact that the museum has not commented on these matters at its own behest, even as it lights up its façade in blue and yellow in solidarity with Ukraine. “The National Museum is naïve or complicit. Either the museum never evaluated the ethical problems that clearly come along with the Fredriksen family’s money, and which are quite well documented and easily accessible in international media, or they actively decided money is more important than ethics,” McGowan said.

Former director of The Northern Norwegian Museum of Art (Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum) in Tromsø, Jérémie McGowan.

Ethically problematic sources of income

In his article in Klassekampen, McGowan presented an overview of what he believes are ethically problematic sources of income at Fredriksen’s companies, in which his daughters have been – and continue to be – involved through jobs and appointments. For example, Fredriksen’s drilling company Seadrill entered into a major agreement with the Russian oil company Rosneft, whose main owner is the Russian state, just before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Not long after, US and EU sanctions against Rosneft and other companies entered into force. In 2015, Fredriksen and former CEO of Seadrill Tor Olav Trøim were awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin.

Other cases in which McGowan believes that Fredriksen-owned companies have “opposed international solidarity” include trading with the apartheid regime in South Africa and the theocratic regime in Iran during the 1980s, as well as drilling activities in Burma that benefited the military junta in 2010. In the latter case, the oil and gas sector was directly linked to human rights violations in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Several other cases have stirred up controversy in connection with the Fredriksen family’s fortune. In 1986, John Fredriksen was remanded in custody for four months, suspected of oil theft and insurance fraud, and in 2014 he was fined for oil fraud in the United States. In addition, he has received strong criticism for having exchanged his Norwegian citizenship for a Cypriot one and for registering his companies and foundations – including the Fredriksen Family Art Company – in Cyprus to evade taxes. According to McGowan, both the National Museum and its critics have been blind to these issues in the discussion surrounding the collaboration. “I really hope the art world, media and politicians are more alert now, and that we will finally get the critical discussion, and necessary direct action, we should have had already three years ago,” he said.

The chairman of the board of the Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), Ruben Steinum. Photo: Marte Thu.

Supports the criticism

The chairman of the board of the Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), Ruben Steinum, supports McGowan’s criticism. He believes that the National Museum, which manages Norway’s common cultural heritage, has an obligation to account for the assessments it has made regarding the Fredriksen family’s fortune. The public needs to know about two points in particular, according to Steinum: “The first is how the museum generally assesses partners whose wealth has been partly accumulated in areas of conflict and war, and the second is, more specifically, how they view the Fredriksen family’s relationship with Russia and Putin after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current war against Ukraine.”

No comment from the director

The National Museum’s Director Karin Hindsbo has not responded to Kunstkritkk’s requests for comment. However, the museum’s director of communications, Eirik Kydland, stated in an e-mail that it is only natural that the museum’s partners are a topic of discussion, but that at present there are no new circumstances that would prompt the museum to look at the Fredriksen agreement in a new light as a result of the war in Ukraine. “We have not seen any of the Fredriksen companies being affected by national or international sanctions in connection with the very serious war in Ukraine. Even so, we naturally carry out ongoing assessments and analyses of our partners when needed, and we have procedures in place for such efforts,” Kydland said.

As regards general questions concerning where the wealth behind the collaboration comes from, Kydland referred to the museum’s adherence to guidelines which require, among other things, that it: know who the real donor is, not receive funds arising from criminal acts, and ensure the preservation of its integrity and independence. “The National Museum has entered into collaboration with Kathrine and Cecilie Fredriksen. The funds involved in this collaboration come from legitimate business operations and we have no reason to believe that these funds clash with the museum’s ethical regulations or values,” he wrote.

From the anti-Sackler-campaign at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Photo: Arda Asena.

Ought to follow international examples

Criticism of National Museum’s collaboration with the Fredriksen family comes in the wake of several discussions about the laundering of ethically dubious fortunes through art. In the year that the National Museum entered into collaboration with the Fredriksen sisters, the National Portrait Gallery in London was the first large museum to, after strong public pressure, turn down money from the Sackler family, known for having made a fortune on the opioid crisis. The Tate Museums, Guggenheim, and MoMa are among the institutions that have followed suit. A range of British cultural institutions have also ended their sponsorship agreements with the oil company British Petroleum following pressure from climate activists. 

In Norway, the Astrup Fearnley Museum terminated its controversial sponsorship agreement with the oil company Lundin in 2020. In 2012, when the agreement was first entered into, Lundin was under investigation for being involved in war crimes in South Sudan. Also, in late 2021 the climate activist group Direct Action Theater (DAT) staged protests against Munch Museum’s sponsorship agreements with the oil companies Idemitsu and Aker BP.

McGowan believes that the National Museum should follow the example of leading international institutions which have taken a stand against ethically problematic money. “I necessarily believe in change, and hope the National Museum seizes this opportunity to rehabilitate itself as a truly transparent, self-aware, fearless, and socially-engaged museum, rather than hiding behind bureaucratic statements and the cynical rhetoric of global capitalism with which they have chosen to ally themselves,” he said.

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland.