The Low Countries is the old name for a densely populated part of Western Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, parts of the Rhineland and northern France. Unlike Scandinavia, the Low Countries never sought comfort in being a periphery. Their culture and history are the backdrops against which nature occasionally appears, rather than vice versa. Moreover, the business of population control was never monopolized by one single brand of Christianity. All this has created societies rather different from that of the Lutheran North.
When friends and colleagues in the Low Countries heard about the latest of the many political scandals affecting Lund’s Konsthall in southern Sweden, with city politicians deciding it should be ‘reconstructed and perhaps closed’, they assumed this was somehow comparable to the recent turbulence around De Appel, a kunsthalle and curators’ school in Amsterdam, and Extra City, a kunsthalle in Antwerp. The directors of these institutions were ousted by their boards, who stand accused of being ‘trigger-happy’, but cite legitimate concerns about the managerial competence and institutional thinking of the renowned curators they just fired.*
This, however, is hardly the issue in Lund. The konsthall’s director Åsa Nacking is a seasoned institutional practitioner, successfully delivering a critically acclaimed exhibition program in the ferociously anti-intellectual political climate of the city that hosts Scandinavia’s largest university. No, the conflict in Lund is political, and it may even be emblematic of the politics surrounding art in Sweden in the early 21st century. To simplify only a little, it has long been about bruising the middle-brow sensitivities of the local Bildungsbürger, who sometimes double as elected politicians. Right now, the conflict also pits two different sensibilities and professional ethics against each other: on the one hand, those of visual art, always ready to fight for its own autonomy as the condition for addressing society at large, and on the other hand, of what the French call ‘cultural animation’, i.e. cultural activities designed to ‘lower the threshold’ for ‘everyone’. The latter is represented by Lund’s Head of Culture struggling to add a so-called House of Culture to the city’s inadequate cultural infrastructure.
Nor is Lund’s Konsthall the only art institution in Sweden having a difficult time. A couple of weeks ago Birgitta Rubin, a senior culture journalist with the country’s leading daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, published a column where she lists half a dozen current conflicts and their possible reasons: politicians lacking in respect for art; insufficient funding; the harsh debating climate on social media; the impact of identity politics; unclear organizational structures and mission statements; cultural clashes when foreign directors are brought in; artists now acting as investigative researchers and political activists.
Rubin’s analysis is valid, even if only her first two reasons for conflict really apply to Lund’s Konsthall. Luckily, I should add. The latest development is that the politicians in Lund deny ever having wanted to close the konsthall, and have instead decided to hire an external consultant to investigate how it «may become accessible to more target groups in ways that safeguard the autonomy of art.» Similar studies have of course been made in the not-too-distant past, since this is a never-ending, self-fueling conflict. ‘Time and Again’, the title of Amsterdam-based artist Fiona Tan’s exhibition in Lund in 2007, seems to sum it up. The crucial thing is who gets to carry out and control the new study. Observers of Lund’s Konsthall will be well advised to keep watching the moves of the Head of Culture. But this latest development does look like a ‘half poodle’. (In Swedish journalistic parlance, a ‘full poodle’ is when you try to atone for alleged wrongdoing by metaphorically rolling on the floor to display your submission to public opinion.)
Do these twists and turns tell us anything specific about Sweden as opposed to, say, the Low Countries, or even its Nordic neighbors? One worry surfacing in the debate about De Appel and Extra City is the apprehension many art professionals feel towards the ‘managerialism’ invading their field. Another is their unease with the role played by private art collectors in the boards of public institutions. Both reflect the higher degree of autonomy enjoyed by visual art in ‘Continental Europe’.
Some, however, interpret this lower level of socio-political instrumentalization in art as less progressive than the Swedish situation, which is still largely shaped by the goal formulated back in 1974, to «counter the harmful effects of commercialism». What if the controversy around Lund’s Konsthall is not just a symptom of the ills that Birgitta Rubin elucidates, but also an effect of something interesting, even positive? Doesn’t the fact that this particular physical space for art is so vigorously contested and debated in the cultural pages of the print media and in public-service radio and television, tell us that all these ‘traditional’ public spaces are still very much valued? Isn’t that precisely because they are public and traditional? And doesn’t that indicate that Sweden, while its policy-heavy culture often pays too little attention to autonomy and sophistication, has retained a fair amount of that sense for the common good that progressive European art professionals are now struggling to resurrect?
*Those who wish to Google-translate their way through the Dutch-language debate these two controversies have generated can do so at http://metropolism.com/opinion/.