From Iceland — Vitality and Relevance

Vitality and Relevance

Vitality and Relevance

Published May 4, 2007

Last January, Swede Max Dager took over from Norwegian Gro Kraft as the director of the Nordic House in Reykjavík. Since taking over, Dager has left no stone unturned in his quest to restore the house to its former glory.

Dager is a big man who speaks with a lot of conviction. That is because this big man has many big ideas. When asked to summarise his new vision for the Nordic House in one thought, he says his work is based on two keywords, “vitality and relevance.” During our conversation, which lasts over an hour and a half, he explains one idea after another for his new vision of the Nordic House. It can be hard to keep up with him at times, as one idea leads to another, and sometimes, ideas are left unexplained when a new idea seems to be born and take over even in mid-sentence. He speaks with such passion that it is easy to imagine the Nordic House being one of the leading cultural centres in the Nordic countries, if not all of Europe, in four years time.

The Nordic House in Reykjavík, designed by the distinguished Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, opened in 1968. It is a Nordic cultural centre whose main goal is to serve as a link between Iceland and the other Nordic countries and to that end, organises an extensive programme of cultural events and exhibitions besides maintaining a library with a collection of some 30,000 Nordic books.

“The system here is that as a new director of the Nordic House, you are hired for four years at first, and if you do good, your contract can be extended for another four years. Every director before me has been working for the Nordic Council before and they have known all about the Nordic Cooperation. I come from a very different direction. I started a company in Sweden called Cirkus Cirkör, which expanded from being run from a pingpong table to employing 500 people and having a professor in contemporary circus and branches in South-Africa and other places,” Dager explains when I ask him about his background.

Cirkus Cirkör is a remarkable success story. Since its inception in 1995, it has become one of the world’s leading contemporary circuses, running a circus school that is considered one of the best in the world and attended by over 30,000 children each year. I comment on it being an interesting change, going from being a circus director, to being a director of an official institution like the Nordic House. Dager replies that naturally, it is somewhat different, but as a circus director, you always need to juggle ten balls in the air at the same time, which can be an asset in this position. He also claims to have “a lot of crazy ideas,” which he also considers an asset.

“I have been working on big projects most of my life. I’ve organised big festivals for the Japanese Ministry for Culture, in Vietnam and South-America, all over the place, the World Exhibition in Nagoya, Japan. This is something I know, although you never really know anything in this line of work, there are always new problems that need to be solved.”

New Vision
Dager is no stranger to Iceland. In fact, his wife is Icelandic, and he has been visiting the country regularly ever since the early 80’s. “When I first came to the Nordic House in the 80s, it was a meeting place for artists and scholars,” Dager says. In the last years, attendance has dropped and apart from students at the nearby university, not a lot of people visit the Nordic House. “In the 70s, when the house first opened, there were two or three cafeterias in Reykjavík. Now there must be between 80 and 100 cafés in Reykjavík, so maybe it is not so strange that the attendance has gone down,” Dager explains. “But it is time to put it up there again.”

In order to boost attendance, Dager is planning to make changes in how the house is operated. He has brought in the Reykjavík Film Festival, which is now run from the house, and Dager plans to import the first high definition digital theatre in Iceland to the Nordic house, where he plans to screen European films, Nordic films in particular, art films, and documentaries to offset the Hollywood productions flooding the Reykjavík cinemas. The technique also makes it available to stream content directly, allowing him to bring in lecturers from other parts of the world to address audiences gathered in Reykjavík.

Another change Dager is implementing is in the cafeteria, where a new menu, promoting New Nordic Cuisine will be introduced this summer. “The focus will be on Nordic ingredients. We will not serve pizza or olives, but rather Icelandic lamb with Icelandic herbs, and goat cheese from Jamtland in Sweden, or cowberries from Finland,” he explains. He is also bringing in Finnish interior designer Ilkka Supponen to design a lounge room where it will be possible to hold meetings and small gatherings while enjoying the nouveau-Nordic cuisine.

But when our talk turns to the cultural role of the Nordic House, it becomes more clear what sort of changes Dager is planning for: “You should not come to the Nordic House to look at paintings or listen to poetry. I am not going to have exhibitions like the ones that have been here. That is the role of the National Gallery and the Reykjavík Museum of Art. They have the space to do this. I intend to have another kind of discourse on culture through lectures and workshops. In the basement (the main exhibition room) there will be creative workshops, jazz evenings, and I am in negotiations with the Gay Pride festival to do something here.”

The Disneyland Effect
The operation of the house is financed with contributions from the Nordic Council, but to accommodate his ambitious plan, Dager will be seeking added outside support. “I get money from the council in Copenhagen every year. It is a similar amount each time, but I have a goal to make external financing nearly 50% within one year, so I can double the money. I think when people realise the possibilities that are here; the opportunity for more money will be here. It is like an old train, it takes time building up speed, but once you get it going, it is hard to stop.”

It will be particularly important for the operation to receive additional funds, since plans have been made to change the house extensively to make better use of it. “I contacted the Alvar Aalto Academy, and the project is being carried out in cooperation with the Academy. I believe if Aalto were alive today, he would realise the importance of adapting the house to its modern needs. “I call it the Disneyland effect. It should be so that when you visit Reykjavík, you need have your photo taken standing outside the Nordic House,” Dager explains.

With all his ambitious ideas, I wonder how Dager manages to get the board of an institution that has been run in a conservative manner for nearly 40 years to support his ideas. “When I attended the first board meeting and presented my ideas, I expected people to be skeptical, but they just said, “go for it.” Now we will have to see how it goes. Maybe it will be an absolute catastrophe.”

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