The Populist Face of Cultural Politics

Mark Sladen’s departure from Kunsthal Charlottenborg shows how populist cultural politics have taken firm hold on the Danish art scene. What about the rest of Scandinavia?

The Danish Minister for Culture, Uffe Elbæk, has laid down clear artistic injunctions for future developments at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. He is pictured here during the opening of the Copenhagen Art Festival Friday 25 August 2012. Photo: Jonas Ekeberg.

This week, British curator Mark Sladen announced that he steps down from his position as director of the Danish Ministry of Culture’s own art venue in the heart of Copenhagen – Kunsthal Charlottenborg. The event was an expected one. When Danish media began to report dwindling visitor statistics in early March and the Ministry of Culture showed remarkably good timing by merging Charlottenborg with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art a few days later, it was only a matter of time when Sladen would retreat. As it turned out, it took a few months more than expected; he stayed on to declare his support for the project. But now he is headed back to London.

There can be no doubt that this is a major loss for the Danish and Scandinavian art scene. Sladen upgraded Charlottenborg, raising its profile to become a venue to be reckoned with on an international scale. Kunstkritikk also knows of plans for a new Nordic network of kunsthal venues with Mark Sladen playing a central role. However, the low visitor statistics and the displeasure prompted by the “difficult contemporary art” became his Waterloo.

Mark Sladen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Could something similar have happened in Norway and Sweden? No, not in the same manner. In Norway we have no tradition for political management of individual art institutions at the level demonstrated here in Denmark. While it is true that Sune Nordgren stepped down as director of the National Museum (Nasjonalmuseet), he did so in the wake of extensive public discussion featuring many different voices. Other foreign managers within the Norwegian art scene have also kept to their posts in spite of populist missives from authorities and certain artists. Marta Kuzma at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway is an obvious example.

The press release issued by the Danish Minister for Culture Uffe Elbæk states that after the merger, Kunsthal Charlottenborg will take “a new direction, focusing on young artists and emerging talents within Danish art”. This clear declaration imposed restraints on Mark Sladen’s work that went far beyond what has traditionally been possible within cultural politics in the Nordic countries. It does, however, demonstrate how the Danish art scene today is greatly affected by populist cultural policies that have abandoned the arm’s length principle.

Performance contracts

The Danish Ministry of Culture also employs so-called “performance contracts”, which you will not find in Denmark’s neighbouring countries. Such contracts are the core of the “new public management” model and constitute the very symbol of neo-liberal cultural politics. According to this contract, Charlottenborg should attract 50,000 visitors a year. The final result for 2011, presented in March, was 23,000 visitors. Naturally, Norwegian and Swedish art institutions that receive considerable public funding must also relate to certain criteria and objectives; in Norway these are described in a so-called “tildelingsbrev” (apportioning letter). However, the objectives are phrased in gentler ways, allowing the authorities more scope for carrying out an overall evaluation if certain results should prove disappointing within a given area.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

This does not, of course, mean that such neo-liberal and populist tendencies are absent from the Norwegian and Swedish art scenes. It is true that institutions with dwindling numbers of visitors would probably not receive such brutal and insufficient planned treatment as that which was meted out to Charlottenborg, but the Norwegian museum reform – which has been going on for more than ten years – has certainly been brutal in many ways; a particularly poignant example is provided by the fact that four independent museums have been merged to form a new National Museum. But even in that case the merger did not prompt micromanagement of the kind we have now witnessed at Charlottenborg.

Norwegian politicians, particularly those from Arbeiderpartiet (the Norwegian Labour Party),  which is the party currently in power, have, however, also shown a strong inclination towards imposing cultural policy guides and restraints on art institutions at a more general level. This year, for example, cultural institutions have been instructed to incorporate the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution in their programming for 2014. In 2008 the Mangfoldsåret (“The Year of Cultural Diversity”) should be prioritised, and in 2009 it was Kulturminneåret (“The Norwegian Year of Cultural Heritage”). Such causes may well be praiseworthy in themselves, but this does not mean that there is not something fundamentally wrong with forcing art institutions to act politically in this way. We can illustrate this very simply by imagining a future Department of Culture run by right-wing, populist forces. Should cultural institutions then receive injunctions to create programmes that support e.g. “Norwegian values”? Fortunately, this remains an unlikely scenario at present. Unlike the Danish conservative party Konservative Folkeparti, the Norwegian conservative party Høyre is still infused by a line of conservative cultural policy that aims to uphold the cultural institution’s freedom. Here, the Norwegian conservative politicians are in clear opposition to the Arbeiderpartiet’s partly instrumental cultural policies. See the Høyre party’s critical questions for the Norwegian Minister for Culture (in Norwegian) here.

Less elbow room

Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm. Photo: David Magnusson.

Populist cultural politics has also reared its head in Sweden, but as in Norway the critical public and cultural conservatism has proven to have a certain strength. When the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt appointed the head of the market-liberal think tank Timbro as Minister for Culture in 2006, this prompted a media frenzy. Even the liberal conservative party Nya Moderaterna did not want a minister for culture who had no interest in culture. This marked an outer limit to populist and neo-liberal cultural politics that also seems to hold sway today, six years later. The current Minister for Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, has relatively little elbowroom compared to her Danish colleague.

Even so, populist tendencies within Swedish art and culture is obvious on several levels. Liljevalchs Konsthall, which used to be an art institution with a wide scope rather like Kunsthal Charlottenborg, now has a thoroughly populist programme: This summer’s exhibition celebrating the centenary of the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies is just the last in a line of exhibition events tailored to the market. One gets the impression that political requirements on the exhibition programme have already been internalised in the artistic management – even a populist minister for culture could not possibly create a more crowd-pleasing programme than the one devised by director Mårten Castenfors.

Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo.

The contrast between Charlottenborg and Liljevalchs on the one hand and Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo on the other hand is striking. In Oslo the Swedish curator Mats Stjernstedt has been appointed as director, and he appears to have all the elbowroom required to develop an international programme. From the point of view of contemporary art, Stjernstedt obviously struggles with the Norwegian Høstutstillingen (Autumn Exhibition), an exhibition format that has been outdated for more than twenty years. Even so, the conservatism of artists’ organisation is preferable to the politicians’ populism.


The situation in Denmark appears to be the most serious in the Nordic countries. The reason for this may be the deeper and more extensive changes made in Danish cultural politics when Brian Mikkelsen was Minister for Culture from 2001 to 2008. During this period the populist and negative attitude towards contemporary art was firmly embedded in such as way that it continues to be in force far into the cultural editing rooms of Denmark, which are more than happy to pave the way for the Ministry of Culture’s micromanagement of the Danish art scene. This may be the key difference between the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish cultural scenes. In Norway and Sweden there is, after all, a partially working alliance between radical and culturally conservative forces that are visible in media and defend the freedom of art institutions. This offers a defence against the Social Democrats’ instrumentalisation and the populists’ favouring of market forces. No such defence seems to exist in the Danish public sphere.