Just a few years have passed since the Danish art scene could celebrate that for the first time in thirty years an artist, Kirsten Langkilde, took over the rector’s chair at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ Schools of Visual Arts. Now, another artist is taking over: Lars Bent Petersen.
In addition to being a central figure on the Danish art scene, Bent Petersen has extensive academic experience. For the past five years, he has been rector of the Funen Art Academy, where he previously taught from 1999 to 2006. During the period 2006 to 2015 he was director of studies at The Royal Danish Academy of Academy of Fine Arts’ Schools of Visual Arts, where he was also vice-rector from 2012 to 2014 and later acting rector in 2014. As an artist, Bent Petersen belongs to the generation that came of age during the 1990s, and for the last decade his post-conceptual practice has focused on sculpture.
Following Langkilde’s resignation, there were concerns about whether there would be any candidates for the job at all. Or, rather, whether the prospective applicants would truly grasp the challenges and full scope of the job, including the need to communicate with politicians as well as students.
In selecting Bent Petersen, the academy gets a rector who knows what he is getting into. Even when considering the institution’s deeper levels of dysfunction, which go beyond the incidents that have attracted public attention in recent years, such as the declaration of no confidence in the former rector, various cases involving inappropriate or abusive behaviour, and the so-called ‘bust stunt’. The conclusions of the recently published external report on the school’s internal affairs will hardly come as a surprise to him.
Commissioned by the Danish Minister of Culture, the report found no evidence that recent “identity-political and sexism-related events” differ significantly from cases found at similar institutions of academic research and education. However, it did conclude that “the academy evinces a pronounced lack of leadership and of the competencies required to manage pedagogical-ideological processes.” As the report summarises: “To put matters simply and bluntly, the academy finds itself in a situation where it does not seem to be the ‘problems’ that are the problem – but the way in which many speak about and position themselves in relation to those problems, both internally and externally.”
For anyone who has interacted even a little with the academy, it is quite obvious that the clean-up recommended in the report has been sorely needed for years – almost ever since Bent Petersen himself was a student there. All other things being equal, it must be a boon to have a new rector who understands – insofar as this is even possible – these wildly proliferating organisational mille plateaux and the intricate interrelationships between the academy’s faculty, schools, laboratories, councils, and boards.
The question is also whether the problems at the academy are any greater now than they always have been. One struggles to recall a time when conflicts and conditions at the school were not, at least to some extent, the focal point of the art scene’s conversations about the place. The new thing is that here, as in other parts of society, we have begun to speak more openly about issues regarding power relations, diversity, etc. Topics that have, ever since the first #MeToo movement in 2017, been on general agendas in and outside of Denmark.
However, there are indications that crises in art education hold a special appeal for the media. Perhaps this is really the main thing. Since 2018, when the first incidents at The Creative Writing School (Forfatterskolen) and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts came into the media spotlight, interest has only grown greater – often born out of the mixture of mistrust and fascination that characterises the Danish mainstream outlook on art. Several front-page stories, at times even entire sections of newspapers, have been dedicated to these topics. This has also been the case with crises at similar institutions in the Nordic countries: last summer at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts and currently at the University of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm. Here, too, national media, which usually shows little interest in art education, has dived into the smallest details of the institutional structure and the teaching provided. This is not to say that the problems are not real, or that, for example, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has not suffered from a “management vacuum,” as the report states. But this media attention is a new aspect with which the new rector must also deal.
Hopefully, Bent Petersen will gain some advantage from the fact that he has always been interested in analysing art from a societal perspective. This is evident in his art and his writing, including texts written for Kunstkritikk. In his 2019 review of the major monograph on Stig Brøgger – who was incidentally Bent Petersen’s professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – he wrote:
At that time [the 1960s] art and artists instrumentalised the new technological, economic, and philosophical possibilities of post-war society, precisely by creating a new art that was always in step with what was possible at the time. Today, things are almost the other way around. Now it is art that has been instrumentalised – in technological, financial, political, and philosophical terms – including by art itself, in an ideological struggle for social and economic power, whether one wants it or has it.
Navigating art’s instrumentalisation in an educational setting is just one of many major tasks that await Bent Petersen. One can only hope that the Danish Ministry of Culture has taken note of the report’s concluding remarks: “The continued development work requires political support and assurance that even if ‘things take time’, there is sufficient scope, time, and support to allow this to happen.”