When an Exhibition Actually Matters

‘Our job is to provide the artists with the best possible framework’, says Solveig Øvstebø. This spring, she takes over as director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo.

The new director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Solveig Øvstebø. Photo: The Astrup Fearnley Museum.

When Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo opens its doors again on 16 June, after having been shut down since March due to coronavirus precautions, it will do so with Solveig Øvstebø as its new director. Øvstebø has previously headed Bergen Kunsthall and The Renaissance Society in Chicago. Now she will be the fifth director to head Astrup Fearnley Museum – which, since its inception in 1993, has moved out of a basement downtown to a Renzo Piano-designed building on the Oslo waterfront, replacing modern European art with contemporary art and a distinctly American profile.

The Astrup Fearnley Museum’s first director, Gunnar Sørensen, quit immediately following the opening exhibition in 1993. Under the museum’s second director, Hans Jakob Brun – who created exhibitions featuring European neo-Expressionist painting, the “School of London,” contemporary Norwegian painters like Odd Nerdrum, Bjørn Ransve, and Frans Widerberg, and late modernist sculpture – the collection’s signature work was Anselm Kiefer’s The High Priestess / Zweistromland (1985–89). At the turn of the millennium, Åsmund Thorkildesen had a brief stint in the director’s chair, turning the museum towards North American postmodern photography. Gunnar Kvaran continued and expanded this shift, inaugurating his nineteen years in the director’s chair with a study trip to the United States.

In 2001, the museum acquired Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), a work that has become emblematic of the museum’s collecting profile. When Astrup Fearnley Museet celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, art historian Ina Blom criticised its focus on American Pop Art. In the newspaper Morgenbladet, she referred to the institution as very private, a museum “that only follows suit.”

Speaking to Kunstkritikk by phone from her home office in Bergen, Øvstebø said that she has no intention of turning the institution upside down on her first day on the job. Nevertheless, her appointment indicates that the museum wants a change of direction. The controversial sponsor Lundin Oil has already been replaced with a new main sponsor, the Bergen company EGD, which Øvstebø also collaborated with during her period at Bergen Kunsthall.

From Elmgreen & Dragseth’s exhibition The Welfare Show at Bergen Kunsthall, 2005. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

In Bergen, Øvstebø very deliberately cultivated collaboration with the business community and politicians to expand the institution’s financial scope. Her efforts proved successful, and in addition to boosting production budgets, she expanded the permanent staff from four to eleven man-years. Early on, Øvstebø made another significant move when she put an end to the venue’s collaboration with major institutions such as Norwegian National Exhibitions (Riksutstillinger) and the touring exhibition The Westland Exhibition (Vestlandsutstillingen). With the group exhibition Versions (2004) and Elmgreen & Dragset’s festival feature The Welfare Show (2005), she opted instead for a course where the venue gave artists opportunities to create new works, producing its own exhibitions for an international art scene.

From Bergen, Øvstebø moved to Chicago to take over the chair as director of The Renaissance Society, one of the oldest institutions of contemporary art in the United States, which after its inception in 1915 helped bring European avant-garde art to the United States. Located on the campus of the University of Chicago and boasting an extensive lecture and publication programme, “The Ren” has been an important locus for contemporary art research. Øvstebø’s predecessor, Susanne Ghez, headed the museum from 1973 to 2013, presenting exhibitions featuring artists such as Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Isa Genzken, Felix Gonzales-Torres, and Kara Walker at important stages of their careers. Expectations for the new director ran high. In an early interview, Øvstebø said that although she was in awe of Ghez’s work, she was unafraid to take on the assignment. “I trust the artists,” she explained.

At the same time that Øvstebø moved to Chicago, the Astrup Fearnley Museum moved to its current premises on Tjuvholmen, and although the museum is privately owned, she believes its location on the waterfront has raised its public profile and strengthened its impact. Today, she describes Astrup Fearnley as big enough to make comprehensive presentations and small enough to be flexible, allowing her to still collaborate with artists. This was one of the main reasons why she became interested in the position as director.

As yet, Øvstebø is loath to anticipate a new profile for the museum. She praises the collection, but also points out that greater diversity is needed. She also notes that in spite of connecting with a wide audience, many on the Norwegian art scene do not feel at home in the museum. Her first exhibition will take place in 2021.

Hanne Borchgrevink, Blå vegg (blue wall), 2011. Borchgrevink exhibited at Bergen Kunsthall in 2011.

You mentioned the museum’s connection with a wide audience, but what kind of role should Astrup Fearnley play on the Norwegian art scene?

Both aspects are important. I want us to nurture our existing demographic while also focusing on the fact that we are part of a wider field of study. Although Astrup Fearnley Museet has an international profile, one of the key issues for me will be to engage in a close dialogue with the art scene in Norway, with artists, colleagues and other professionals. Collaborating with other institutions will be important, as will creating a professional platform within the museum to address key themes in the field. I also want to show Norwegian artists. Moving forward, Astrup Fearnley Museet must continue its efforts to find its role in the institutional landscape that surrounds us – where can we make the best contributions? And how?

In previous interviews, you have criticised blockbuster exhibitions and efforts to pander to audiences. I might describe some of the Astrup Fearnley Museet exhibitions as doing exactly that. What are your thoughts on this?

Blockbusters can be many things, and they can also be very strong from an art historical and academic point of view, such as the Isa Genzken retrospective at MoMA in 2013. But unfortunately, we also see that museums around the world are doing things only to push up visitor rates, picking themes and subjects only because they hope it can become a big hit. I’m very careful about programming like that. I think it’s important to trust your audience. For me, the solution is to focus all your attention on the programme, and then engage with the audience afterwards.

Our job is to provide the artists with the best possible framework so that their voice is heard as clearly as possible. I’m thinking of artists who are at a place in their career where an exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museet really means something for them, so that the exhibition venue can be said to grow and evolve with the artist. Then it’s our job to open the doorways that lead into the artwork, into the artists’ minds and ideas. I’m not saying it’s easy.

What makes it hard? 

Art reflects our present, and that present is complex. Today, in society in general, we see a prominent tendency to simplify things, making them palatable and easy to digest. Some art can be experienced immediately, reaching its full potential like that. Other works challenge you and demand more from you. It is important to present the art without compromising its complexity.

Installation view from LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze at The Renaissance Society, 2019. Photo: Useful Art Services.

Ambiguity” is a term I come across in several of your texts on art. What kind of aesthetic and artistic issues interest you?

I don’t have single, specific outlook on art that governs what is displayed. Different artists work in very different ways and I try to capture as many and varied modes of expressions as possible in the programmes I set up. Overall, I am interested in works that have multiple layers and which require something from us. Examples might be formal works such as the sculptures of Richard Rezac or the paintings of Hanne Borchgrevink, but also works that are more expressive in nature, such as Paul McCarthy’s violent drawings or Shadi Habib Allah’s installation, where he transported a dirty floor from a grocery store in the poor part of Miami to Chicago.

How did you go about starting work at The Ren?

When I arrived at The Ren in 2013, the institution had a tremendously strong history: up through the 1980s and 1990s they had displayed contemporary art that had not yet done the rounds at the major institutions. In the 2000s, the mega-museums started setting up project spaces, showing the artists The Ren was working with.

It became important for me to find out how, being a medium-sized institution, we might maximise our relevance. I did a lot of reading and focused on how we worked with the artists. We did not ask what they had done, but what they would like to do. We gave them the freedom to challenge their own practice and create relevant, strong art projects they couldn’t do anywhere else. That’s why we generated a different kind of energy in our institution, one that caught the eye and interest of artists and audiences alike.

What are relevant art projects?

For me, relevant art is art that makes me look at the world in a different way. This might sound high-blown, but nevertheless it’s about something that’s moving and kicking, projects that have a real depth to them, either formally or thematically. It may be about works that operate on a poetic level or works that are able to relate directly to the community of which it is part, speaking about situations in which the viewers find themselves. It would be flippant to say that it needs to be something you’ve never seen before; it’s not necessarily the ‘new’ that moves you.

Paul McCarthy, White Snow placemat, WS, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. McCarthy exhibited at The Renaissance Society in 2015-2016.

Could you point to a specific example of an exhibition you’ve seen recently that has managed to do these things?

Ann Goldstein and Donna De Salvo’s presentation Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again (20 October 2019–26 January 2020) at the Art Institute of Chicago was amazing. Donna De Salvo also came to Chicago to give a lecture. When she was on the podium talking about Warhol and how he worked in his own time, I suddenly got a completely new outlook on the artist; I didn’t want her to quit. De Salvo knew Warhol personally and also incorporated the various shortcomings of his artistry. It’s amazing when you get that honesty. Art is not always perfect, after all. It may fail, but that may be the very thing that makes the next project brilliant.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze (2019), one of the last projects we did in Chicago, is another example. It’s an installation that addresses the trade union movement in the United States, specifically the General Motors plant in Ohio, which was closing down. The subject was a political minefield, but she dived right in. The works were incredibly beautiful in themselves. The installation featured photographs of all the people affected by the closure, thereby also reflecting on and discussing the economic system and class divides in the United States.

In the US, we have seen escalating conflicts and greater political polarisation. In the art world, there has been an increasing tendency for activism and for overt expressions of political views, such as in the conflict over Dana Shutz’s painting Open Casket at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and Nan Goldin’s protests against the Sackler family. What is your experience and your views on this period?

This is a big question. And right now we are in a situation where the level of conflict is reaching new but necessary heights. It is important to distinguish between the two themes you talk about here. The reaction against ethically problematic sponsors and supporters arises out of one position, while the rebellion against a fundamental, systemic racism comes from another, although they are sometimes intertwined. The first has, as you say, prompted greater awareness among artists and professionals in general, and we have already seen changes in institutions around the world. The latter has a much more wide-ranging and fundamental starting point. It’s about how we see things, how we talk about things and what we do, and it’s about what stories and narratives we are able to take in. This is a global issue, but the United States has in many ways become an epicentre of this problem due to the nation’s complex history and lack of ability to resolve the issue.

I arrived in the United States in 2013 and soon discovered that the Scandinavian conversation about these issues was extremely naïve. Over the last seven years, I have learned to listen before I speak. I have learned that knowledge is key and that we must take responsibility for acquiring it ourselves. I have read a lot, organised a symposium, and worked with artists who go right to the heart of the issues, such as Kevin Beasley, Jennifer Packer, and Pope L. Even so I am aware that I still don’t know enough, don’t understand enough and that I struggle to find the right words and use language in a constructive way. At the same time, perhaps this is the kind of complexity we need to face in order to promote better understanding and decisive action.

Installation view from Jennifer Packer’s exhibition Tenderheaded at The Renaissance Society, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Corvi-Mora, London. Photo Tom Van Eynde.

What consequences have these conflicts had in the art field? Have there been changes in terms of which subjects and modes of expression are deemed to be of artistic merit and value?

It has had major consequences. Just in the few years I lived in the USA, we have seen changes in the art field, albeit not enough. More and more institutions and museums are taking a long, hard, critical look at their own collections and programmes and are taking steps to try to promote greater diversity and fill the gaps. For example, SFMOMA sold a large Mark Rothko painting in 2019 in order to be able to diversify their collection through future acquisitions. The same was true when the Baltimore Museum of Art sold a Warhol painting the year before.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s exhibition had the kind of political dimension we may not have seen before at Astrup Fearnley. Lundin Oil is no longer a sponsor, but do you think the museum can credibly address politically-charged questions?

There are no restrictions on which artists can appear at Astrup Fearnley. The platform is open and can present different voices. I consider and respond to the museum as an institution in an art field where contemporary art can span a very wide range of expressions. The museum is set up according to a privately funded institutional model, but still plays a public role, and I do not see any problem the way things are now.

When I interviewed Gunnar Kvaran last autumn, he said he would like to see more public funding for the museum and believed it was just a matter of time before that would happen. Do you share that view?

Yes. Astrup Fearnley is an extremely efficiently run museum with a tight budget of just NOK 50 million (EUR 4.6 million). When you consider the institution, its high profile and its connection with the public, a subsidy of one million kroner from the state is quite modest. In 2013, the museum’s institutional set-up changed. Hans Rasmus Astrup donated his entire commercial activities and associated collection to a non-profit foundation (Hans Rasmus Astrup Foundation) which runs the museum, and I report to the board. Other than that, the gifts are donated by the Thomas Fearnley Foundation. Hence, the museum, the collection, and the programmes arranged there are being given to Oslo and Norway as a gift by these foundations.

The question is, then, whether this private source will be alone in securing the museum’s existence in the future. If the public wants the museum to be there, provide the same offerings and play a role on the Norwegian art scene, then in the long term there will be a need for more support from the state. I don’t really see any problems in such a combination of public and private funding; the most important thing is that the artistic programme remains independent, no matter where the money comes from.

Are you confident you will have the freedom to put on the exhibition programme you want at Astrup Fearnley Museet?


View of Kevin Beasley’s performance, Your face is/is not enough at The Renaissance Society, 24 April, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

This article was updated on 15 June at 21.27 to correct a factual error.