by Zeke Turner, Wall Street Journal
June 28, 2013 (TSR-WSJ) – EVERY NORWEGIAN CHILD has stood in cross-country skis at the bottom of a snowy slope and looked up at his or her father. “So your dad is there at the top of the hill holding a treat and he says, ‘Just make it up here, and we’ll take a break,’ ” says Eivind Furnesvik, the owner and director of Standard (Oslo), the most successful art gallery in the country’s up-and-coming scene. “That is Norway.”
With that same mettle and hope of reward, the players of Oslo’s art world have begun a steep climb to join the ranks of global elite art capitals. The treat-bearing father atop the hill is the government, waving vast largesse from the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. But the route isn’t easy for those involved: Aside from subzero temperatures and months of darkness, the relatively small capital city of 600,000 was, until very recently, better known for timber exports and dried fish aged in lye than cutting-edge contemporary art.
Just over 100 years ago, shortly after Norway gained full independence from Sweden, the regions north of Bergen counted among the poorest in Europe. In the decades since 1969, when Phillips Petroleum discovered vast oil and gas reserves in the North Sea’s Ekofisk field, those same regions have become some of the continent’s richest. Income from the reserves pours in through the state-controlled energy giant Statoil, and accrues in Norway’s $745 billion sovereign wealth fund, the so-called Oljefondet. Norway’s 12-year-old sustainability-minded handlingsregelen, or “spending rule,” stipulates that the government can use only 4 percent of that fund in each year’s national budget. Add that to the country’s Scandinavian brand of social democracy, and the result is unrivaled government support for the artistic economy. Last October, Hadia Tajik, Norway’s Minister of Culture, announced the country’s largest-ever budget for the arts.
“It’s easy to get things done in Oslo,” says singer and performance artist Nils Bech in a downtown café near the affluent shopping district surrounding the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. “We have a really good support system, so if you get to a certain level in your career it’s possible to get funding to do projects that you wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere.” Next to him sits his best friend, Ida Ekblad, a painter, sculptor and conceptual artist. “It’s because Oslo’s small. In New York, if you want certain kinds of materials, there are so many rules, and it’s so difficult to get things done sometimes,” Ekblad says. “Here, I’m friends with the guy that works at the scrapyard, and he’s always happy when I go there.” Ekblad’s recent work involves carving lines from poems she wrote into the wheels of shopping carts, coating the wheels in paint and rolling them across canvases. A former break-dancer, she is one of the flag-bearers of Norway’s artistic ascendance: Her inclusion in the “ILLUMInations” exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale was a rallying cry for every art student in Oslo. In April, she had a solo show at the National Museum’s contemporary art wing, the Museet for Samtidskunst, where artists like Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge and Robert Smithson have also recently been shown. Stipends from the Norwegian Ministry of Culture have facilitated both Bech and Ekblad’s work: He has two years of financing, and she has three. “I must admit I did have an instinct to come back to Norway that I hadn’t felt before,” says Ekblad about her recent return home while pregnant with her daughter after years living abroad in Italy.
Another artist who’s recently come home is Marius Engh, a member of Furnesvik’s roster at Standard (Oslo), who moved back to Oslo after five years in Berlin. “Sometimes you need a break from a small place like this,” he says on the phone from the home studio he’s been able to rent, thanks to government subsidies—an old astronomical observatory with a view over the fjord. “By moving back home, you come back into the possibility of renewing yourself or becoming whole,” he says. “I started skiing again!”
Even as the city has held fast to some of its grittier elements—a heroin problem lurks in the shadows—you see emblems of its dedication to art everywhere: architectural coups like the opera house designed by the award-winning Norwegian firm Snøhetta or, nearby, along the waterfront, Renzo Piano Astrup Fearnley contemporary art museum, financed by the private wealth of a shipping family and sponsored by Swedish oil firm Lundin Petroleum . New space for the Munch Museum—currently mired in political debate over its location—is forthcoming, as is a new building for the National Museum, slated to open in 2017 and constructed to hold the institution’s classical and contemporary collections.
Apart from its showier signifiers of wealth, a wholesome enthusiasm suffuses the Oslo art scene, perhaps because of its geographic isolation, extreme climate and high cost of living. At the April reopening party of Kunstnernes Hus (Artists’ House)—a club across the street from the Royal Palace—more than 100 people waited in line outside the door. Inside, Karl Holmqvist—one of the most famous artists in Sweden—performed onstage. “Who runs the world? Girrrrls,” he bleated into the microphone. Half the room watched while the other half talked giddily over beers from Dronebrygg, an Oslo-based artist-run microbrewery.
STATOIL KEEPS REGIONAL headquarters in Fornebu, an office park rising on the outskirts of town that recalls the corporate anomie of Paris’s La Défense. In 2007, Statoil merged with the oil and gas division of Norsk Hydro and, in the merger, took over some of that company’s art collection. Bjarne Vaaga, an art historian and consultant with the Statoil Art Program, focuses on acquiring works from emerging Norwegian and international artists for the company. “I think it was very good advice from Edvard Munch: He said, ‘Only buy art from living artists,’ ” says Vaaga. Indeed, the company seizes every opportunity to showcase its collection: hanging work in its offshore rigs and throughout its office buildings from Houston to Stavanger. A 12,900-square-foot video installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist plays on the underside of the Fornebu office’s main entryway. Nearby sits a spherical sculpture by Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson. Once construction is complete, Ekblad and Standard (Oslo) artist Gardar Eide Einarsson will also have works on display around the Fornebu campus.
The corporate interests at play and the bureaucracy surrounding the subsidies call into question the realness of the Norwegian art market: Is it really just a bubble of vainglorious ambition? The cynical view, which people voice out of the corner of their mouths, is that artists’ stipends are cheaper for the government than unemployment benefits. But many disagree. Over green tea and carrot soup, Marta Kuzma, the American director of Norway’s Office for Contemporary Art (OCA), explains how public financing has breathed genuine creative life into the city. “I think when people are feeling positive in a community and a community is building, it’s very creatively free,” she says. “A community creates a vibe and an impetus to be with one another.”
“In New York, if you are to be considered an educated person, you have to aspire to collect art. There is none of that in Norway. It’s a culture of equality.” — Elvind Furnesvik
Before joining OCA eight years ago, Kuzma held a long line of top-tier curatorial posts stretching from Washington, D.C. to Kiev, including curator and agent for the last Documenta art fair in Kassel, Germany. At OCA, her job is to cultivate a unique, internationally heard voice for Norway. The Norwegian Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs pooled money to start OCA in 2001, as what Kuzma calls an “object of curiosity.” One of the organization’s aims is to give artists and curators from around the world an incentive to stay longer than 24 hours in Oslo—to make the capital more than just a quaint stopover on the international circuit. In that regard, Norway has catching up to do with the likes of Switzerland, Germany and Austria, Kuzma says. But when austerity means the slashing of cultural funding across Europe, Norway is well positioned to join those countries better known historically for promoting the arts.
For his part, Furnesvik has found it easiest to promote Norwegian artists as a gallerist and businessman working in the private sector. Not unlike the shipping companies that enjoy easy access to the North Sea, Norway is a base of operations for Furnesvik, not a market. He says 75 percent of the work sold at Standard (Oslo) leaves the country. “The local market has never been the reason the gallery started,” he says. With few exceptions, Standard (Oslo) has launched the careers of the most internationally sought-after living Norwegian artists—Fredrik Vaerslev, Matias Faldbakken and Einarsson—and boosted the international profile of the American artists it represents, like Tauba Auerbach, Alex Hubbard and Josh Smith. According to Furnesvik, for certain artists, like Faldbakken, there’s more global demand for the work than the gallery could possibly supply. Last spring, days before Furnesvik’s 40th birthday, Standard (Oslo) expanded into a 8,400-square-foot white-cube space.
While artists, gallerists and even the government have begun to voice their artistic ambitions internationally, a serious class of Norwegian art collector has yet to emerge. It’s one reason why a gallery of Standard (Oslo)’s caliber has to conduct so much business abroad. Given the country’s middle-class ethos of equality, collecting contemporary art isn’t an obvious exercise for the young moneyed class. (The oft-quoted Law of Jante, an informal Scandinavian social code coined by the author Aksel Sandemose in 1933, discourages citizens from rising above his or her social station.) “If you go to New York, the financial industry is the biggest thing,” says Furnesvik. “Within that, if you are to be considered an educated person, you have to aspire to collect art. It’s somehow expected of you, on the same level as wearing a tie. There is none of that in Norway. It’s a culture of equality.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Petter Snare, a rare Norwegian collector, worked in the art world for a time with Furnesvik. Snare acquired his first works in the ’90s as a law student in Bergen and later helped launch Standard (Oslo) in 2005 before selling his share two years later and returning to his legal career. In his free time, he runs an art book publisher, Teknisk Industri. Each book he publishes is almost completely financed by the government, according to Snare. He also sits on the board of many public and private art institutions across the country, including the Bergen Kunsthall and the Bildende Kunstneres Hjelpefond, an artists’ relief fund dating back to the ’40s supported by a 5-percent fee levied on all visual artwork publicly sold in the country.
“Contemporary art as a social marker, at least in Norway, is something new,” Snare says over a glass of beer in the chandeliered lobby of downtown’s Hotel Bristol. “Norwegians are mainly trying to be less flashy. It might be an urban myth, but there are all these stories about shipping people in Norway having huge amounts of money and driving themselves to the airport in a Nissan and being picked up by a Rolls-Royce at London Heathrow.”
If the narrative about somewhat provincial Norwegians going out into the world has, in the last two decades, found its way out of an awkward adolescence, the reverse migration is just beginning. The American gallerist Esperanza Rosales moved to Oslo from Brussels in the fall of 2011 to do something unheard of: launch a commercial gallery as an outsider. She first visited Oslo to attend an event hosted by OCA. During her stay, she met Stian Eide Kluge and Steffen Håndlykken, two Norwegian artists launching a gallery of their own called 1857 in Grønland, an immigrant neighborhood near the train station. The space they chose was a battered log cabin, the erstwhile operating headquarters for the Bandidos Motorcycle Club. The cabin was full of trash, and snow fell through the crumbling roof. “Something about that kind of spirit,” say Rosales, “this particular initiative they have to take something that was falling apart and fix it up, really stuck in my mind.”
“Norway, there are things I love about it, but it’s very severe,” she says. She’s ready with examples of the baffling cost of running a business within the country’s economy. “I once went to the post office to buy an envelope and a five-pack costs 65 U.S. dollars. They have local postage on them already, but still that’s a lot.”
In Oslo there’s an incredible will to make things happen despite the odds—a community survival instinct, part of the bully attitude it takes to survive so far north. After two months, Rosales was able to negotiate free rent on a warren of lower level rooms below the Grønland Menighetshus, a former congregational hall built in 1913. Her program so far has included work by Ekblad and another Norwegian artist Lars Laumann, as well as by young artists from more established art capitals like Berlin and London. “I realized there was room for another commercial gallery, or perhaps one that could have a very different profile than Standard,” she says. “A commercial gallery with the spirit of a project space.” According to her agreement, she’ll begin paying rent there when the gallery starts turning a profit. In the meantime she’s investigating the possibility of claiming more space in a nearby prison.
Rosales’s gallery, called VI, VII, takes its name from the British colloquialism “at sixes and sevens.” “It means that someone is at a point of confusion, maybe making a bad choice or they’re showing recklessness,” she says. “The history of this is a little unclear, but some people think it came out of dice-throwing games—when somebody would bet everything they had on the next throw of the dice, and sometimes lose. I liked that it could be read as total stupidity or total courage.”
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