After nearly 10 years, more than NOK 300 million worth of private investment and noisy debate, Oslo’s newest attraction was officially due to open on Thursday. The sculpture park known as “Ekebergparken,” covering 63 acres within and atop a forested hill east of downtown, is already being described as a landmark on nearly the same scale as the city’s famed Vigeland Park at Frogner.
The sculptures at Ekebergparken (The Ekeberg Park) are much fewer and farther between than those in the park laid out by Gustav Vigeland that became one of Oslo’s top tourist attractions. And the area offers much more than the 31 sculptures highlighted on its trail map. It has, claim several commentators and local residents, rehabilitated an area of eastern Oslo that was initially bought by the city in 1889 to preserve open space, but which the city had sorely neglected over the years.
It’s been a hub of activity this past week, as work crews continued to paint railings along some steep refurbished trails, lay down grass, mount the last of the sculptures, repave driveways and smooth out newly expanded walking paths. The park was due to be inaugurated late Thursday afternoon in a ceremony attended by, among others, Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang and the man who launched and financed the entire project, art lover and real estate magnate Christian Ringnes.
Ringnes had to endure a barrage of skeptics and critics in a country not accustomed to philanthropy. Norwegian society is mostly based on egalitarian system financed by taxes, not private donations. Large gifts or sums of money given by wealthy benefactors are more often looked upon with suspicion instead of gratitude, and Ringnes was suspected of having all kinds of ulterior motives. He claims his only motive was to “give back” some of the wealth he’s accumulated in the real estate business to the city where he grew up.
The opposition to his idea that the forests of Ekeberg could be made more attractive by tending to them and adding art and some infrastructure was even stronger than Ringnes could have imagined. “I knew there would be protests, but not so strong or so many,” Ringnes recently told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). He’s been accused of trying to commercially exploit a public area, and city officials were accused of corruption after granting him rights to develop the area at his own expense. There were organized demonstrations, lots of tree-hugging and police actions, and 22 professors even published an appeal in newspaper VG calling on the state government to stop the city-sanctioned project.
The protests have since died down (there was great debate when the Vigeland Park was first established, too) and suddenly the mood has changed in local media. Newspaper Aftenposten called the park “fantastic” this week and “a Vigeland park for our time.” Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that the park turned into something entirely different than expected, and noted how curious folks strolling through on their own sneak previews during the past week were highly positive. Fears the park would be a gaudy example of Ringnes’ fascination with women appear unfounded, with the scope of the sculptures broad and varied.
“We were walking here one day and we saw Christian Ringnes,” one woman living near the park told Dagsavisen. “I just had to go over to him and thank him for the park.”
Ringnes, age 59, may be feeling vindicated now, but claims he took all the criticism and concerns seriously and thinks it all “made the park better.” Erling Dokk Holm, an assistant professor at a marketing college in Oslo (Markedshøyskolen i Oslo) agrees. “I think he learned a lot during the process, and many ideas were changed along the way,” Holm told DN. “All the opposition sharpened the project.”
Ringnes even arranged for a collage of newspaper and magazine stories detailing the long process and criticism to be used as wallpaper in a park restroom. Instead of ducking the criticism, Ringnes met it head on.
Ringnes has also set up a foundation, the C Lundes Ringnes Stiftelse, to handle and pay for maintenance of the park for the next 50 years. “My feeling is that if you give away fountains or sculptures, you should also follow up with funding and a plan for how it should be operated,” Ringnes told DN, adding that he thinks the City of Oslo has been a “very constructive supporter” and “led the process in a democratic manner.”
It remains unclear whether Ringnes will be able to follow through on another idea he’s had, to build an aerial gondola from the waterfront area around the Opera House up to Ekeberg. And some critics, while admitting the park has brought improvements to the Ekeberg area, don’t like another plan for mounting surveillance cameras in the trees to help protect the statues. With artists and sculptors like Rodin, Renoir, Salvador Dali, Louise Bourgeois and Per Ung among those represented in the park, theft and vandalism remains a risk.
For more photos from the park, click here.
Meanwhile, the park is likely to be a popular new destination for strollers and art lovers, and special events will probably draw crowds, like next month when performance artist Marina Abramovic will unveil her contribution – a video installation based on 270 Oslo residents screaming into the camera at the spot on Ekeberg where artist Edvard Munch was inspired to paint his famed Skriket (The Scream). Ekebergparken will also be open 24 hours day, just like the Vigeland Park in town.