City puts damper on Munch’s party

Famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch may either be spinning in his grave or snorting posthumously at the latest move by the Oslo city officials responsible for his legacy: Munch Museum management had no choice but to inform employees this week that staffing would be cut by more than 20 percent. The cuts ordered by the city come just as the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth, and they also raise new doubts over whether a new museum to house the city’s inherited collection of Munch’s art will ever be built.

Oslo's Munch Museum has long had support from Idemitsu Petroleum Norge, which, along with co-sponsor Flytoget, got a small credit at the bottom of the large poster to the right of the museum's entrance that promotes the current "Modern Eye" exhibit. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Employees at Oslo’s Munch Museum got more bad news this week, when the city ordered staff cuts of more than 20 percent. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

It was, perhaps, the ultimate paradox in Munch’s jubilee year, and another major setback after years of inadequate city support for the museum and endless political quarreling over the site and budget for a new museum. Long-frustrated museum workers, already struggling to do the best they can with limited resources, were stunned.

“Staff cuts of well over 20 percent will affect both our working environment and the work that needs to done,” Lars Toft-Eriksen, a representative for museum employees. “Now we must expect fewer exhibits of lower quality. Opportunities to lend out our art and cooperate with other museums will also be affected.”

At least 17 of the museum’s 72 full-time-equivalent positions will disappear, as will some jobs at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo, which recently was put into a partnership with the Munch Museum despite protests from the Stenersen family that willed its own art collection to the city. All told, NOK 7 million must be cut from the museum’s budget already this year.

Management claimed they would shield core operations at the Munch Museum, and a major exhibition planned to open this spring would go forward in conjunction with the 150th anniversary program. Staff was left wondering how that could be done given the looming cuts.

‘Budget must be balanced’
As Hallstein Bjercke, the city politician in charge of cultural affairs, stated that also the Munch Museum must operate with a budget in balance and attempted to downplay any crisis, fears rose that the museum staff cuts don’t bode well for prospects for a new museum. City politicians have been accused of shirking their responsibility for Munch’s legacy for years. Now staff seemed to have little faith the situation will ever improve. “Frustration is enormous,” one museum worker told newspaper Aftenposten after leaving a staff meeting about the cuts on Wednesday.

A new, slimmer organization for the Munch Museum is supposed to be in place by mid-March. The cuts are largely blamed on budget overruns last year, when the museum was preparing for the jubilee year and cooperated with such prestigious museums as the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Tate Modern in London on a major Munch exhibit that attracted huge crowds everywhere but at home in Oslo. Museum officials in Oslo had hoped 100,000 would attend the exhibit when it ended its run in Oslo. Instead the numbers amounted to around 40,000, with total visitor counts up in 2012 but still far from those budgeted or seen elsewhere.

Spots on stamps
Many blame the ongoing problems at Oslo’s Munch Museum, which arguably should be the best in the world given its inherited collection in the city where Munch lived and worked for many years, to its location at Tøyen on Oslo’s east side. That’s prompted proposals to move it to the new waterfront development at Bjørvika, but political quarreling over a site continues.

Munch’s image does now adorn some postage stamps in Norway, meant to be a tribute in the jubilee year to his stature as the country’s most famous artist. When the postal service unveiled the stamps earlier this year, though, they wound up, ironically, on denominations of NOK 20 and NOK 17, neither of which is regularly used for cards and letters within Norway, within Europe or internationally. So it’s unlikely the stamps, which feature some of Munch’s most famous works, will get much circulation.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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