Wealthy investor and businessman Stein Erik Hagen wants to share his vast private art collection with the public, and the state wants access to it. That’s about all they agree on, though. Hagen finally met with the government minister in charge of culture this week, after a summer of high-stakes drama that involves the future of the National Gallery.
“We want to cooperate but will get back to how that shall be organized,” Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland told reporters after meeting Hagen in her offices on Tuesday.
“I’m glad we could have this meeting and we had a good conversation,” Helleland stated. “Cooperation between private collectors and public museums ia enriching, and Stein Erik Hagen has been generous in that regard.”
The drama, however, began after Hagen confirmed earlier this year that he had entered into an agreement with the National Museum to display his art. The museum currently has a new building under construction on Oslo’s western waterfront that’s meant to combine the contents of the National Gallery, the Museum of Applied Arts (Kunstindustrimuseet) and the National Museum of Architecture. The new museum is due to open in 2020.
Audun Eckhoff, director of the National Museum, told newspaper Aftenposten in April that the agreement with Hagen was of “great significance.” Hagen, whose art collection is valued at around NOK 1 billion and ranks as the country’s largest in private ownership, would make his art available to the museum and it would form an important part of the new National Museum at Vestbanen in Oslo. Parts of Hagen’s collection, which include works by such Norwegian artists as Edvard Munch and Frits Thaulow, would also go on display as soon as next year at the existing and historic National Gallery downtown.
Concerns soon arose, however, that not even the new and expanded National Museum would have room for all of Hagen’s art, referred to as the Canica Collection after the name of Hagen’s private family firm. Hagen, who has tackled a divorce, a bout with cancer and coming out as gay in recent years, has also engaged himself in the debate over the future of the popular National Gallery, which local politicians at both the city and state level have failed to settle.
The debate over the National Gallery picked up when several art experts complained in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that the National Museum routinely acquired art only to stow it away in storage rooms. Last year, reported DN, the museum’s purchasing committee bought 108 new works of art for NOK 6.9 million, but much of it is never shown.
In early July came news that Hagen was pulling out of his agreement with the National Museum after all. “Art needs room, it’s as simple as that,” Canica’s curator Steinar Gjessing told news bureau NTB. “We don’t want to give them (the National Museum) pictures that will stand in a storage locker.”
He and Hagen claimed they had assumed the National Museum would continue to use the National Gallery to also exhibit paintings, as a sort of “branch” of the new museum. When state proposals emerged earlier this summer to turn the National Gallery over to the University of Oslo, which has its historic law school buildings and cultural history museum nearby, Hagen apparently had second thoughts.
Accused of exerting influence
Eckhoff, the museum director, claimed he hadn’t heard anything about unhappiness on Hagen’s part and contended their agreement remained in force. Then Hagen himself claimed that he wanted assurances there would be sufficient space devoted to his art in the new museum. “I agree fully with my art adviser Steinar Gjessing,” Hagen told Aftenposten. “The best will be if the National Gallery continues to be an exhibition place for art.”
Hagen was then accused of holding his art hostage and exerting influence in order to keep the National Gallery open. In early August Hagen complained in DN that he and his art collection were being “misused” in a power struggle over the National Gallery. Suddenly he wanted to put the entire issue on ice until the Parliament decided what to do with the National Gallery.
He denied he was exerting political pressure to save the National Gallery as an art museum. He nonetheless hinted that he could instead loan out his art to other museums in Norway or even Denmark. “I want the collection to remain in Norway,” he told Aftenposten. This week he told DN that he does not want to build his own museum, like other Norwegian billionaires have done, but that it’s also out of the question to simply donate his art to the National Museum. It would be on loan.
Meeting made headlines
All this is why his meeting with the culture minister made headlines in Norway on Wednesday. Both of them were smiling when their meeting was over, although nothing was resolved. Newspaper Klassekampen reported that there now appears to be a majority in Parliament in favour of keeping the National Gallery open as an art museum. No decisions on Hagen’s collection would be made until Parliament votes on the Gallery issue sometime next year.
Helleland said it was “important for the government” to arrange for “good cooperation between the private and public sectors.” She said she was glad that Hagen stressed he wants to share his collection “in one form or another with the National Museum and other Norwegian museums, and I’m sure the Norwegian people will be able to enjoy the art in the years ahead.”