China on show, north of Copenhagen
Louisiana’s director, Poul Erik Tøjner, on supporting Ai Weiwei
By Clemens Bomsdorf. Museums, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 17 August 2011
With an Ai Weiwei solo show, including recent works by the Chinese artist, due to open this autumn (18 November-12 February 2012), it is only natural that Poul Erik Tøjner, the director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, was among the first to pledge his support for Ai when he was detained by the Chinese authorities in April (The Art Newspaper, June, p6). Ai’s work also featured in the Danish museum’s big 2007 exhibition “Made in China”—a show derived from works from the Estella collection, which its owners controversially sold shortly afterwards. Founded in 1958 by the collector and businessman Knud Jensen, the museum, which is 35km north of Copenhagen, receives only around a quarter of its funding from the state and is dependent on admissions, private donations, sponsors and foundations for its running costs and acquisitions budget. A former journalist, Tøjner has been the museum’s director since 2000. Here he talks about how best to support Ai, the museum’s exhibition policy in the aftermath of the Estella incident and how the museum by the sea aims to expand.
The Art Newspaper: During the opening week of the Venice Biennale in June, visitors were running around with red bags from the Kunsthaus Bregenz stating “Free Ai Weiwei”. Was this kind of protest really helpful for the artist? Cynics might say it is also a good way for the Austrian museum to promote its Ai show [“Art/Architecture”, 16 July-16 October].
Poul Erik Tøjner: I am not sure about that. We wouldn’t use Ai’s arrest to get attention for our exhibition of his work.
So what did Louisiana do about Ai?
We signed the [Guggenheim organised] petition and we put on our website an interview we did with him during his last visit [here]. He was already talking about imprisonment. Museums should do what they can, and it’s therefore of utmost importance to hold the exhibition. We have had Chinese exhibitions before and have shown the creativity of that country.
Shortly after the “Made in China” show, the Estella collection was sold. Isn’t that among the worst nightmares for a museum director?
We’ve learned from that [experience]. It was not a catastrophe but, definitely, we trusted people more than we should have. But there is nothing in the art world that is totally clean. I remember when we had the Gerhard Richter exhibition in 2004 here, there were also works sold while on view. Every museum show is used by somebody, but that is not why we arrange them.
At this year’s Venice Biennale, freedom of speech is the theme of the Danish pavilion. Is that a good idea only six years after the publication of a drawing in a Danish paper sparked off riots across the Muslim world?
It does not always become good art if you set freedom of speech as the topic, but all good art is based on freedom of speech. It is hard to find good works redeeming political intention—either they do not support it or they support it too much and then it is not good art anymore. When it comes to the Danish pavilion it is a very well curated show, but it could have taken place in any venue. If freedom of speech is an issue of particular importance for Danish artists, more of them should have been shown.
What are the advantages of Louisiana being a private institution?
We do not see ourselves as private, but more of a public project built on private assumptions. The state finances 25% of our budget. As a private foundation, we do not have to ask the permission of anybody on the board; only the director and curator make decisions.
You have said Louisiana should not be extended anymore to preserve its parkland setting. So have you looked at opening a branch elsewhere?
We have discussed opening a kunsthalle as our collection is not big enough to build a real museum branch. Last year we arranged a literature festival for the first time; activities like those are adding a lot to our museum. We have also tried “Louisiana c/o” as a kind of kunsthalle without its own space, for example, when showing a Jørn Utzon exhibition during the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale [at the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti].
Have visitor numbers increased now you often stay open until 10pm?
No, but attendance is more equally distributed and other people are coming now. For example, professionals who had to come at the weekend when many families and people from Sweden were also here.
Two new art venues have been announced for Copenhagen: gallerist Nicolai Wallner is opening a kunsthalle and art dealers Luise and Jens Faurschou plan to open a private venue for their collection. Will they have a big impact on the Danish art scene?
An increased interest in art in the region is good for all institutions. That also holds for the whole Nordic region. I have also always supported the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, where I am on the board.
Helsinki is considering establishing a Guggenheim. What if Copenhagen were to have one too?
That would be a very bad idea as it would change the geopolitical details. A Guggenheim in Copenhagen would be a copy of the Louisiana as their profile is similar to ours. In Helsinki it might also be a problem for places such as Kiasma [the museum of contemporary art]. At the same time it might sharpen your profile when you have to define yourself in relation to such an institution.
How does your programme for the next five years look? It has been criticised for lacking a common thread.
We have only a few principles. One is that we need to have a blockbuster show at least once every one-and-a-half years. Now it is Picasso. Then we plan to do an exhibition series on contemporary art; we have also just established a new series called “Louisiana On Paper”. For ten years now we have been arranging architecture exhibitions. Last but not least, we want to collaborate with other institutions.
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