‘Without the trust of the art field, I no longer have any legitimacy’

Following the revelation that the biennial exceeded its 2019 budget by NOK 6 million, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk has resigned as curator of the Oslo Biennial.

Carole Douillard, The Viewers, 2019. Photo: Inger Marie Grini.

In a statement issued Wednesday 27 May, Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk announced his resignation as curator of the Oslo Biennial. His decision comes in the wake of the revelation that the biennial exceeded its 2019 budget by NOK 6 million. In the announcement, Eeg-Tverbakk stated that his decision to resign had to do with feeling complicit in the biennial’s failure to honour its commitment to responsible expenditure. He also highlighted the criticism levelled by artists as a contributing factor.

Several critical voices emerged after 22 May, when the newspaper Klassekampen (The Class Struggle) ran a story on the budget overrun. In the same newspaper on 25 May, the director of The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), Ruben Steinum, urged the biennial’s management, including its curators, to accept responsibility for the poor financial management and resign. He also took exception to the biennial management’s assertion that “the artists’ bills were higher than agreed,” which he claims shifts some of the responsibility for the overrun onto the artists. “If the biennial is in deficit, the biennial itself is responsible for that state of affairs – not the artists,” Steinum told Klassekampen.

The debate has also raged on social media. In Oslo Biennial’s headquarters, visual artist Ole Jørgen Ness hung several posters describing the biennial as, among other things, a “parasite choking the life out of Oslo’s art scene.” Speaking to Klassekampen, he justified the harsh wording by stating that strong personal statements should be allowed as supplements to the more soberly factual criticism raised by the artists’ organisations.

Eeg-Tverbakk told Kunstkritikk that distrust from the art field was the main factor in his decision: “I feel an atmosphere of pervasive distrust from the art scene in Oslo, some of it taking the form of direct personal attacks. As an artist-trained curator, I work closely with the artists, so it is essential to have the art field’s trust, not least locally. Without that, I no longer have any legitimacy.”

He emphasised that his decision to resign was a personal choice and that there has been no internal conflict within the biennial team. “I enjoy a good relationship with the artists involved in the biennial. None of them have expressed mistrust,” Eeg-Tverbakk said.

A statement of support signed by several artists participating in the biennial, argues that the challenges faced by the biennial are natural aspects of the initial phase of a project of this magnitude and that the judgment passed on the biennial from the art field and the press is premature. “We want to underline the importance that a project of such ambition as [the Oslo Biennial] develops further, for the benefit of the city and of the artistic community,” the statement concludes.

Could have been more proactive

Eeg-Tverbakk said the overrun came as a surprise to him when it became known around the new year. He emphasised that he has not had access to the accounts himself and that the financial responsibility technically rests with Executive Director Ole Slyngstadli. “Even so, the fact that I have been so close to the productions means that I should have known,” Eeg-Tverbakk said. “I could have been more proactive. That is why I also share in the responsibility.”

He underscored that his co-curator Eva González-Sancho does not share responsibility for the financial overrun associated with the productions to the same extent, as they have had different roles: “I have been the most involved in the production of works on-site, while she has focused on international dialogue; a natural division of labour as I am more familiar with Norwegian culture and the Norwegian language. However, the distrust of the art field is the primary reason that makes me want to step down.”

Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk.

Eeg-Tverbakk speculated that part of the anger he is currently facing may be caused by the fact that resources are now scarce and artists are feeling extra financial pressure due to circumstances surrounding the coronavirus. He believes another reason may be that the biennial is a municipal project and is carried out by the same authority that also handles and provides support to local artists and art institutions. “I can’t comment on whether it was the right decision to set up a biennial, that was the municipal authorities’ decision,” he said. “We were given the task of making it happen.”

To critics who claim that the biennial has been low on visibility, Eeg-Tverbakk responded: “We’ve gotten huge amounts of press coverage. Much of the criticism is based on the premise that we don’t look like a biennial. But we specifically wanted to challenge and expand the format. We haven’t done things by the book. The projects have been spread out in terms of time and geographical location alike, and we have involved different audiences that reach beyond the typical art audience. We wanted to break new ground, to see if it was possible to create art in public spaces in new ways. This has led to major challenges in terms of presentation, dissemination and communication.”

Eeg-Tverbakk said that he will now probably be transferred to another job in the department of culture. “I do not know what my future role will be vis-à-vis the biennial. It would not feel natural to be involved, but of course I will be available if required during a transitional phase.”

Understands the criticism

Executive director of the Oslo Biennial, Ole Slyngstadli, is sorry that Eeg-Tverbakk has chosen to resign. He described Eeg-Tverbakk as a having a real talent for communication, as a down-to-earth intellectual, and also describes their collaboration as professional and socially rewarding, if logistically difficult. “All such decisions are personal. Each individual must make up their own minds about whether taking responsibility means withdrawing or staying. I respect Per Gunnar’s decision, ” Slyngstadli said.

While Slyngstadli acknowledges that the budget is his responsibility, he emphasised that the biennial was a joint project and that everyone was aware that individual projects went over budget. “We thought we would recoup this by making other projects more affordable; we only became aware of the real extent at a late stage. Ambitions ran high, and we did not catch the forecasts early enough,” he said.

When the extent of the overrun became known at the new year, Slyngstadli considered withdrawing, but decided, in dialogue with Oslo’s Department for Culture, that the biennial would be best served by him staying on as executive director to complete projects, follow up on the contracts made, and implement management systems. “That’s my way of assuming responsibility, to stay with the trouble. We need continuity to carry out this year’s projects – and to learn from what went wrong in the opening year. The biennial will also be subject to closer monitoring and follow-up than it had in 2019, not just on the financial side of things, but also as regards activities aimed at strengthening our dissemination and communication with the public. In the future, I would advise the municipality to advertise the curatorial positions as fixed-term positions,” he said.

Slyngstadli said he understands almost all of the criticism levelled at the biennial. He was also keen to explain that he never meant to lay the blame for the deficit on the artists: “Of course I do not mean that, and I am taken aback to see that it was perceived this way.”

He expressed surprise that the simple fact that a biennial costs money could elicit such rage, but added that this does not mean that he wants to minimise the biennial’s excess expenses. “One aspect that has not emerged in the debate,” Slyngstadli said, “is that we were commissioned to create an international biennial. While other biennials spend as little as NOK 10,000 on an original work, 75 per cent of our budget goes towards buying and producing art. We offer remunerations of up to NOK 175,000 for individual works, and on top of this the municipality covers the production costs for most of the projects, although a few have received partial funding from Arts Council Norway, too. We are part of Oslo’s municipal art scheme, not a parasite siphoning its resources. Essentially, we do the same as the art scheme, we produce and buy art.

Under new management

The director of the Department of Culture at the Oslo municipality, Stein Slyngstad, said that he was surprised that Eeg-Tverbakk decided to resign, but added that he understands how difficult it is to be made the target of attacks way he has been in recent days. When asked who is responsible for the budget overrun, he replied that errors and omissions have taken place at several levels, but that the Oslo Biennial falls under the auspices of the Department of Culture, meaning that he holds ultimate responsibility.

Asked whether he could justify the decision to keep Slyngstadli on in the position of executive director, he explained how, when the full extent of the overruns became known, steps were taken to ensure good management of the biennial going forward. One of these steps was to change the management model. Today, the day-to-day management is handled by two of the Department of Culture’s directors, Lise Mjøs and Lars Inge Merok Olsen. This dual-manager set-up handles artistic and financial/administrative management alike. Slyngstadli will continue to work on the biennial for the time being and will report to these two.

Slyngstad claimed that the municipal cultural budgets will not suffer as a result of the overrun. The biennial’s financial framework for 2020 has been tightened up a great deal, but most of the shortfall will be covered by existing reserves and unused funds from the old art scheme. “No current or planned art projects will be affected,” he said.

Both Slyngstad and the Vice Mayor for Culture Rina Mariann Hansen agree that the biennial has been low on visibility. “I believe that as yet, the biennial has not lived up to the expectations of presenting and disseminating art to the people in Oslo; I believe they should have reached a wider audience,” Hansen said. According to Slyngstad, efforts are being made to improve visibility locally.

He further agrees that the ambitions for the biennial and the number of projects launched have run beyond the biennial’s capacity. “However,” he added, “it is important to be aware that fourteen of last year’s twenty-four projects will continue in 2020, while the majority of costs associated with them have already been defrayed.”

Wanted to limit the scope of the biennial

On 26 May, the artist and board member of the Young Artists’ Society (UKS) Ida Madsen Følling claimed that the biennial’s problems are linked to the disbanding of the board of the art scheme, which she believes wanted to limit the scope of the biennial. “Now the department operates on its own, allocating the funds in ways that are both undemocratic and lack the necessary transparency,” she told Klassekampen.

Slyngstad insists there is absolutely no link between the disbanding of the art scheme’s board of directors and the biennial’s problems. “The board of the old art scheme were the ones who initiated and decided to carry out a biennial, approved budgets and decided on the mode of governance to be employed,” he said. Hansen confirmed that it was the old board who wanted the biennial, and she said that funds were allocated for several years in order to focus on this endeavour. “The board never received financial reports or was held accountable in that way, so unlike the UKS, I believe that removing the board was the right move to make to achieve closer and better control of the financial side of things.”

When asked how he will go about restoring the art field’s confidence in the Oslo Biennial and the Department of Culture, Slyngstad replied that The Department of Culture has a very diverse portfolio of projects and activities and that, generally speaking, he finds that it enjoys great trust and confidence within much of the field. “However,” he added, “the failing management of the biennial has yielded justified criticism, and the first thing we must do is listen to all constructive criticism. Following this, it will of course be the results that count – whether we deliver high quality, good management and reach people with our programme.”

Rose Hammer, National Episodes Grini and the Futures of Norway, 2019. Photo: Oslo Biennial