From Iceland — Change In the House of Arts

Change In the House of Arts

Published September 8, 2006

Change In the House of Arts

Last September, Hafþór Yngvason was appointed the director of the Reykjavík Art Museum. This September however, he is truly taking the reigns. During his first year on the job, Yngvason had been carrying out a schedule that had already been planned a year in advance by his predecessor. That schedule has run its course and Yngvason is now free to pursue one of his own. And he has some changes in mind.

“It is necessary for a big museum like this one to have a long term plan. But my predecessor was nice enough to plan only one year in advance, which gave me time to settle in. Some of my colleagues in other countries have had to wait up to three years to put their own schedule is in effect,” Yngvason says.
It is two days until the opening of the museum’s first major exhibition under his control. We are sitting in his office, located on the third floor of Hafnarhúsið, which from the year 2000 has served as one of three museums in the city that combine to make up the Reykjavík Art Museum. It is a large, grey, and squarish building by the harbour, formerly a warehouse for the Port of Reykjavík. It still looks very much like a warehouse.
“From the beginning, I had certain ideas on how I wanted to change the operation and I think now, with this show, people will start to experience what I have in mind for this museum,” he says, notably excited about the journey he is about to embark upon. He explains:
“We have two great buildings, Hafnarhúsið and Kjarvalsstaðir, [the third one, Ásmundarsafn, is dedicated to sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson] which have been run as one unit and the exhibition policy for Kjarvalsstaðir has really been deciding for both buildings. At first, this made sense, when this part of the museum had just been opened. But now, six years later, there is an opportunity to review and change this. I intend to divide the operation. The idea is that Hafnarhúsið will be a Museum of the Contemporary Arts, where we will explore the cutting edge and dive right into what is happening now.”

A Philosopher Gone Astray
Yngvason speaks Icelandic with a slight hesitation, probably resulting from spending the last 23 years living and working in the United States. For the last ten years he has served as the director of public art at the Cambridge Arts Council. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Iceland, he went to the USA to pursue further studies in the field with the idea to finish a doctorate in philosophy and go into teaching.
During his studies Yngvason came under the tutelage of one of the world’s leading philosophers and aestheticians, Stanley Cavell, at Harvard University. “He greatly influenced my thought. His writings on the relations between music and philosophy were where my interest in the arts and philosophy was combined. This eventually lead me to shift my focus from philosophy to art history, although I always intended to return to philosophy,” he says.
Having spent over two decades living in the United States, Yngvason returned to Iceland last year to find a country, and city, drastically different from the ones he had left. “I came here for one month in 2002, and I realised how much Icelandic society had changed. When I left in 1982, Iceland was not a very interesting place. It was an island where people were very narrow minded. Communications with the outside world were very complex during the cold war and people had very strange ideas about the world, both the western block and the eastern block, which sort of hampered any normal way of thinking. I did not want to come back to the society I left. What has happened is that Reykjavík changed into a metropolitan city. When I came back, the only cultural shock for me was how few of us there are. If I could change one thing, I would want about 9 more million people here. After living here for a whole year, I really don’t miss anything else.”
The fact that Yngvason has not been a fixture in the Icelandic arts world for over two decades has left him free from the internal politics and the petty bickering of that whole scene. He says he has made an effort to keep it that way. But his long absence has also given him an opportunity to rediscover Icelandic art.
“I left when I was 25 years old, and when I returned 23 years later, there was a whole new generation of artists who were now 25 years old. A new group of artists who were done with their education, had come up through the grassroots, had been exhibiting in alternative spaces and were now coming forward as fully developed artists. For me, this realisation was like discovering a treasure.”
He maintains that the grassroots in Iceland is very energetic and that young Icelandic artists are willing to take more risks than their American counterparts. “People are more enthusiastic and feel more secure to experiment here than they do in America. Reykjavík is different from cities like Boston, where artist tend to be more cautious” He says the explanation is partly the size of the Icelandic market and the relatively few sales galleries. This gives Icelandic artists the opportunity to experiment without thinking about whether someone will buy their art. “The thought of selling their art does not really affect them. They have the freedom to create without being influenced by the market and are therefore able to take more chances and experiment more freely. Of course it would be good to have a stronger market that could support more professional artists. But, on the other hand, the size of the market strongly affects the attitude of Icelandic artists as well.”

The Need For Culture
Running an ambitious program for an art museum is an expensive endeavour. Once the subject of the Icelandic arts market has been broached, it is natural to inquire about the museum’s finances. Yngvason admits that financing the operation is a constant struggle.
“The city of Reykjavík does a tremendous job in supporting the museum. I don’t know of another city of a similar size that maintains such an ambitious cultural program, and I am not just referring to the museum.” But securing funds from the private sector is more difficult. “All private funding in Iceland is more or less in the form of joint projects with the marketing division of different companies. This is of course also done in the U.S. The difference is that here, all funding is done this way, while in the U.S., capitalism is older and perhaps not as greedy. In the U.S. there is a certain understanding of what culture brings to society. This has been studied, quantified and calculated, and people know what an energetic cultural life is worth for the cities. If a city is to be able to compete as a new location for a large company, it needs to have museums, concert halls, theatres and film festivals. It needs to have everything that modern cities have that attracts the people that work for the company.”
The relationship between a rich cultural environment and a booming economic environment has been carefully documented. Yngvason considers it essential that official parties come into play to boost the culture. “In the U.S. the government has set up a framework where they do not actually contribute money, but give companies tax exemptions from their contributions to culture. We need to create that sort of environment for the arts here in Iceland. This would not cost the city or the government much, but as long as there is no carrot at the end of the stick, companies will not be very supportive of the arts. If we want a more energetic city, we will have to create the right environment, instead of the city being responsible for directly supporting or subsidising the programs. This dimension of financing the museums is missing in Iceland. I think people generally understand this by now, but it has not become a part of the government’s economic management.”

Yngvason is optimistic for the future. He claims Icelanders are receptive to art and enjoy visiting museums, although their taste is varied. “I want to make these organisational changes so we can better meet people’s different tastes in arts. It would misconception to say that in Hafnarhúsið, there will only be younger artist, while Kjarvalsstaðir will only house older artists. Hafnarhúsið will be a more experimental or avant garde gallery for sure, but the division is more between the contemporary and the classical.”
His first exhibition is a clear reflection of the changes he has in mind. As curators he has chosen two young Icelandic artists, Daníel Karl Björnsson and Huginn Þór Arason, both in their early thirties. In some respect, this exhibition could be viewed as a very bold opening statement. “It is okay to be bold. Soon after I came I realised how much energy was in the young Icelandic artists. These people are not just coming in off the street; they have been working on their art, developing it, exhibiting in alternative spaces and have grown to fully mature artists. I thought it was vital to bring in artists from this sector who know what this generation is doing.” The idea was to bring in someone from the outside to act as a curator instead of handling the selection process in-house. “I am not even sure this could have been done in-house. We here at the museum are learning immensely from putting on this exhibition.”
Yngvason contacted Björnsson and Arason last September, soon after he was appointed director of the museum. He gave them a year to put together an exhibition that would showcase what is happening in Icelandic art at the moment. “I explained to them that this is a museum, not an alternative space, and the exhibition would have to take that into account. They decided to approach this as if they were squatting the building. They do this very aggressively and take over the museum. I thought that was exciting. I came in here and wanted to change things up, and why not do that with the help of these young artist who are full of ideas and allow them to express them on their own premises.”

“[Yngvason] is definitely taking a chance on us,” Björnsson says about their involvement in the exhibition. “First of all, we are not professional curators, we are artists, but on the other hand, we have had a lot of experience working together, both in exhibiting and setting up exhibitions. But our involvement has mostly been as artists,” he continues.
The curators originally contacted nearly 30 artists who they wanted to work with. The group was later cut down to 11. The selection was based on proposals from the artists who were asked to demonstrate how they saw themselves fitting into the building and the exhibition. The works were then selected from what the curators felt would fit the overall image of the exhibition and create a flow through the building. From the beginning, the idea was that the exhibition would encircle the museum, rather than the other way around. “Because the museum is so big it demands big pieces. So we have sort of force-fed the artists the idea that they have to create something really big, otherwise it will be lost in the giant structure,” Arason says. They have also made a point of trying to involve everyone in the creative process of the production, from the museum’s staff, the designers to the artists selected for the showcase.
The exhibition’s name, The Apostles’ Clubhouse is drawn from regular rave nights that were an influential part of the Reykjavík nightlife in the early nineties. “The name actually has several layers,” Björnsson says. “All of the artists involved in the exhibition are born after the year 1968, and this is a reference to our coming of age in Reykjavík alongside those rave nights. Also, we are making a reference to the Hafnarhúsið being an old warehouse (a more accurate translation of the exhibition’s Icelandic name ‘Pakkhús Postulanna’ would be the Apostles’ Warehouse), and we are also making a reference to the artist as some kind of an apostle.”
They agree that the transition from smaller alternative spaces into the institution that is the Reykjavík Museum of Art is a pretty big step. “This is a completely different experience. The whole venue is completely different,” Björnsson says. “In smaller alternative spaces, there is a lot more spontaneity,” Arason continues. “Here, that is impossible, and that has been a bit of a conflict for us. The whole process here is much more institutional and bureaucratic. For us, a part of the whole experience has been to document this conflict, which we have done and the exhibition catalogue is mainly focused on how we dealt with the process of setting up the exhibition,” Arason says.
“This has been rather awkward situation at times. We are young and inexperienced, and we feel kind of awkward coming into this big institution, and the museum has been kind of awkward as well, since this is new to them also. There has been some tension in the air,” Arason explains. I ask if it feels like in the beginning of a romantic relationship? “That is exactly how it has been. Little flirtation on both sides, without anyone really knowing how it will turn out.”

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