City halts cuts at Munch Museum

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Drama and unrest at Oslo’s Munch Museum continued on Wednesday after city officials ultimately in charge of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s legacy halted looming staff cuts and demanded more budget accountability from the museum’s management. Museum Director Stein Olav Henrichsen is the target of criticism over his leadership and an alleged lack of budget discipline.

Munch Museum Director Stein Olav Henrichsen is under pressure, after the highly paid management team he put in place ended up with a large budget overrun. The city is now stepping in and ordered a halt to staff cuts. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Munch Museum Director Stein Olav Henrichsen is under pressure, after the highly paid management team he put in place ended up with a large budget overrun. The city is now stepping in and ordered a halt to staff cuts. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Newspaper Aftenposten reported that the very city politicians who are demanding a balanced budget at the museum are now questioning how Henrichsen has reorganized museum management since he took over two years ago.

Museum employees, faced with staff cuts that can reduce their own ranks by more than 20 percent, complained earlier this week that highly-paid management ranks had grown and seemed immune to the need to cut costs. Not only has management had responsibility for the museum’s budget, and an overrun that’s causing the latest trouble, they weren’t subject to the cuts that the rest of the staff faced.

Now, reports Aftenposten, the city government leader in charge of cultural affairs, Hallstein Bjercke from the Liberal Party, is demanding accountability from Henrichsen after all. Staff may also have won a reprieve.

City officials are reacting (“finally,” according to opposition politicians) to fears that the museum’s relatively new management has made mistakes in the cost-cutting process and hasn’t run things in line with city guidelines. “We’re signaling a need for much closer monitoring,” Bjercke told Aftenposten. “We want to follow the economic development closely, and have asked for all documentation around the museum’s reorganization.”

That includes Henrichsen’s decision to expand management ranks shortly after he was hired, a move which staffers say installed a new layer of highly paid managers between themselves and Henrichsen. He reportedly paid an executive search firm as much as NOK 300,000 (nearly a full-year’s pay for some public sector workers) to find the new managers, resulting in his hiring of three new directors to handle communications, economy and personnel, and sponsorships – all of them at salaries of around NOK 1 million (USDn 180,000) a year. Henrichsen himself has a salary of around NOK 1.2 million, more than what’s paid to the leader of the city’s entire cultural division.

Budget oversights
The high salaries of those in what staffers derisively call millionklubben (the million club) were not budgeted, according to Aftenposten, contributing to the overrun that prompted Henrichsen to announce staff cuts last week at a time when the museum is supposed to be celebrating Munch’s 150th birthday. The museum management’s budget also reportedly forgot to include overtime pay for staff working evening and weekend shifts, annual pay raises or higher pension costs. Management also expected more paying visitors and more sponsor income than what materialized. Since visitor numbers failed to meet management’s budgeted expectations, sales in the museum shop also were less than budgeted.

Henrichsen attempted to downplay the disciplinary action by city officials, claiming it was not dramatic. He said his new management team was hired in connection with plans to move into a new museum, a controversial project that hasn’t materialized. He argues the reorganization was also in line with the city’s decision to merge the Munch and Stenersen museums: “This isn’t about adding a new layer of management, it’s about supplementing an existing organization.”

He wouldn’t comment on what his new fellow managers cost or whether they’ll be shielded from cuts needed. He linked the budget overrun of NOK 5.7 million last year to a “lack of success” in cutting costs.

New momentum for a new museum
Opposition politicians are already spouting criticism but said it was too early to determine whether Henrichsen should be fired. The pressure on him comes, ironically enough, just days after some new indications of political momentum on the issue of constructing a new Munch Museum. Politicians at the state level, also within the Progress Party that blocked plans at the city level for a new museum at Bjørvika, now want to get a new museum built. The Progress Party’s spokesman for cultural affairs at the state level is promoting a three-way split of funding for the museum, from state, city and private interests, with a separate foundation running it.

“It’s not good for the Munch Museum to be a department within the city of Oslo,” Ib Thomsen of the Progress Party told Aftenposten. He said the party would also support construction of a new museum at Bjørvika after all, as long as financing was shared and a foundation in charge.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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