No Munch relief any time soon

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s now likely to take years before Oslo’s vast and priceless collection of Edvard Munch’s art will be placed in the new and larger accommodation it’s long needed. City politicians, who formally trashed on Wednesday an earlier-approved plan to build a new Munch Museum on the city’s waterfront, now need to agree on a new location, and that means more months, if not years, of studies and quarreling before construction even begins.

This design for a new Munch Museum (highrise at left), by Spanish architect Juan Herreros, won a major architectural competition but has now been formally rejected by city officials who initially approved it. ILLUSTRATION: MIR/Herreros Architectos

A bitter political conflict within Oslo’s City Council resulted in an unusual alliance between the conservative Progress Party and parties on the left side of Norwegian politics including Labour, the Socialist Left, the Reds and the environmentally oriented party MPDG. They formed a majority that voted to overturn the plan to build a new Munch Museum called Lambda on the waterfront at Bjørvika, next to the Opera House, mostly because they deemed it too expensive, too fancy or because they want to keep the museum in the working class district where it’s now located. On the losing side, ironically enough, were parties in the city government formed after last fall’s election, including the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. They liked the Lambda design and thought it would further enhance development at Bjørvika.

The conflict that led to Wednesday’s vote reflects public dissension as well, based on opinion polls that also show broad disagreement over where a new Munch Museum should be located. That may excuse or explain the political disagreement, but it indefinitely postpones badly needed construction of new facilities for the legacy Munch himself willed to the city. The politicians claim that studies of two alternative locations for a new Munch Museum will be ready by summer, but that seems unlikely when those charged with carrying out the studies already say they need much more guidance on what the politicians really want them to account for.

Two alternatives now
It’s also unclear whether the city officials responsible for the studies will use internal staff or external consultants when examining alternative Munch Museum plans. The alternatives now involve expansion or construction of a new museum where the existing museum is located at Tøyen on Oslo’s east side, or the historic building downtown that now houses Norway’s National Gallery.

A parallel plan for renovation and consolidation of other museums has called for the contents of the National Gallery to move to a new National Museum on the waterfront at Vika on Oslo’s west side. Since the National Museum project also faces objections in several quarters, though, now even from the state building agency Statsbygg, it’s unclear when the National Gallery would become available for conversion to a new Munch Museum.

In short, city officials are almost back to square-one, united only by the claim that they all recognize the need for better facilities to house Munch’s art. They just keep failing to take action, because of seemingly endless political squabbling.

The Munch Museum at Tøyen in Oslo, which has had problems with condensation, security and lack of capacity, is deemed inadequate and in need of replacement. PHOTO: Views and News

In the meantime, only a fraction of Munch’s valuable art is ever actually on public display at any given time, while all his paintings, drawings and lithographs that are kept in storage have been threatened by dampness and deterioration. Critics and Munch enthusiasts have long called the city’s management of Munch’s legacy a “scandal,” and it’s often been left to foreign benefactors to come forward with funding for repairs, conservation and support for exhibits, most recently E.ON Ruhrgas of Germany and, again, Idemitsu of Japan.

That should be embarrassing for the political leaders of the capital of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Instead, they all point the finger at others and defend themselves. The move to overturn the earlier decision to build a new Munch Museum at Bjørvika was engineered by Carl I Hagen of the Progress Party, whose party previously had gone along with the plan but changed its mind on the grounds it was too expensive and its design too controversial. Hagen even has asked whether the city couldn’t just sell some of Munch’s paintings (which regularly command sky-high prices) to help finance a new museum. That proposal was quickly put down as “impossible” because it would defy the terms of Munch’s will when he left his personal art collection to the city.

Munch died in 1944. It took nearly two decades for the city to build the Munch Museum at Tøyen, which was too small from the start. Maintenance and security at the museum were inadequate for years, resulting in the spectacular theft of two of Munch’s most famous paintings in 2004. The museum finally got a facelift and enhanced security after that, but its overall inadequacy remains.

Herreros not giving up
Meanwhile, Spanish architect Juan Herreros, who designed the Bjørvika plan that was accepted and then rejected by city officials, told reporters he’s not giving up. The city already has spent an estimated NOK 90 million on the plan that a majority of its politicians have now trashed. Herreros claims Munch’s art “desperately” needs a new museum and he’s confident his proposal will re-emerge as the best and most economical.

Herreros’ faith in his project may not be so far-fetched, given that some analysts suspect the Progress Party is holding Munch’s art hostage for future political gain after emerging as the big loser in last fall’s election and in its bid to retain an influential presence in the city government. There have been hints that its about-face on the Lambda design could be reversed again, since party officials have indicated they might support Lambda if private investors help pay for it. Given strong, last-minute support for Lambda from the private sector, that’s a possibility, so Hagen could offer support to the city government from his new spot in opposition, in return for other political favours.

Museum officials try to remain optimistic
Museum director Stein Olav Henrichsen, who also wanted Herreros’ Lambda design to be built,  has been forced to stand by and watch the political process that further delays a new museum. He’s trying to remain optimistic.

“It would have been much nicer if we could stick a spade in the ground and start building now,” Henrichsen told newspaper Aftenposten. “But we’re being brave.” Museum officials will provide advice for the new site studies and Henrichsen promises they’ll be objective and professional.

“We’re going into this with an open mind,” Henrichsen said. “Hopefully this will end with a greater majority in agreement.” He does fear more lengthy delays, though.

“We can’t guarantee that we can take care of Munch’s art (in the current facilities) much longer,” he added. More quarreling and more delays, Henrichsen said, “will be a catastrophe.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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