Atlas Arts




The Agency of Art Symposium, Oslo

Don’t let the numbers take control

By Shona Cameron, Producer

Last week I attended The Agency of Art Symposium in Oslo, hosted by the OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) and organised by The Nordic Network – an organisation of three existing associations of kunsthalles: Foreningen af Kunsthaller i Danmark, Klister in Sweden and Kunsthallene i Norge. These networks were formed because of a need to highlight and debate the function of small and medium-sized arts organisations in Scandinavia.

The symposium posed the pertinent question in its marketing: is it possible to measure the significance and impact of art? Over the course of the event, the presentations, keynotes, panel discussions, private and group conversations explored this in various ways but what stuck with me was the statement, by the president of Stockholm School of Economics – ‘don’t let the numbers take control’.

Organisers of the symposium standing on stage welcoming guests.

The weekend began with a presentation by Jonatan Habib Engqvist and Nina Möntmann of their commissioned report Agencies of Art – A Report on the Situation of Small and Medium-sized Art Centres in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.  The report will be valuable reading to anyone working in small and medium-sized arts organisations, even outwith the Nordic countries – and much of it is familiar for many reasons. Questions over the differences between suburban, non-urban and urban geographies, the ecology of the art world, the idea of deferred value and how to articulate it, and the quality versus quantity dilemma.

They took the term ‘deferred value’ from Sarah Thewell’s 2011 report Size Matters. It has been used in the Nordic countries as a means of clarifying the role of small and medium-sized organisations within the broader art ecosystem. Engqvist and Möntmann emphasised that:

“Small arts organisations often premiere or launch artists who will later go on to become established through an international biennale or museum exhibition. It is seldom recognised that small, understaffed and risk-taking actors enables these ‘discoveries’: instead it is the large institutions that get the attention, as well as (sometimes) the economic benefit. The reasons for this situation are myriad, from lack of media coverage of smaller galleries to funding systems that demand audience numbers and short-sighted economic gains.”

Next up, Andrea Phillips’s keynote took such ideas further and centred on the suggestion as to how we can repurpose the values (predominantly) imposed on us. Here is a selection taken from her presentation showing how this could be done:

The state – imposed
Provides geoterritorial conditions of existence. Provides roughly 50% of funds needed to follow conventions of exhibition making

The state – repurposed
We support the state and want to work in support of a fair state

Gender/race/sexuality – imposed
State and ideological demand for equal gender/race/sexuality provision in staffing and programming

Gender/race/sexuality – repurposed
We work towards equality of gender/race/sexuality, but not through governmental modes

Criteria of excellence – imposed
Excellence sought through ambiguous criteria of programme innovation and uniqueness

Criteria of excellence – repurposed
We reject a criteria of excellence

The roundtable discussion with Birgit Bærøe (Head of Visual Arts at Arts Council Norway), Staffan Forssell (Director General of the Swedish Arts Council) and Tine Vindfelt (senior advisor in the Visual Arts Department of the Danish Arts Foundation) was an interesting insight into the funding models in the Nordic region and there was a sense of the urgent need to reform from annual funding to longer-term investments from the audience. There was also a tense discussion regarding data collection and the value of quantitative figures in assessing value.

A white cube gallery space with small paintings hung on the walls with a series of four numbers painted on each.

The Balance of Painters by Dag Erik Elgin. Image Oslo Contemporary.

This subject was explored at length the following day by Lars Strannegard, President of the Stockholm School of Economics, in his captivating and timely presentation: The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. On the Quantification of Culture. Strannegard stated that what used to be knowledge is now needed as information – filed in a format that is comparable. There is a desire to see art as stable and measureable or understandable. But within this he asks, what remains of an artwork when it is translated into numbers? Indeed, what remains of an arts organisation when it is reduced to a set of figures?

It is very hard to compare words but easy to compare numbers – Strannegard argued that this makes it easier for external assessors (funders). Yet such quantification is creating comparability and in turn inevitably creating competition. He went further by stating that there is a lack of trust in today’s society and, in particular between and of funders, which necessitates such comparable measurables and KPIs.

He suggested using strategies of disobedience to counter this – using words, images, holding discussions, inviting expert groups from different backgrounds to add to the dialogue.

Participants from the symposium gathering in the gallery space talking.

Visit to Fotogalleriet, with works by Felix Gmelin and Lauren Davis.

The symposium left space for conversations around subjects such as this to be continued on a more intimate level – facilitated group discussions allowed participants to select the topic of choice and for Nordic and international arts workers to come together and share their experiences, both positive and negative, of working in the arts sector. And more importantly, pose ways in which we could work together to create change rather than allowing others to funnel us into comparable and competitive modes of working. It was suggested that this has led to a sense of survivalism – running faster and faster, doing more and quicker. Yet as Andrea Phillips said, perhaps we should be humbler with our claims and reclaim value for ourselves.

Visit to Kunsthall Oslo to see their exhibition, Cat Portraits and Other Works by Annika Eriksson

Thank you to the OCA for hosting such a thought-provoking event and for the wonderful opportunity to visit several of the exciting arts spaces around Oslo; it was particularly inspiring to see culture and contemporary visual art valued in the redevelopment of the waterfront.

And a trip to Oslo wouldn’t be complete without seeing a Munch, but with a new Munch Museum currently being built I had to seek one out elsewhere…

Wooden panelled room with a glass chandelier. On the back wall there is a painting called Life.

‘The Munch Room’ in the City Hall.



Published on 15 March 2018