‘There will always be some unrest in a large institution’

This autumn, Tone Hansen will take over as director of the Munch Museum, which is currently facing pressure both internally and externally.

Tone Hansen will take up the position as director of the Munch Museum this autumn. Photo: Simen Øvergaard / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter.

In November last year, it was made known that, after twelve years as director of the Munch Museum, Stein Olav Henrichsen would step down from his position upon completing his term in September 2022. Yesterday, the Oslo City Council announced that the current director of Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Tone Hansen, will take over the chair from Henrichsen. From 1 October, she will be responsible for the newly built museum in Bjørvika with 230 employees and the world’s largest Munch collection.

“It’s my dream job,” Hansen told Kunstkritikk. “Working at one of Europe’s most important museums will be tremendous fun. I look forward to getting to know the staff and getting firmly to grips with the Munch Museum’s strategy and all the many aspects they work with.” In the Munch Museum’s press release on the appointment, Hansen says that she aims to contribute to making Oslo one of Europe’s most attractive cities for culture, with a special focus on values ​​such as equality, diversity, and the development of art in a democratic perspective.

Hansen is a graduate of the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. She has been director of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter since 2011, and chair of Arts Council Norway from 2016 to 2019, in addition to a range of other previous and current positions in Norwegian cultural life. Among her important achievements at Henie Onstad, Hansen cites the establishment of a long-term collaboration with the Wilhelmsen family – a 32-year agreement on the Lise Wilhelmsen Art Award, which includes the acquisition of works and an exhibition. The most recent winner of the award was New York-based artist Guadalupe Maravilla.

Unrest among the staff

The announcement of a new director comes in the wake of several controversies surrounding the museum in recent months. It became known last week that Henrichsen initiated a reorganisation of the museum, giving rise to concerned responses from shop stewards and trade unions representing museum employees. The employees are worried about whether their art history expertise will be sufficiently represented and anchored in the management and programme committee that will develop the museum’s artistic profile.

The museum’s three shop stewards for the unions Forskerforbundet (The Norwegian Association of Researchers), Fagforbundet / LO (Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees) and Akademikerne (The Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations) have sent a letter of concern to the city council asking that the planned changes be halted. Trine Otte Bak Nielsen, curator at the museum and shop steward for Forskerforbundet, told Kunstkritikk that the association hopes some of the changes that have already been initiated will be put on hold until Hansen is in place. “We hope that the programme committee will be expanded to include curatorial expertise on the subjects of Munch, modernism, and contemporary art, respectively. And, finally, that all employees will be more extensively involved in the museum’s work in the future and that we can have an open and transparent dialogue with the management,” Bak Nielsen said.

The Munch Museum is owned by the City of Oslo, and the Vice Mayor for Culture Omar Samy Gamal told the newspaper Aftenposten that the city council is currently in talks with the museum and will carry out a thorough assessment of the situation. Meanwhile, Hansen will not comment specifically on this matter. “There will always be some unrest in any large institution. I do not know anything about this issue beyond what I have read in the media, so I have nothing to add. My work begins on 1 October,” she said.

Oil sponsorships

The Munch Museum has also faced media storms due to the museum’s sponsorship agreements – from Henrichsen’s much-publicised statement about how Munch would have driven a Polestar in an advertisement for the car sponsor, to protests against oil-money sponsorships. At the end of 2021, the climate activist group Direct Action Theatre (D.A.T.) protested the museum’s agreements with the oil companies Idemitsu and Aker BP, and the issue was also recently addressed in a discussion, initiated by Kunstkritikk in collaboration with Kunsthall Oslo, on the art field’s responsibility in times of climate crisis. Hansen does not wish to comment on these agreements: “All I can say is that the museum has had long-term and excellent collaborations that have ensured its ability to deliver the programme it is supposed to deliver.” As regards the climate crisis, she thinks all museums must comply with the UN’s sustainable development goals, help shape public opinion, and work in climate-smart ways. She mentioned the increasing use of digital couriers as an example. “At the same time,” she continued, “it should be added that the political arena is the most effective tool when it comes to such major political issues as the climate crisis.”

Internationally, a number of major cultural institutions, such as the Tate in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, have ended previous sponsorship agreements with oil companies partly due to pressure from the art field and climate activists.

Free admission for artists?

After moving to its new premises in Oslo’s Bjørvika district last year, the Munch Museum elected to no longer offer professional visual artists free admission to the museum, even though doing so had been a long-established practice in accordance with the International Association of Art. The artists’ organisation Norske Billedkunstnere (The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists) has reacted strongly to this. The future Munch director had only a brief comment on this issue: “All I can say to that is that at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, visual artists who are members of a relevant association get free admission.”