A leading Norwegian art critic attacked the new head of Norway’s National Museum last week, claiming Karin Hindsbo “lacked competence” within both the art profession and management. Hindsbo had decided against buying a piece of art that critic Lars Elton deemed to be of great national importance, but now it will remain in Norway after all in a deal Elton called a “happy compromise.”
Controversy raged after Elton lambasted Hindsbo in newspaper Dagsavisen. Hindsbo, who took over as director of the National Museum just last year, is originally from Denmark. Elton claimed he wasn’t opposed to “foreigners” getting jobs as museum directors in principle, but he didn’t think she was chosen from the top shelf: “In Karin Hindsbo’s homeland Denmark, hardly anyone has heard of her. She’s hardly published any professional texts.”
He then claimed that she, along with some of her foreign predecessors, does not possess “broad knowledge of Norwegian art.”In Elton’s opinion, Hindsbo proved that by refusing to buy what he considers to be “one of Norwegian history’s most important” works of art: Gjerdeløa by Marianne Heske. It’s basically a 400-year-old timber hut, once used to store hay, that Heske dismantled from its original location at Tafjord in the mountains of Sunnmøre. Heske turned it into a piece of art in 1980 and it went on display at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Elton believes Gjerdeløa is on par with Edvard Munch’s Scream and Tidemand and Gude’s iconic landscape painting Bridal Procession in Hardanger, because of how it relates Norwegian history and “the esthetics that shape us.” Heske offered to sell Gjerdeløa to the National Museum for NOK 2 million (USD 240,000) long before Hindsbo took over as director. Museum leaders sat on the proverbial fence for five years before Hindsbo’s administration turned down the offer in June, after the museum had bought 30 photos that documented Heske’s Gjerdeløa project instead.
Elton nonetheless seemed to blame Hindsbo alone for allowing Gjerdeløa “to disappear out of the country” (it was due to go on loan to, ironically enough, the museum in Aarhus, Denmark where Hindsbo lived before heading for Norway). “When the artist (Heske) asked for a professional reason for the rejection of her art, she was met with an arrogant answer from director Karin Hindsbo,” Elton wrote last week.
Hindsbo was clearly outraged by Elton’s column in Dagsavisen, calling it “a personal attack” and responding with her own fiery column published on her Facebook page. “How much should you tolerate?” she queried, adding that “my education, my merits, my leadership style and my Danish background have been the subject of Elton’s criticism, without it being explained in detail or professionally. I’m aware that you’re supposed to tolerate a lot as a leader, but I also think I’m obliged to respond when the line is crossed.”
She elicited more criticism for transferring the debate to her own social media page. On Saturday, she responded to that with a lengthy column in Dagsavisen itself, in which she claimed that the National Museum had invested a lot in Heske for years. After defending herself and suggesting that Elton seemed out to get her, she went on to detail the museum’s work with Heske and the museum’s rationale for other art it has purchased recently, from Sami art to paintings by Norwegian women in the 1800s, “always weighed up against the museum’s collection as a whole.”
On Monday came news that wealthy Norwegian art collector Nicolai Tangen had bought Heske’s Gjerdeløa and that it will be exhibited in Sørlandets Kunstmuseum in Kristiansand, which is due to eventually move into new quarters in a remodeled silo building next door to Kristiansand’s Kulturhus. That means Heske’s art will remain in Norway and not be shipped off to Denmark after all.
Belittling Kristiansand, too
Elton, after several days of refusing to comment on his column that incensed Hindsbo, then wrote another column in Dagsavisen, milder in tone and conceding that Hindsbo had shown “an open attitude” since his first column appeared, while “admitting” that the National Museum mostly buys art after an artist is well-established. Elton also conceded that a “legitimate question” had been raised when some readers wondered why Gjerdeløa wasn’t just placed at the outdoor Norwegian Folkemuseum instead, along with many other old buildings. The entire debate, he wrote, raised “the eternal question of ‘what is art?”
He’s glad Heske is being paid for her work, insisting that NOK 2 million is not too high considering all the time and effort Heske put into it, and that it will stay in Norway. He couldn’t resist adding, though, that he thinks it’s “sad” that such an “important” work of art “will be placed in a medium-sized Norwegian city (Kristiansand). It should have been part of the permanent collection of the National Museum in the country’s capital.” He may not have the last word on that.