Five Questions for Ann-Sofi Noring
Ann-Sofi Noring retired in September 2020 from her role as Co-Director of Stockholm's Moderna Museet. She has continued in her honorary position on the board of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, along with her roles as Chair of the Visual Arts Fund and Vice-Chair of The Swedish Arts Grants Committee – all of which she'd held since 2017. She's clearly busy, but we still managed to meet each other in an empty café. I was curious about her long career in the Swedish art scene, which began in 1980 when she became responsible for Solna Municipality's art.
What’s the best part of working with art?
It's a privilege. I've been so happy that I haven't had to take day jobs to finance my passion; one thing led to the other without me having to consider alternatives seriously. I really respect the unusual nature of this situation, which has become more and more exceptional. But thinking that things were better in the old days isn't so useful either: back then, a few professors had a very narrow way of looking at contemporary art.
The best part has been the artists, no question about it. It was so special meeting Dick Bengtsson. I organized a studio for him towards the end of his life as a part of my work in Solna. We had many discussions, particularly with the younger generation of Swedish artists in the Olle Olsson house, which in those days was a gathering place for contemporary artists. After that, at the Swedish Exhibition Agency, where I worked as an Art Producer for many years, I remember Don Wolgers and Rita Lundqvist particularly well. They both worked on a collection of work in a bus installation I curated, where art could be seen on streets and in squares all over Scandinavia and far away from Stockholm's galleries.
There was also much artistic activity outside the "White Cube" during the next period of my working life when I worked as editor and head of communications at the Public Art Agency Sweden. Eva Löfdahl was a pioneer in this area: instead of accepting the space she was offered in the new Arrhenius Laboratory at Stockholm University, she found her way underground, creating workplace-related work "Strain Mosquitoes and Swallow Camels". At this point, the door finally opened for non-Swedish artists and architects to show their work. Silja Rantanen worked with the flight towers at Arlanda Airport, Miroslaw Balka created the memorial monument to the wreck of the MS Estonia, and Caruso St John remodeled the main square in Kalmar together with Eva Löfdahl.
I've had countless meetings with artists at Moderna Museet. Of course, creating larger and smaller exhibitions drew me closer to certain artists, among them Jan Svenungsson, Andrea Zittel, Karin Mamma Andersson, Ed Ruscha, Gabriel Orozco, because I was involved in the whole exhibition program. It was especially valuable to have contact with the artists that the museum had invited. Not to mention those artists who are no longer alive, Marcel Duchamp, Öyvind Fahlström, Niki de Saint Phalle, Cy Twombly, and many more, who have been there through their work, through texts we've written and discussions we've had.
There've been priceless moments, such as when Elaine Sturtevant rummaged around in the pop collection, or when Yoko Ono met children who carried out a performance inspired by her work in the studio, or when Adrian Paci showed his iconic work "Turn On," days after the tsunami catastrophe. Really so many incredible insights and joyful learning experiences that no written history of art could convey…
The final artist that I'd like to mention in this connection is John Baldessari. We managed to organize an exhibition with him before he passed away a year ago. The text that I wrote for the catalog is really a way of thanking him for the dinner he invited me to in his studio in Venice Beach and an unforgettable conversation about the art of being an artist.
When did you become interested in art?
I can attribute the awakening of my interest in art to two things in particular. The town where I grew up, Västerås, was dominated by industry, but there was also an excellent library, a lively music and theatre scene, and, last but not least, an art gallery, important by the standards of the day. Towards the end of the 1960s, Gallery Belle introduced the work of artists such as Lena Cronqvist, P-O Ultvedt och Roj Friberg; I went there with a friend, and we kept on coming back without knowing, for example, what a vernissage was.
In those days, art teachers were known as drawing teachers, and mine took the whole class to Sala to see Ivan Aguélis' paintings in an old bathhouse. The paintings really spoke to me, and my impression was strengthened by Axel Gauffin's biography, which I subsequently bought at a second-hand bookshop that's no longer around today. Besides the gallery curator and my art teacher, I have to say that my hometown was the primary force that inspired me to look for something different. At an early age, I spent a year studying on the East Coast of the USA, where I saw much art; later on, in the mid-1970s, I found myself in Paris, which was an exciting and progressive environment. All of this happened long before international educational programs for curators - in those days, international art studies were often confined to the Antique period.
After working with public art for forty years, would you say that there was a time when the conditions for art really changed?
Exciting periods during the Twentieth Century have affected my way of looking at art, although I was not so involved in them, other than as a teenager. The youth movements of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War all provoked different artists' responses: it wasn't unusual that they "stopped making art." Much later, you know, we exhibited Lee Lozano at the museum, and you could see that she exemplified this position.
During the 1990s, there was a strong movement among Swedish artists, where they no longer allowed authority figures to make decisions for them. I was working for the Public Art Agency at this point. A new generation was graduating from the growing number of art schools when the art market and the galleries weren't that interesting or were even seen as lacking. Artists created their own areas, magazines, and activities away from the mainstream. Norms were challenged; artists stood up for themselves and often chose their own context for their works. It wasn't possible anymore for someone to point their finger at the middle of a city square and say that someone else's sculpture should be installed there. Interesting experiments with materials and form were being performed, and the so-called eternal values were questioned.
Right now, we're in the middle of revolutionary times: Black Lives Matter and issues connected with this movement affect us all. Not just as a result of all this – there's so much more to do here – but to show how important it is when a museum makes an effort to keep with the times – we held a large exhibition of Arthur Jafa's work, at the same time as he was awarded the Golden Lion in Venice. Revolts rarely start at museums, but it's still possible to try, for better or for worse, to be a part of society and be relevant.
Having a collection with almost exclusively male artists from the earlier part of the Twentieth Century is a clear example of not being relevant. During the first decade of this century, our efforts meant to give space to more important female artists. Not a radical move out in society, but among art museums, the thinking can be along the lines of "you can't correct history." But today, thanks to the curatorial team's work, the collection has an almost exact gender balance.
Our other effort during the 2010s was opening up to the rest of the world. From the beginning, Moderna Museet has been an international museum in Stockholm – but the concept "international" has been open to interpretation. Previously, it was mostly Western art, preferably from France and the USA, with a few notable exceptions. We worked consciously with opening up national borders, with following artists who seldom limit themselves geographically and looking a bit closer at our own country without resorting to presenting representative examples. Our curiosity took us a long way, as a matter of fact, and, of course, the artists showed us a lot that we didn't know. I don't think that ideas about gender or diversity will be so radical in the near future. They will be part of the way things are. But it isn't so obvious yet how that point can be reached…
You worked at Moderna Museet for 19 years. How would you sum up your time there?
Is it possible to sum up nineteen years, almost two decades, at Moderna Museet? If I were going to try, it would be through looking at where our museum is today: a vibrant museum with a large collection respected by artists and art institutions worldwide. At the moment, the pandemic is stopping people from coming, but a rich program will soon be available. It's not an accident that it's like this. It results from conscious and often collective work, with the curatorial team playing a crucial role. Take as an example the way collections are presented; at the moment they're installed in nineteen galleries. In 2019, we had to change all the lighting to LED, and because all the art had to be taken down, in my role as acting superintendent, I took the opportunity to rehang the whole collection. This really involved teamwork and my main achievement as manager may well have been giving the team more or less free hands. Much work that had never been shown before it came to light and new possibilities revealed themselves. Adrián Villar Rojas's work was juxtaposed with Vija Celmins and Constantin Brancusi – and yes, it soon will be available to see everything when the museum opens again.
I'd also really like to mention how the collections have grown. Because the museum doesn't have a specific grant from the government to acquire art, it's important to increase its collection. We've done this in various ways, for example, through focussing on more important work by female artists and through generally increasing diversity, not through keeping away from the Western canon. The artists have themselves produced work in keeping with this endeavor, but it would take too long to go into the details here.
Side by side with the collections, of course, I've been greatly involved with the exhibition program. Hundreds of exhibitions, where each has been the most important during the time, are shown, and sometimes both before and after. That it was already possible in 2010 for us to stage a second museum, Moderna Museet Malmö, has, of course, contributed to art being able to take a more prominent place.
We've managed to show many exhibitions that have communicated with each other during the best times and enriched the whole. Like when "Explosion – Painting as Action" could be seen next to a solo retrospective of Yoko Ono, or when Akram Zarrari and Adrián Villar Rojas had their own separate exhibitions besides the thematic exhibition "After Babel". And it has been especially rewarding to be able to promote artists who have been relatively unknown (at least in Sweden), such as Hilma af Klimt, Francesca Woodman, Mary Kelley, and many others, and historical contexts such as "Objects and Bodies at Rest and in Motion."
It's just not possible to summarise all of these years. Instead, I recommend two books that we released during this time: "The History Book" (2008) and "Plurality of Tongues – Giving Direction to the Museum" (2018). In the History Book, we asked several freelance writers to give their impressions of the museum regarding, among other things, architecture, education, and the allocation of resources, and the result was an imposing volume, a bit like a reference work, celebrating the museum's fiftieth year. The other volume was more of a thoughtful book, highlighting some of the themes running through the museum's program: diversity, alternatives to modernism, the importance of female artists and the interplay among different artists. Not to mention the exhibition as a theoretical phenomenon and how the past can be revisited.
You’re on the board of the International Committee for Museums and Collection of Modern Art (CIMAM), an international association for the heads of museums and curators. What kinds of discussions are you having there during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The whole world is affected by the pandemic and with it all the museums, without exception. At CIMAM, we have lively discussions about how we can relate to the pandemic and develop forward-looking strategies from our different starting points. We are a group of leaders of art institutions as diverse as M+, Hong Kong, Tate Modern, London, William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley, South Africa, The Singapore Art Museum, Mudam, Luxembourg, Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, Mori Museum, Tokyo and a few more, who have regular digital meetings. It's striking how similar conditions are, even if each country has issued different instructions in response to the pandemic. There is consensus that we have to decrease transport and courier journeys, which until recently have formed part of the lion's share of the museums' budgets, and not just out of a sustainability perspective. Many practices what they preach and have even turned their museums into production sites, inviting artists to create their work and their installations on site. It's a bit the 1960s art scene in Stockholm and abroad, where, not least because of a scarcity of resources, artists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp made their own "copies."
Things are pointing to a new, calmer pace, with more space for reflection and research, and more carefully thought through co-operation regarding transport and other exchanges to realize international projects. Does the result also mean more local projects? Or will we possibly be able to do both, inviting "our own" artists and at the same time developing projects that require international co-operation? I hope so. Of course, we might be feeling a bit tired of all the digital activities, but there's so much that we can build on amidst the work done in the previous year. We can't create something in a vacuum - we need to work together because the map really has been redrawn in many ways.
During our conversation, it was clear that retirement hasn't diminished Ann-Sofi Noring's interest in art in the least - quite the opposite. She seems to be looking forward to devoting this new period of her life to developing her writing and visiting museums and exhibitions as much as she can, and I believe that she will continue to be an important figure within the Swedish art world for a long time to come.
Jenny Danielsson always enjoys a good conversation and believes certain magic occurs when we talk and listen to each other. She is a freelance writer and podcast host currently residing in Stockholm. She's co-organizing a program of art installations in a window display case next to a metro station.
This article was originally published in February 2021, in the Swedish online journal Konsten.net. It was translated into English by Mostyn de Beer.