The sprawling art museum founded and funded by Norway’s ice skating queen Sonja Henie and her husband Niels Onstad featured their own private art collection of 239 pieces when it opened in August 1968. Now it boasts more than 4,000 works, and will be marking “50 years of living art” until next August.
Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja weren’t the only ones celebrating their 5oth anniversary this week. The Henie Onstad Kunstsenter at Høvikodden, just west of Oslo, opened a week before the royal wedding in 1968, an event attended by the then-Crown Prince Harald and Miss Sonja Haraldsen. While the royals’ official 50th anniversary events will mostly end on Monday, with a free concert at the Oscarshall in Oslo, the celebration at Henie Onstad will go on for the next year.
With good reason, according to Norwegian art critics and commentators this week. Lars Elton, writing in newspaper Dagsavisen, called Henie Onstad “one of our absolutely most vital art institutions.” Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad wanted to create a home for their private collection when they first decided to build their kunstsenter (art center) in 1961. That involved also donating the hyper-modern building at the time designed by architects Jon Eikvar and Svein-Erik Engebretsen) and, not least, money to fund what Elton calls “an offensive and active operation.”
It hasn’t always been easy, and Dagsavisen recently reported that those operations ended up NOK 12 million in the red last year, after its main exhibition by artist Carsten Höller flopped. It had also been expensive to mount, featuring large art installations that visitors could enter via a large slide, rotating beds where visitors could spend the night and a water tank where they could float.
“Höller is one of the most well-known artists in international contemporary art,” an admittedly “uncomfortable” Henie Onstad director Tone Hansen told Dagsavisen. “We had expected that the public would embrace the exhibition to another degree than they did.” Visitor numbers plummeted, from the 178,419 who visited the prior year’s main exhibit featuring Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, to just 56,795 in 2017. Ticket revenues fell by NOK 9.3 million.
“But we have liquidity, so we’re managing,” Hansen said. This summer’s exhibition featuring works by the late Norwegian artist Jakob Weidemann has done well “and we expect a small profit this year,” said Hansen, who also serves as leader of Norway’s national cultural council (Norsk kulturråd) that distributes public funding for art projects. Hansen hopes Henie Onstad’s loss last year won’t weaken public confidence in her as one of Norway’s foremost players in the art world. “We informed the board and our large sponsors about the financial results along the way, and have had dialogue with the both the city and county,” she said.
Henie Onstad’s actual 50th anniversary celebration on August 23 was in itself modest, given the financial situation, but the new exhibit over Henie Onstad’s first 50 years is comprehensive, presenting around 200 works from the museum’s own collection. Artists on display include Picasso, Matisse, Bergman, Miró and Vieira da Silva. Kusama is back with Hymn of Life in a large room created by what Henie Onstad calls “the polka-dot queen.”
The anniversary exhibit is called “Turn and Face the Strange — 50 years of living art,” and it runs until August next year. Weidemann’s exhibit continues until October 14.