Munch Museum’s fate back in doubt

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New questions are flying around Oslo’s major investment in a new museum to house the art of its most famous artist, Edvard Munch. Some politicians are still trying to block the project, making others wonder whether a new Munch Museum on the city’s eastern waterfront will actually be built.

The costs of the new Munch Museum planned for Oslo's eastern waterfront have jumped again, with the budget now set at NOK 2.1 billion. At far left, the eastern wing of the Opera House. ILLUSTRATION: MIR/Herreros Arquitectos

The costs of this design for a new Munch Museum planned for Oslo’s eastern waterfront are once again generating political uncertainty over whether it will ever be built. At far left, the eastern wing of the Opera House. ILLUSTRATION: MIR/Herreros Arquitectos

The existing Munch Museum, criticized for years as being too small and outdated, has registered another strong year of popular exhibits and high attendance. Its ongoing series of exhibits pairing Munch’s work with that of other artists, from Van Gogh last year to the current match with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, has been well-received. More than 254,000 people visited the Munch Museum last year and the museum has attracted new sponsors, among them retailing tycoon Stein Erik Hagen, whose support and willingness to lend the museum works from his own collection helped mount such exhibits as the current one involving Mapplethorpe.

Momentum, meanwhile, is building among those who think the museum should remain and be expanded at its Tøyen location on Oslo’s east side. Nor has the conservative Progress Party given up its effort to instead move Munch’s art to the historic downtown building that currently serves as Norway’s National Gallery. The Progress Party has long argued that the new high-rise Munch Museum planned for Bjørvika on the eastern waterfront next to the Opera House is far too expensive. The National Gallery’s building will become available in a few years when its contents are moved to the new National Museum under construction on Oslo’s western waterfront.

Arguing and waffling
City politicians have argued about a site for a new Munch Museum for more than a decade, but construction of the long-anticipated Bjørvika project finally seemed assured two years ago when a majority voted in favour of it in 2013. Site preparation began last year and Oslo’s new city government elected last fall also agreed to “work towards realizing a new Munch Museum.”

The new government didn’t specify exactly where that museum would be, though, and last week, activists keen on blocking the Bjørvika project demanded that its total costs (both for construction and operation) be re-evaluated. The Greens Party, which earlier has voted against the Bjørvika project, declared over the weekend that it also wants a cost re-evaluation, and it now shares city government power along with Labour and the Socialist Left (SV).

The cost concerns rise from fears that the museum’s current construction price of around NOK 2.7 million isn’t the only cost factor that’s much higher than initially predicted. Annual operating costs are now estimated at NOK 344 million a year, at least triple those of the existing museum, and at a time when Norway’s economy is slumping along with oil prices.

‘Standing firm’ despite re-evaluation
Labour’s top politician in charge of cultural issues, Rina Mariann Hansen, has so far rejected every proposal to drop the Bjørvika project known as Lambda. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Monday, however, that Labour’s other new city government partner, SV, was also willing to re-examine and re-evaluate the project’s costs, and it has a dubious record of shifting its position. Oslo’s new mayor from SV, Marianne Borgen, claimed she stood by the agreement to build the Munch Museum in Bjørvika and it was Borgen who secured the majority in favour of the Bjørvika site in 2013.

“I stand firm on the agreement I entered into, to build a new Munch Museum at Bjørvika and offer (other) support to Tøyen,” Borgen insisted to Aftenposten on Monday. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have another look at the economics, and get an overview over the costs.”

‘Unfortunate’
City politicians from the Conservatives, now in opposition, are worried, calling it “unfortunate” that yet another cost evaluation has gained support. “The last thing we need is for the future of the world’s greatest art collection to be sent out on a new aimless quest,” Eirik Lae Solberg of the Conservatives told Aftenposten. “The city government’s leader should quickly remove all uncertainty and confirm that it backs a new Munch Museum at Bjørvika.”

The city government leader’s partner, the Greens, has not only has called for the cost re-evaluation but told newspaper Dagsavisen that if Tøyen emerges as a cheaper alternative for a rebuilt and expanded museum, that would be a better option. On Tuesday, Aftenposten reported that scrapping the Bjørvika project would cost the city NOK 1.5 billion regardless: After last year’s site preparation, construction is underway. Around NOK 525 million has already been invested in the project and contract obligations amount to another NOK 985 million. Harald Nissen of the Greens said those costs would be part of his party’s evaluation.

Stein Olav Henrichsen, director of the existing Munch Museum and long in favour of the new Bjørvika project, has earlier expressed confidence the museum will indeed be built at Bjørvika. Aftenposten reported on Tuesday that he declined to respond to the new questions now swirling.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund