Art critics and artists themselves are questioning why the Art Museums of Bergen (KODE) decided to mount an exhibition of Queen Sonja’s art in the soon-to-reopen KODE 1, formerly known as Permanenten. It’s the museum building used for handicraft and design, and will reopen after an extensive refurbishment on May 23.
“Why should the queen be able to hold an exhibition and not artists from Bergen and Vestlandet?” asked Heidi Jæger, manager of Kunstgarasjen, a gallery for contemporary art in Bergen. Jæger told local newspaper Bergens Tidende that “when a landmark building like KODE 1 reopens, they should have chosen one of our best artists. Queen Sonja isn’t among them.”
Jæger is among those criticizing KODE’s management’s decision to mount the queen’s exhibition called Underveis (Underway). It’s aimed at portraying the meaning of art in people’s lives, especially Queen Sonja’s own life. The museum’s own website also notes that it will be an “artistic marking” of the queen’s own upcoming 80th birthday.
The exhibit will consist of her own works within graphics and ceramics, plus a selection of her private collection of handicrafts. It’s being mounted as a cooperative effort between KODE and the Royal Palace in Oslo.
That doesn’t satisfy critics like Jæger and artist Rita Marhaug. “It’s a strange decision and a strange professional evaluation,” Marhaug told Bergens Tidende. “Why should the opening be given to the Palace? There are so many clever artists in the world, in the Bergen area and in Western Norway. KODE 1 is a regional museum, and then another choice should have been made. The museum should promote our best and most important artists.”
Erlend Høyersten, former director of KODE in Bergen who now leads the Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark, was also provoked by the queen’s exhibit. “What’s problematic is the reason for choosing Queen Sonja when you’re first reopening a landmark building,” Høyersten told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “There’s a big difference between creating a magnet for the public and creating an intelligent blockbuster.” He called the queen’s art “low-hanging fruit,” aimed more at attracting visitors than featuring high-quality art.
Art critic Lars Elton, who writes for newspaper Dagsavisen, wasn’t quite as tough on the queen, calling her a “competent artist,” but he told NRK that “there are many artists who better deserved an exhibition than her.”
Karin Hindsbo, the outgoing and popular director of KODE who will take over as head of the National Museum in Oslo in June, was among those deciding to exhibit Queen Sonja’s art, and said it was “completely natural” to allow the queen to show her art in Bergen.
“The queen is celebrating her 80th birthday this year and has contributed to visual art in Norway for decades,” Hindsbo told NRK. “We think there was great potential in showing the works of someone so well-known and so dear, who has had her own artistic production.”
Hindsbo further noted that Queen Sonja has had direct ties to KODE’s collections over the years, including the opening of Sølvskatten in 2009 and the exhibition at KODE of treasures from the Palace (Slottsskatter) in 2012.
Queen Sonja has also worked closely with artist Magne Furuholmen, a member of the Norwegian band a-ha, who also now leads the board of the annual Bergen International Festival (Festspillene i Bergen), which opens the day after KODE 1 opens. It was unclear whether he’d had any involvement in the decision to exhibit the queen’s art. Both King Harald and Queen Sonja usually attend the Festspillene opening, and they were scheduled to do so this year as well, on May 24.
The Royal Palace, meanwhile, issued a statement reading that “The Queen was honoured to be asked” to exhibit at KODE 1, which was the first permanent art museum building in Bergen, opening in 1896.