Few were surprised when Tone Hansen was chosen earlier this month to be the new director of Oslo’s still-new Munch Museum (MUNCH). She’s been a highly respected and central figure in Norwegian cultural circles for years, and now she’s walking right into new challenges and no small amount of internal unrest among MUNCH staff.
“That doesn’t scare me,” Hansen, a former leader of Norway’s state cultural council Kulturrådet, told newspaper Aftenposten right after her appointment by the Oslo city government that inherited Edvard Munch’s vast collection of his own art. The city also is responsible for the new high-rise museum that was finally built to house it all, and which has had more than 700,000 visitors since it opened last October
One might think that museum staff and curators would still be thrilled at the huge investment made in their workplace, all the publicity it’s generated and the huge improvement in their facilities and sheer work- and exhibit space. Most are, but some recent decisions by outgoing MUNCH director Stein Olav Henrichsen have sparked concerns. Some complain he’s been too commercially oriented, cultivating too much sponsorship and, most recently, a major reorganization right before his departure.
The reorganization has upset various labour organizations representing employees, who worry that professional artistic compentence is being marginalized. Around 90 of MUNCH’s 230 employees sent so far as to send a formal report of concern to city leaders that curators haven’t been included in the museum’s new program committee, formed to develop the museum’s artistic profile. It remain unclear how curators and other professionals will be represented within management.
Henrichsen has defended the reorganization, claiming it’s necessary for “new times” and noting that the committee’s leader has long experience as a curator himself. Henrichsen blames the unrest on misunderstandings and told Aftenposten earlier this month that he’s determined “to deliver a good organization and a good program to the new director” when his second and final term as director expires at the end of September. He also denies it’s a major reorganization at all, instead saying it only makes “adjustments” in current leadership.
Hansen didn’t want to comment on the unrest, stressing that she won’t take over until this autumn. She noted, however, that there’s always a certain amount of friction in such a large organization. Omar Samy Gamal, the city politician in charge of cultural issues, said he and his colleagues “will undertake a thorough evaluation of the situation, in good dialogue with the museum.”
Hansen, meanwhile, faced a warm welcome from the city and museum leaders. “With Tone Hansen we’re getting a visionary leader with a strong sense of social engagement and a solid artistic background,” city government leader Raymond Johansen when announcing her appointment. He noted that she has broad insight and a wide network of international contacts as well, while Hansen herself called her new positoin “a dream job.”
She’s spent the past 11 years as leader of the Henie Onstad Art Center just west of Oslo, which was founded by ice skating star Sonja Henie and her husband Niels Onstad in the 1960s. Hansen, age 52, has won acclaim for reviving the center during her tenure: “She developed Henie Onstad in a very good manner through a blend of making it more public-friendly, thinking commercially and empasizing special exhibits,” said Petter Snare, director of the large KODE art museums in Bergen. He was also a candidate for the MUNCH job but told Aftenposten Hansen was a fine choice.
She’s also well-known among the public, especially after leading the culture council from 2015 to 2019. She has a solid track record of carrying out major projects and offering, while at Henie Onstad, a careful mix of popular artists like Nikolai Astrup and Jakob Weidemann but also exhibits that are important in principle, like one on the AIDS epidemic. She’s also well-liked, has “established a staff of competent employees and shown her confidence in them,” Snare said. “I’m certain she’ll do a good job in her new position.”
Hansen herself said she values “diversity and equality” most as a manager. She wants museums to be places where everyone feels welcome, and that people will want to visit again and again “and bring friends.” She thinks Oslo itself is well on its way to being the Nordic region’s “most exciting city of art and culture.”
Hansen, who lives in Oslo’s Skillebekk district, was born in the northern city of Kirkenes and spent her childhood in Harstad and Trøndelag. She was educated as an artist herself from Norway’s state art academy, after a teacher steered her away from engineering or architecture because of her drawing skills and eye for form and colour.
She told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that she thought actually being an artist would be “too lonesome” for her, though, and discovered she had a talent for making other artists good instead. That launched a different sort of career within art and culture.
She said she’s always “had a relationship with Munch,” back to teenage days because of “all the great feelings in his art,” like romance, jealousy, drama and melancholy. “He’s still one of the best painters the world has seen, and it’s fantastic what he managed to do, how his art is still so relevant,” Hansen said. She’ll formally begin her new job of sharing Munch with the public on October 1.