Transport Stop

For one year, Moderna Museet showed only locally produced art. This is what they learned.

Moderna Museet’s director Gitte Ørskou stresses that “sustainability ought to be the responsibility of the museums, not the artists.”

The announcement made just over a year ago by Moderna Museet’s Director Gitte Ørskou came as a surprise. The museum on Skeppsholmen and its Malmö branch would cease long-distance shipping throughout 2022, only showing art constructed and produced locally, in a clear nod to sustainable practices in the manufacturing and food industries.

The shipping pause coincided with a number of exhibition projects that met with mixed reviews. Last summer’s interactive exhibition by Danish artist Jeppe Hein had a lukewarm reception. The Björn Lövin retrospective last spring, on the other hand, with reconstructions of his installations from the 1970s and 1980s, and the recently opened Nan Goldin show consisting entirely of projected images and no prints have evoked a more positive response.

As the year is coming to an end, Sweden’s recently installed right-wing government has been criticised for shrugging its shoulders at the country’s climate goals. Meanwhile, activists all over Europe are drawing attention to climate change by attacking famous works of art. Moderna Museet’s experiment in sustainability did not get much notice, however, and when I met with Ørskou, she downplayed the role of museums in climate activism and maintained that the initiative in 2022 should be seen as a symbolic gesture. Even if Moderna Museet is integrating sustainability throughout its operations, it will be business as usual next year.

Jeppe Hein, Spaces in Circles, 2022. Photo: Åsa Lundén. Jeppe Hein’s exhibition Who Are You Really? consisted mainly of workshops and various interactive situations constructed on site at Moderna Museet. Photo: Åsa Lunden.

In 2022, Moderna Museet has had a policy of ceasing long-distance shipping and only showing exhibitions produced on-site. What have you learned from this?

We have learned a lot, and are now looking at how the principle of not transporting works for major exhibitions has impacted on our exhibition practices. When we worked with living artists, such as Nan Goldin and Korakrit Arunanondchai, it injected more energy and creativity into our collaborations. It meant a lot to the artists. We believe that the artists in general have felt inspired by relating to it. Not least Goldin, who worked with slide shows early in her career and decided to only show her photographs in this way at Moderna.

What are your thoughts on sustainability in general?

It is important to emphasise that this policy was intended mainly as a strong symbolic gesture. We haven’t stopped flying, for instance. We are currently asking ourselves whether the policy we implemented in 2022 was more sustainable or not. Sustainable practices are crucial to us, of course, but I don’t think it matters to the climate in the broader global context. Nevertheless, we want to do what we can and are currently implementing sustainability goals in all our projects. The Nan Goldin exhibition, for instance, will be easier to repeat in other museums, since we built it entirely out of fabric. It still requires shipping, but on a totally different level than the usual freight for art exhibitions.

Will the policy of only building exhibitions on-site extend into 2023?

No, that is not in the pipeline at present, and that’s because a cornerstone at Moderna Museet is being able to gather and show works from different parts of the world. The exhibitions we’re producing next year will mainly be of historical works by dead artists. And Laurie Andersson will be showing both new and older works in her exhibition in spring 2022. 

Nan Goldin. This Will Not End Well consisted of slideshows and video installations displayed in six small buildings made of fabric. Photo: Åsa Lunden.
Hala Wardé/HW Architecture, Axonometric drawing for Moderna Museet.©HW Architecture.

What are your views on the polarity between artistic freedom and creativity on the one hand, and constraints due to sustainability on the other?

On the whole, I find that more and more artists are incorporating sustainability as part of their production process. Before, the norm was that artists focused on whatever was the very best for the artistic end product. That’s still the case, of course, but with the sustainability perspective included. So, in our negotiations with artists this year, sustainability has been added to our objectives of sticking to the budget and being cost-effective. But I want to stress that we’re not perfect. We don’t apply the same radicalism as, say Tino Sehgal, an artist who basically won’t work in the USA since he and his team won’t fly. However, I should add that sustainability ought to be the responsibility of the museums, not the artists.

The manifesto for Moderna Museet that you launched in 2020 refers a bit obscurely under point six to a holistic perspective and taking into account “environmental and social impacts.” How have the major museums changed since then in their approach to sustainability?

At a conference of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) that I attended last year, sustainability was on the agenda, and a couple of researchers claimed that the museums’ climate footprint was microscopic in the global perspective. They advised the museums, therefore, to focus more on symbolic gestures. Naturally, we will take every measure to become more sustainable, but we also need to demonstrate our commitment through the values that permeate our entire operation.

Björn Lövin. The Surrounding Reality was based on careful reconstructions of three of the artist’s large-scale environments, none of which were preserved after their original presentation. Above: Björn Lövin, Consumer in Infinity and “Mr P’s hoard”, 1971. Below: Björn Lövin, L’Image – Exposition de Björn Lövin pour International Life Assurance Company ILAC, 1981. Photo: Stefan Ståhle.

We’ve seen a wave of climate activism at art museums lately, where Monet, Leonardo, and, most recently, Edvard Munch at the National Museum of Norway in Oslo were the literal targets. What is your reaction to this?

I’ve intentionally refrained from commenting on this in public, because frankly, I don’t want to draw attention to them. I don’t think museums should be mouthpieces for climate activism in that way, with all the sensationalism it generates.

The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is a new and growing international network whose members include large museums and small galleries. Their goal is to halve their climate footprint by 2030. Have you discussed any such concrete goals at the museum?

We’ve discussed it a great deal, and we are members of the CIMAM, after all, which is our main international museum network, where we collaborate with other institutions to learn and develop.

What are your thoughts on the politicising of public spaces where art is also involved? With one crisis after the other in recent years, and climate change as perhaps the most persistent one, is it possible and desirable for Moderna Museet to remain neutral here?

Our principle is to make room for art, and what we can do is to be best at that. When abortion rights were debated in the USA earlier this year, we highlighted a work by Monica Sjöö, Backstreet Abortion from 1968, which is about women’s right to their own bodies. And right now, Moderna Museet in Malmö is featuring the exhibition Twilight Land, where contemporary artists reflect on how art can generate awareness about sustainability and the climate crisis. To name but a few current examples. Moderna Museet is not a political institution per se, but we gladly show artists who take a stand or reflect on political issues.

Jeppe Hein, Your Mirror, 2022. Photo: Åsa Lundén.