On Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the Value of Art and Populist Tendencies in Denmark

Line Ellegaard

Contexts / 20.01.2013

Etcétera..., Welfare of Exception, 2011, mixed media installation. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artists and Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Considering the ongoing cuts to the cultural sector across Europe, the situation in Denmark – where the largest exhibition space for contemporary art in Copenhagen, the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, has been left floundering – can hardly be said to be severe. In fact the previous Danish Minister of Culture, Uffe Elbæk, was proud to have been able to secure an additional 20 million kroner (£2.2 million) to the cultural sector for the next four years, and the Kunsthal has recently appointed the well-respected curator Jacob Fabricius as head.1 Still, the short-sightedness of recent ‘prioritisations’ to cultural funding, to use Elbæk’s term, calls for an investigation and rethinking of the criteria that are used to determine the value of both small and large arts organisations by public funding bodies.

If there is consensus within the Danish art scene about the value of international exhibitions and discourse, it is continually at odds with the government’s standard measurement of success, based on audience figures. A case in point is Kunsthal Charlottenborg, for which low visitor numbers ignited public outrage, culminating in an ill-considered merger with the Danish Academy of Fine Arts – housed in an adjoining building in the heart of Copenhagen – in September 2012. The recent controversy around the Kunsthal can be seen as an example of how such measures of value, weighed up against populist tendencies in cultural politics, not only hurt individual art institutions but also make visible a widening gap between the general public and an increasingly professionalised art world.

Sven-Åke Johansson, Concert for 12 Tractors, 1996/2011. Installation view, ‘Palace Party’, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 2011. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Formerly a state institution under the Ministry of Culture, Kunsthal Charlottenborg was until last year required to have 55,000 annual visitors. When the annual report from 2011 (made public in early 2012) showed only 23,000 visitors, the Kunsthal came, not surprisingly, under heavy critique in the Danish media. Simultaneously the unsustainable financial model under which the Kunsthal was operating resurfaced and placed the Kunsthal in the public eye as an institution ‘in crisis’.2 While the Kunsthal and the Culture Ministry agreed it was imperative that the visitor-figure requirements were reviewed, this did not alleviate the media outcry about the spending of public money in the service of so very few. It was shortly after this public debate in February 2012 that Elbæk announced a new direction for the institution in the form of a merger between Kunsthal Charlottenborg and the Royal Academy. Under the vague headline ‘More Young Art at Kunsthal Charlottenborg’ the Kunsthal was re-fashioned as an exhibition space that ‘targets a wider audience’.3 The idea of a merger was in fact initially proposed by Mark Sladen, then director of Charlottenborg, as a way to address the imbalance between the remit of the institution as an international kunsthalle and its strapped budget, and to strengthen the educational programme and research output through partnership with the Academy.4

After a few months of uncertainty and speculation about the direction of the Kunsthal ... the local art scene now rejoices as Fabricius has been appointed the new director of CharlottenborgHowever, instead of the three-year transitional period and additional funding suggested by Sladen, the merger was rushed through with a working group appointed to advise the Minister on the practical implementation of the merger by the 2012 summer holiday. In June the entire Charlottenborg board resigned from the working group in protest to what they deemed to be the merger’s unsustainable conditions. According to the Danish newspaper Politiken, the board feared that the Ministry’s refusal to provide neccessary funding would lead the Kunsthal into an economic and artistic impasse. Over the summer several arts organisations raised similar concerns but the Culture Ministry proceeded despite these warnings. Finally, prior to the merger taking effect on 1 September 2012, Sladen stepped down after a two-year tenure – in order to, as he said in a public statement, allow ‘fresh thinking and new approaches’ to accompany this new phase of the institution.5 After a few months of uncertainty and speculation about the direction that the Kunsthal would take under the responsibility of the Art Academy, the local art scene now rejoices as Fabricius has been appointed the new director of Charlottenborg. The Danish curator is leaving his position as director of Malmö Konsthall, where he has been since 2008, to take on the challenges facing the kunsthalle in Copenhagen. His move is particularly welcomed as Malmö Konsthall, with an international focus on art and around 200,000 annual visitors, has often figured as the successful model that Charlottenborg should strive to replicate.6 It is also promising that Fabricius, knowing the economic and audience-related challenges the institution faces, sees the ‘unexploited potential’ of the ideally located Kunsthal to become a central space for both local and international art.7

Simon Starling, The Expedition, 2011, wood and glass construction, puppets, stage set, lights, audio equipment and additional paraphernalia. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin

In analysing the drastic events surrounding Kunsthal Charlottenborg over the past year one also has to consider its recent turbulent history. The misguided decision-making started in 2005 when the conservative then-Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen initiated Charlottenborg’s transformation from an artists’ exhibition space to an ‘international kunsthalle’. Up until then Kunsthal Charlottenborg had been seen as an artists’ house under the direction of a professional artist, rather than an appointed curator, and went under the name of Charlottenborg Udstillingsbygning (Charlottenborg ‘Exhibition Building’). Abandoning the tradition of keeping the Kunsthal’s internal affairs at arm’s length, Mikkelsen appointed the first director of the Kunsthal and ousted the artists’ associations that had exhibited there for decades and whose exhibitions consistently brought in large audiences.8 Although admittedly at this point it was inevitable that their monopoly had to be revised to revitalise the institution, cutting ties to a local association of artists without giving them an alternative, in order to instead advance the prospect of cultural tourism on the back of international artists, alienated large segments of the Charlottenborg audience.

Thus since 2005 the Ministry of Culture has nurtured the dream of an international kunsthalle at Charlottenborg but without ever backing the endeavour with sufficient funds. The criteria laid out in the contract from the Ministry were to produce exhibitions and discourse at the leading edge internationally and to appeal to a larger audience locally. These two criteria are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but proved difficult to achieve – as the audience numbers from 2011 revealed. This might have something to do with the disapproving way contemporary art was spoken about under the centre right-wing coalition between the Liberal Party and the Conservative People’s Party in power in Denmark from 2001 to 2011. (Paradoxically the same politicians who had the ambition of creating an international kunsthalle also promulgated a populist and nationalist attitude to art and culture.)

The short-sightedness of recent “prioritisations” to cultural funding calls for an investigation and rethinking of the criteria that are used to determine the value of both small and large arts organisations by public funding bodies.In the so-called ‘culture war’ (‘kulturkampen’) initiated by then-Prime Minister of the Liberal Party (Venstre), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in 2001, Rasmussen constructed, in accord with his libertarian leanings, left-wing politics and cultural elites as oppressors and therefore as enemies of the general citizen’s freedom and sense of taste.9 The rhetorical battle also targeted feminist tendencies and leftist ideas and was largely successful in setting the terms of the agenda of public discussion. Adding to this demonisation of left-wing ideology, Pia Kjærsgaard, then leader of the right-wing Danish People’s Party, notorious for her populist and xenophobic politics, started her own battle against contemporary art and artists. Especially provoked by Piero Manzoni’s Merde d’Artiste (The Artist’s Shit, 1961), she pandered to the common assumption about the incomprehensibility of modern and contemporary art to suggest it as extraneous to core Danish values, and went on to portray artists receiving state funding as lazy and self-indulgent. These rhetorical manipulations seem to have successfully permeated the current centre-left coalition government, who up until now have appeared unable to, or at least uninterested in formulating arguments of their own for the value of culture, whilst afraid to vouch for experimental and challenging contemporary art in fear of being associated with cultural elitism. It is both worrying and peculiar, as the merger also suggests, that very little priority is given to art and culture by a government that otherwise prides itself on investment in innovation and creativity.

Alongside these politicians who short-sightedly appease populist alienation from the perceived ‘difficultness’ of contemporary art is a professionalised art world that deems it obvious that Copenhagen lacks an internationally oriented exhibition space for contemporary art.10 The majority of those concerned with contemporary art thus welcome Charlottenborg as an international kunsthalle and, like Sladen and Fabricius, see the potential of Charlottenborg to put Copenhagen on the map. Others believe the city would benefit better from a kunsthalle in a new purpose-built contemporary structure.11 The Kunsthal is still suffering from the lack of time afforded to rebuild audience connections and establish artistic and international bonds following the 2005 remit that disbanded the artists’ associations, and which could have otherwise made it a destination for local as well as international audiences.12 It is regrettable that the discussion prior to the merger did not consider the deferred value contributed by the creation of such bonds, or by the exhibition programme in general.

Nina Beier, Portrait Mode; The Demonstrators (Hanging Receiver), 2011, found garments, oak frame, plexiglass. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artist; Croy Nielsen, Berlin; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London; Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City; Standard, Oslo; and Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Sladen is the second director to leave Charlottenborg shortly after being hired since 2008. But whereas his predecessor, the Swedish curator Bo Nilsson (who was hired and fired by the previous Ministry of Culture), left a huge deficit without contributing much new, Sladen delivered an impressive programme against the odds. An exhibition of Simon Starling’s work, for instance, included the commissioning of a new work, The Expedition (2011), a puppet play that took inspiration from a local tradition of marionette theatre for children, and staged a small retrospective of Starling’s previous work involving the construction and deconstruction of boats. With many adults and children attending the weekly performances and the work now in the collection at the National Gallery of Denmark, the exhibition is a noteworthy example of how the programme has both generated artistic capital and involved a wider audience. Sladen also resisted the Danish art galleries' tendency to neglect Danish artists widely recognised internationally. He presented a major solo exhibition of Nina Beier’s works, her first in Scandinavia, and a survey exhibition of Joachim Koester’s works from 2005 to 2012, titled ‘If One Thing Moves, Everything Moves’, thus offering an unprecedented in-depth presentation of both artists’ work in a Danish context.

Dexter Bang Sinister, B/W sensorium, 2012, mixed media installation, detail. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg Breaking the pattern of organising large group exhibitions in the 1,500-square-metre gallery, Sladen and his team dynamically restructured the space to allow for several exhibition formats and activities to take place simultaneously. This included the establishment of a research programme, which again added vivacity to the building as invited artists, curators or researchers took up residence in the artist’s flat connected to the Kunsthal. The Buenos Aires-based collective Etcétera..., who stayed in the flat, investigated issues of hypocrisy pertaining to the Danish welfare system and presented these findings in their ‘immobile theatre piece’ Welfare of Exception (2011) made for the occasion. More recently, Dexter Bang Sinister, a collaboration between the collective Dexter Sinister, US writer Angie Keefer and Danish art historian Lars Bang Larsen, presented a ‘sensorium’ – an installation of psychedelic and experimental works – alongside a programme of research events on ‘black-and-white psychedelia’ over a nine-month period.13 Add to this the opening of a bookshop in the foyer, and an ongoing range of events such as film screenings, talks, concerts and performances. Although the attempt to reach various audiences by presenting a wide array of art forms and activities did not prove immediately successful, it revealed Charlottenborg’s potential to be a multifunctional space.

Despite the inherited economic shortfall, during the short period of Sladen’s tenure at Charlottenborg from 2010 until 2012, Copenhagen saw the creation of an international kunsthalle of the calibre dreamt of by the Culture Minister in 2005 and the establishment of an international dialogue that, over time, could have connected the city to the international art circuit in a myriad of ways. It will be interesting to see how Fabricius intends to tackle the new direction of the Kunsthal under the Art Academy and reconnect it with local and international audiences in the near future.

  1. ‘Finanslov 2013: Penge til Statens Museum for Kunst, Den Gamle By og Fregatten Jylland’, press release, Ministry of Culture, 8 November 2012, available at http://kum.dk/nyheder-og-presse/pressemeddelelser/2012/november/finanslov-2013-penge-til-statens-museum-for-kunst-den-gamle-by-og-fregatten-jylland/.

  2. In December 2011 the state granted Charlottenborg an extraordinary grant of 1.2 million kroner (approx. £130,000) to close the deficit of the annual accounts caused primarily by difficulties in securing funds for exhibition projects from private sponsors, and the scrawny budget for implementing an ambitious international programme, let alone to market it.

  3. ‘Mere Ung Kunst på Kunsthal Charlottenborg’, press release, Ministry of Culture, 8 March 2012, available at http://kum.dk/nyheder-og-presse/pressemeddelelser/2012/marts/mere-ung-kunst-pa-kunsthal-charlottenborg/.

  4. Apart from the daily running of the organisation the public funds left only half a million Danish kroner (£55,000) to realise exhibitions.

  5. ‘Press release from the Ministry of Culture regarding Mark Sladen’s resignation as Director of Kunsthal Charlottenborg’, 28 August, 2012, available at http://www.kunsthalcharlottenborg.dk/presse.

  6. Unlike Charlottenborg, admission is free at Malmö Konsthall which receives a significantly higher amount of public funding. For visitor numbers according to the Malmö Konsthall website, see http://www.konsthall.malmo.se/o.o.i.s/2755.

  7. ‘New director at Kunsthal Charlottenborg’, Kunsthal Charlottenborg website, available at http://www.kunsthalcharlottenborg.dk/page/view/192?lang=eng

  8. For example, according to an open letter to Culture Minister Brian Mikkelsen from various artists’ associations, the artists’ association Grønningen has exhibited at Charlottenborg since circa 1932, whereas the artists group PRO has exhibited since circa 1964. See ‘Open letter to Culture Minister Brian Mikkelsen from the artists’ associations Grønningen, Corner, Den Gyldne and PRO’, 19 January 2007, available at http://www.dengyldne.dk/besat_brev.html.

  9. Jan Maintz Hansen, ‘Kommentar: Det kunne Fogh som Helle ikke kan’, Ræson, 20 November 2011, available at http://raeson.dk/2011/kommentar-det-kunne-fogh-som-helle-ikke-kan/. On the ideology of Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his ‘culture war’, see also, Rune Lykkeberg, ‘Excerpt from ‘Kampen om Sandhederne’ 2008’, UKS-Forum, issue 1–2, 2009, available at http://uksforum.no/?p=66 and Mikkel Bolt Rasmusen, ‘On the Turn Towards Liberal State Racism in Denmark, e-flux journal, issue 22, 2011, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-the-turn-towards-liberal-state-racism-in-denmark/.

  10. Apart from Charlottenborg there are four other public exhibition spaces for contemporary art in the city each with a specific remit and focus providing a rich influx of international art. However none of them specifically work to place the city in an international circuit of contemporary art and discourse. At Overgaden Institute of Contemporary Art the exhibition programme is determined by applications submitted by artists and curators. Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art is an artists’ house and focuses on exhibitions produced, initiated or selected by artists. Kunstforeningen Gl Strand shows a mix of modern and contemporary art, and Nikolaj, Contemporary Art Center, housed in a former church, has an exhibition programme that focused on social, political and cultural issues. 

  11. On the initiative of Nicolai Wallner and Kristoffer Lindhardt Weiss plans for a new international kunsthalle in Copenhagen are underway, backed by the City of Copenhagen. For more information see the project website for Kunsthal Copenhagen, available at http://www.kunsthalkbh.dk.

  12. Sladen, in a longer article in Politiken, also raises the question of time, or rather the lack of time, given to develop the Kunsthal and to consult the conditions of the merger. See M. Sladen, ‘Kunsten I Danske hænder’, Politiken, 17 March 2012

  13. The result of these events will be published as bulletins on Dexter Sinister’s latest publishing platform, the Serving Library.