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Property developer and art patron Christian Ringnes. Photo: Thomas Ekström
Property developer and art patron Christian Ringnes. Photo: Thomas Ekström

Norway’s new patrons of ART

Norway’s public art scene is being transformed by the donations of wealthy businesspeople. But not everyone in the egalitarian country is happy about this.  

“What’s happened here?” property investor Christian Ringnes asks. He’s walking around the ­Ekebergparken, a sculpture park in Oslo, and spots some garbage on the floor by a trash can.

“Birds have probably been at it,” he ­continues.  “It breaks my heart to see ­litter. Everything should be pristine here.” 

Ringnes is from the family that founded Norway’s largest brewery, Ringnes, in the 1870s. He is a well-known property developer who owns restaurants and hotels in Oslo. And he’s an art collector. He ­financed and initiated the creation of ­Ekebergparken and donated many pieces of art from his own collection to it, including sculptures by Damien Hirst, Fernando Botero and Salvador Dalí.

Christian Ringnes walking around in Ekebergparken. Photo: Thomas Ekström

The park, where everything is dedicated to the feminine, is situated in a forest, east of downtown Oslo. It opened in 2013 and has already become a very popular attraction. Ringnes has donated statues to several other locations in Oslo too, but it’s Ekebergparken that he’s most proud of.  

Ringnes is one of several Norwegian businesspeople who, over the last 30 years, have been commissioning cultural centers and donating or lending works of art to the public.

Since the 1940s, however, it is the ­Norwegian government that has been seen as the traditional patron of the arts in Norway. Several national institutions were set up to provide the public with access to art. The 1947 Libraries Act, for example, ensured that there would be a library in every municipality while the Arts Council Norway was founded in 1965 with the aim of promoting Norwegian arts and culture.

Norwegian journalist, philosopher and author Alfred Fidjestøl recently wrote Et eige rom (A room of one’s own) Arts Council Norway 1965–2015.

“Funding comes from a sales tax on ­magazines that is earmarked for the ­culture fund. Some of the money goes to literature and buying books for lib­raries, some to culture centers such as the Grieg Concert Hall in Bergen and some for ­cultural heritage purposes. There was no tradition of patrons of the arts, not even the right-of-center parties consider­ed this as an option,” he says.

Government funding remains important. Since 2005, government funding of the arts has almost trebled from around NKr 5.1 billion to 13 billion in 2016. But times have changed and the new right-of-center coalition government wants to encourage more private funding of the arts. 

One of the measures it has introduced is a so-called giving support scheme. As part of this, if a private individual donates NKr 100,000 or more to a museum or theater, the recipient can apply to receive an ­additional 25% funding from the Ministry of Culture. 

Stein Erik Hagen is another ­Norwegian businessman who has entered the cultural arena. His large collection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe has recently been exhibited alongside ­Edvard Munch’s paintings at the Munch Museum in Oslo and at ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus, Denmark. The Munch Museum exhibition attracted 45,000 visit­ors. “I have been an art collector for 40 years and it feels great to share it,” says entrepreneur Stein Erik Hagen. Photo: Thomas Ekström

“Private art collectors have bigger purchasing budgets that public bodies,” says ­Hagen. “Ringnes ­sculpture park would never have got off the ground if it had had to rely on ­government funding.” 

Hagen also believes that funding from private individuals and companies is fairer to the taxpayer.

“If Statoil were to build a museum, taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the bill,” he says. “Everyone thinks the Tate Museum is fine, and that was funded by money from sugar.” 

Hagen started collecting art at the age of 20. He never imagined his collection would grow so large.

“I’ve never thought about why I started. I’m simply a creative soul who likes to create. Art is a bit like music. Something you just like.”

A few years ago, Hagen brought in art historian and former curator of the Norwegian Museum of Contemp­orary Art Steinar Gjessing to curate his collection, which now consists of some 2,000 works. Many sources value Hagen’s collection at one billion Norwegian kroner and it is considered important not just because of its size, but also ­because of the quality of the works within it.

“I have built up a collection of Nordic ­modernism that fills a gap in the National Museum ­collection,” says Hagen.

Because of this, the Norwegian National Museum wants to exhibit Hagen’s collection. But Hagen is clear that he is not donating the collection to the state – he is merely lending it. “I don’t want to see a situation where the museum doesn’t have enough revenues to maintain the collection,” Hagen says. “And it will go on to gather dust in the basement.”

Despite the seemingly obvious benefits of the philanthropic spirit of business­people like Hagen and Ringnes, Norwegian values are rooted in egalitarian ideas, so criticism of the private philanthropy has been fierce. “The museums don’t need rich people’s gracious gifts, but money they can freely use,” wrote a commentator in left-wing newspaper Klassekampen. There is also a view that the ­exhibition of private collections in public spaces is contributing to the appreciation in value of the collection, and therefore hugely benefiting the owner. 

Walking Woman by Sean Heanry at Ekebergparken. Photo: Thomas Ekström

Ringnes says he doesn’t want anything in return. However, the art does boost the value of the properties where they’re placed, as evidenced by the popularity of the pieces on display.  The Tiger statue he donated to Oslo, which is now on display outside the central train station, is now one the city’s most photographed sites. 

“The first thing I donated was the Peacock Fountain to the National Theater in 1987,” he says. “The area was origin­ally a parking space for ­motorbikes. The fountain adds life and pleasure and goes well there.”

While stressing the importance of the ethical aspects of private philanthropy in relation to donations of artto the public, such as not using public money to promote private collections, Knut Ljøgodt, art historian and former ­director of the Northern Norway Art ­Museum in Tromsø, thinks the gifts also offer opportunities. 

“It enables you to undertake larger ­projects,” he says. “One example is the Peder Balke Exhibition at The National Gallery in London. Balke is the second Norwegian artist to be exhibited there. The exhibition was supported by the Fritt Ord and Sparebankstiftelsen DnB foundations, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and private sponsors. It was seen by over 230,000 visitors.”

Museum experts also say that important works can be lost to the public without ­private sponsors.

“Entrepreneur Jørgen Breder Stang (1874-1950) offered to settle a tax bill from the Municipality of Oslo in the form of the painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin,” says Ljøgodt. “This painting is now one of the main attractions at the Museum of Fine Arts in ­Boston.” 

He still feels, however, that basic government funding is important.

“You can actually say yes please to both. You mustn’t ask patrons to help with running costs, but for support for projects or ­acquisitions. You should also find ways of encouraging donations, via, for example, tax relief. It’s the middle ­layer of well-off individuals, not the most prominent entrepreneurs, that need ­encouragement to make a donation. We ought to facilitate such cooperation.”

Mother and child by Per Ung at Ekebergparken. Photo: VISITOSLO/Tord Baklund ©Per Ung/BONO

Ringnes faced a lot of opposition to his plan for Ekebergparken. Many people wanted to preserve Ekeberg Forest and a group of professors called on the government to block the project. They ­argued that the building work would ­destroy ­archaeological remains and ­damage the local nature. Others claimed that the feminist theme was outdated.

Visitors to Ekebergparken now hashtag images of the attraction with ­#OsLove. Even the original opponents have changed their minds and say how pleased they are with the park and how tasteful it is. And despite the odd messy bird, Ringnes himself is very happy with the park.

“The public and private sectors have a good relationship at times now,” he says. “When I walk around the park, people stop me all the time to thank me and say how great it all is. That makes me happy.” 


Text: Inga Ragnhild Holst  

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