Imitation art work: Government’s ‘debut’ of artists’ residency program in Longyearbyen overlooks original

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Yes, it’s a shinier version of what we already have, but it’s rather misleading the givers of the gift keep insisting it’s a new, first-time thing.

“Norwegian government launches art foundation and residency on Svalbard,” is typical of the barrage of global headlines during the past couple of weeks, after the government announced June 12 it is providing two million kroner annually for a residency program supporting three to five artists per year. The announcement coincided with an exhibition by the museum’s first resident artist and a conference of international artists focusing on the Arctic.

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Visitors examine Olaf Christopher Jenssen’s exhibition “The Expedition,” consisting of 25 aluminum plates in a table-like structure in the center of the room and a collection of watercolor paintings depicting the territory around Longyearbyen, during its debut June 12 at Kunsthall Svalbard. Photo by Filipa Ramos.

“The establishment of an art residence and workspace is an investment in art which will put Svalbard and Norway on the international art map,” said Norwegian Minister of Culture Linda Hofstad Helleland, who visited the small Kunsthall Svalbard space inside Svalbard Museum for the exhibit’s debut. “Artists from all over the world can come here for a time to live, be inspired and create art. The project will benefit regional and international artistic dialogue. It forms part of our proactive High North policy and is a direct outcome of the white paper on the future of Svalbard published in May.”

But while the support for more artist projects was appreciated by many locals, plenty were also peeved the government and others backing the project is claiming credit for establishing something that has already existed in Longyearbyen for many years.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but don’t we already have artist residences in Nybyen?” wrote Hanne Bjerk on a Longyearbyen community Facebook page the day of Helleland’s visit.

A one-million-kroner renovation that included three residency spaces on the upper floor of the building now housing Galleri Svalbard occurred during the early 1990s, according to Turid Telebond, a long-time resident who helped initiate the project on behalf of the Svalbard Business Association.

“We also got a separate item for scholarships for artists from the mainland (travel grant) in the state budget, so that they could come to Longyearbyen and use the artist flats,” she wrote in a response to Bjerk’s post. “We also had a gentle hope that mainland artists and local players could enjoy and benefit from each other. Artist accommodation is therefore a measure that was implemented some 20 years ago in Longyearbyen.”

Other respondants wondered if the Minstry of Culture was unaware of what also exists locally when making their claims about the new program or, as Trond Berg put it, “distorting history.”

“We have both an artists’ cabin in Ny-Ålesund, and artist studios and workshops at the gallery in Nybyen,” he wrote. “But I guess people with other ambitions and agendas are sitting closer to the decision makers with the money bags now?!?”

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