‘We were encouraged to provide constructive criticism’

Momentum’s director, Dag Aak Sveinar, responds to allegations of sabotage put forth in an open letter from dismissed curator Théo-Mario Coppola.

From the opening of Momentum 11 in Moss on 18 June. S-AR’s Platform Pavilion, 2021, which will host local projects, mediation, outreach and education activities. Photo: Ingeborg Øien Thorsland.

When the Momentum Biennial opened last Saturday without the consent of its dismissed curator, Théo-Mario Coppola, audiences met with a somewhat reduced exhibition. The technicians at Galleri F15 were in the process of covering up some works of art. Certain rooms in the gallery were closed, some videos were turned off, and very little information about the exhibition was available.

“No one asked us to have their work covered up,” Dag Aak Sveinar, director of Momentum and Gallery F15, told Kunstkritikk. He was referring to an open letter Coppola sent the day before the opening, in which the curator accused Momentum’s management of having sabotaged his work on the biennial and made it known that several artists have expressed concern and a desire to withdraw their participation if he is not reinstated. “Out of respect for these requests, and also due to practical concerns such as emergency exits, we decided to cover the works at the opening,” Sveinar said. “It was a temporary solution, and we are still in talks with the artists in order to reaffirm their participation.”

In the letter, Coppola puts forward a number of accusations against Gallery F15. He claims that the gallery has not made working on the biennial a priority. This supposedly led to delays and postponements in several areas, forcing Coppola to put in a lot of overtime. According to Coppola, some works have yet to be finished and installed. In addition, he seeks assurances from Momentum guaranteeing that parts of the project scheduled to take place outside the exhibition itself, including a website and a series of “international events,” which Coppola considers important, will be carried out.

Sveinar observed that the scope of Coppola’s project seems to have expanded since the collaboration ended, but emphasised that the biennial is committed to ensuring that his curatorial concept is implemented in its entirety and that all the artists get to present their work, adding: “However, after we terminated our collaboration, the curator has actively opposed the biennial and asked several artists to support him. This has put everyone in a very difficult situation. Several artists, such as Marinella Senatore, have held back details about the completion of their works in anticipation of Coppola being reinstated as curator.”

At the end of May, Coppola allegedly warned the gallery about major delays in the completion and shipping of works of art. Nevertheless, F15 refused to postpone the biennial’s opening, according to the letter. It also states that the biennial failed to comply with the curator’s request for a permit allowing him entry into Norway in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Sveinar, Coppola’s request for an entry permit to Norway was rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a joint teams meeting with the biennial and himself.

Coppola further claims that he was treated badly by the gallery and that his role as curator was undermined. “I repeatedly received intrusive emails, inappropriate phone calls, and derogatory comments,” Coppola writes. “We were encouraged to provide constructive criticism, and we have treated him as we would treat any employee,” Sveinar said in response to Coppola’s accusations. He fundamentally disagrees with the curator’s presentation of the case. According to him, the main reason for Coppola’s dismissal was failure to submit curatorial texts. Nor did he confirm the contributors for the reader, Sveinar added, a task which was supposed to have been completed in April: “In May, we were told it would arrive in June, and then that it would happen towards the end of the biennial. It is this repeated failure to meet deadlines that is the problem. Producing works of art during a pandemic is very challenging, but it is possible to write texts.”

Sveinar concedes that the exhibition is not complete without the curator’s texts. “There’s no escaping that fact; we need those texts very much. At the same time, we have an obligation to the artists.” He still has ambitions publish the catalogue in collaboration with Coppola, and asserts that the biennial’s performance programme will be completed in August in accordance with the curator’s project sketch.

In his letter, Coppola claims that the decision to open the biennial at any cost does not take into account the concerns of the practitioners (i.e. artists) and that it infringes on their rights as well as the integrity of the project. “Should I not be reinstated in my position and should we not be able to collectively resume our work, I will withdraw the project and the title HOUSE OF COMMONS, my texts, as well as my own name from the eleventh edition of MOMENTUM,” Coppola concludes.