Artists try to halt Munch museum

Some of Norway’s most prominent contemporary artists have sudden rallied together at the last minute to try to block construction of Oslo’s long-planned new Munch Museum. They claim, among other things, that the high-rise design of the new museum building is not well-suited to display the huge collection of Edvard Munch’s art that the city inherited from the artist himself when he died 70 years ago.

This design for a new Munch Museum, by Spanish architect Juan Herreros, won a major architectural competition but has now been rejected by city officials. ILLUSTRATION: MIR/Herreros Architectos

The design for the new Munch Museum (at left), by Spanish architect Juan Herreros, won the city’s architectural competition but remains controversial, now among many Norwegian artists themselves. ILLUSTRATION: MIR/Herreros Architectos

City officials, after years of heated political quarreling, are poised to formally approve construction of the new museum at a meeting on Wednesday. They finally agreed on a site for the new museum on Oslo’s eastern waterfront at Bjørvika, next door to the Opera House.

Construction is now due to start next year and be completed in 2019, when the new museum will replace the existing, and inadequate, Munch Museum in Oslo’s Tøyen district. The public has been clamouring for a new Munch Museum for years as well.

Now around 20 artists including such major figures as Håkon Bleken and Finn Graff, though, want the city to drop the whole project, expected to cost around NOK 2 billion (USD 307 million). They took out an ad in newspaper Klassekampen over the weekend, arguing that the planning process and the form of the new Munch Museum “are an insult” because they haven’t satisfied professional artistic demands. The artists complain that “not a single member” of the Munch Museum’s staff sat on the jury that evaluated designs for the building, nor did any Norwegian artists.

Art ‘must be taken care of’
Artist Inger Sitter, who initiated the protest action, admitted to newspaper Aftenposten on Sunday that the artists realize they are presenting their objections to the new museum at the last minute. She hopes, however, that Oslo politicians will halt the project, maintain the existing Munch Museum or move Munch’s priceless paintings and other art to the National Gallery downtown, which will be vacated around 2020 when construction is completed on a new National Museum now underway on a site near the western waterfront, behind the Nobel Peace Center.

“Munch must be at a place where we can be sure the pictures will be taken adequate care of,” Sitter told Aftenposten. “Just in the past few years, the ground (at the waterfront site) has sunk 30 centimeters.” She also referred to conservators who have pointed out that a glass building on the waterfront is unsuitable for displaying art. Sitter also complained about all the security points planned because of the many escalators connecting the floors of the new museum building.

‘All objections addressed and refuted’
Stian Berger Røsland, who heads Oslo’s city government for the Conservative Party, told Aftenposten that all objections lodged against the design by winning Spanish architect Herreros have been addressed and refuted during the planning process. Munch’s art, Røsland claimed, “will be well taken care in this new building. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that. The museum is a concrete structure covered with glass. Temperatures and reflection will be regulated.”

The existing museum has been criticized for years as a bad place to display and store Munch’s art, because of problems with space and dampness. Some of Munch’s paintings, after being stored there since the early 1960s, have been damaged, and long-time museum benefactor Idemitsu of Japan is paying to repair damage and secure the actual move of the art when the time arrives.

Nor has the existing museum been secure enough, as city officials and the public painfully experienced when armed robbers burst into the museum on a quiet Sunday in August 2004 and made off with Munch’s famous paintings Scream and Madonna. They were later recovered.

Røsland also noted that the staff at the Munch Museum is “highly enthusiastic” about the new museum building and do not share the artists’ newly raised concerns. There was, Røsland predicted, little chance they will prevail at this point.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund