The Oslo Biennial Ends Ahead of Schedule

The Oslo City Department of Culture has decided to end the first instalment of the city’s biennial two years earlier than planned, due in part to financial overspending.

Knut Åsdam, Oslo, 2019–2024. Photo: Marte Vold.

The first edition of the Oslo Biennial, the City of Oslo’s major investment in art in public spaces, was scheduled to run for five years and end in 2024. When it became known this spring that the biennial had exceeded its budget to the tune of NOK 6 million (EUR 540,000), the news prompted extensive discussions in the media and harsh criticism from the Oslo art scene. “Without the trust of the art field, I no longer have any legitimacy,” one of the biennial’s two curators, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, told Kunstkritikk when he resigned as curator. The biennial’s other curator, Eva González-Sancho, has been on sick leave ever since.

Now, Stein Slyngstad, director of the Oslo City Department of Culture, has informed Kunstkritikk that the biennial will come to an end in 2021. “It is difficult to envisage hiring new curators to implement and expand on an already formulated and partially laid out programme. Reflecting this, the Department of Culture has decided to bring this first edition of the biennial to an end in 2021, two years ahead of schedule, but of course we will complete projects that have already been launched and honour our existing commitments,” Slyngstad said.

The executive director of the Oslo Biennial, Ole Giskemo Slyngstadli, said that the few projects which were originally intended to last beyond 2021 will probably be discontinued. The decision to put an early stop to the first instalment of the biennial was made by the director of the Oslo City Department of Culture. Slyngstadli points to several factors affecting this decision: the curatorial situation; institutional criticism of the chosen model and its duration; overspending in 2019; the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on planned events; and the financial situation.

The Oslo Biennial falls under the auspices of the Oslo City Department of Culture and is funded by the city’s Kunstordning (Art Scheme), which manages .5 per cent of the municipality’s investment budget. Artists’ organisations were particularly critical of this set-up, and in a joint appeal issued by The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK) and four others, claimed that the Oslo City Department of Culture was channelling funds away from the art scheme to an initiative the department itself wanted realised. “This reorganisation of the art scheme has brought about a new concentration of power in the Oslo City Department of Culture, and the revelations of the reckless spending of the scheme’s funds have substantially weakened trust and confidence among the professional art community,” the organisations stated in the newspaper Klassekampen (Class Struggle) on 30 May.

“It is very relevant to question whether the biennial ought to have been arranged under the auspices of the Oslo City Department of Culture. This discussion will of course be part of the overall assessment when we decide whether there will be a second instalment of the Oslo Biennale,” said Slyngstad.

Slyngstad claimed that the Department of Culture received no early warning about the budget overrun until just before Christmas in 2019. The overspend also came as a surprise for Eeg-Tverbakk. Slyngstadli explained the budget gap as a result of lofty ambitions and a tight schedule. From May to October 2019, the biennial presented twenty-four projects rather than just three as originally planned. The deficit was covered by cutting back in other areas of the Oslo City art scheme, channelling funds from the biennial’s own budget, and reducing the biennial’s art production in 2020.

Slyngstadli wanted to emphasise that the biennial still has an interesting and solid programme ahead. In terms of contractual obligations, the Oslo Biennial has agreements that have been entered into and not yet completed with artists Anna Daniell, Mette Edvardsen, Nador / Oliveira, Jonas Dahlberg, OSV (Jan Freuchen, Sigurd Tenningen and Jonas Major), Rose Hammer, Katja Høst, Ed D`Souza, Knut Åsdam, Carole Douillard, Julien Bismuth, Michelangelo Miccolis, Dora Garcia, Oliver Godow, Gerd Tinglum, Adrian Balseca, Belén Santillán, and Graziela Kunsch. There may be a concluding programme where several of the works from the opening are re-exhibited.