As with most art, it’s about more than meets the naked eye.
Physically, it’s a nearly empty meeting room with a video screen, a TV and a few small black-and-white paintings on one of the walls. But art lovers from Queen Sonja on down are calling the new Kunsthall Svalbard a profound statement about Longyearbyen’s future place in the world.
“By establishing a branch here, the Northern Norway Art Museum has created the northernmost art museum in the world,” the queen said during an official opening ceremony Friday night. “And an exciting and inspiring place in this beautiful and dramatic landscape.”
The 77-square-meter room behind the reception desk at Svalbard Museum looks more like a add-on to the historical museum than an attraction likely to draw visitors on its own. But it is actually the first of what the Tromsø-based art museum says is meant to be multiple branches across northern Norway – and the main art museum got off to a similar start in a single room 30 years ago.
“Thirty years ago people wondered ‘What’s the point of doing this museum here?'” said Knut Ljøgodt, director of the Tromsø museum. “It was very small. It was probably impossible to see how it would develop. Perhaps in a way this is also a historical moment where we’re witnessing a modest beginning with the Kunsthall here.”
“It’s not just about this space. It’s about the idea. Let’s hope it doesn’t take us 30 years to have more space.”
Beyond the physical space, museum and other officials are hoping the new branch will lure more artists to Svalbard through a residency program. Such residencies are already offered for three-months for up to three artists at Galleri Svalbard, but the museum’s intent is to offer a higher profile and funding.
“Hopefully the Museum of Northern Norway can help provide the higher-ranking artists with better conditions than we can,” said Jan Martin Berg, manager of Galleri Svalbard. He said the gallery’s approach is essentially “you’re welcome, but you have to manage yourself.”
The remarks were made during a forum at the new museum on Sunday discussing art and its role in the Arctic. Ljøgodt told the audience of about 30 people that artists have the opportunity to collaborate with a unique variety of societal elements in Svalbard due to the political, scientific and other activities here.
“One possiblity that’s very interesting is increased tourism to Svalbard,” he said. With an emphasis on art “I think we will have more and quality tourism in Svalbard, not just mass tourism.”
Such offerings can play a vital role with Longyearbyen going through major economic as well as social changes due to a prolonged coal price slump that has resulted in steep cutbacks at Store Norske and other mining-related companies.
“We know Svalbard is in crisis because of industry,” Ljøgodt said. “I think that is where art can enter into the equation and play a favorable role for change.”
Svalbard’s pristine environment has also made it an ideal setting for certain controversial art projects, including an “army” made of trash that was deployed in Adventdalen in 2011 and a “rubbish hut” built on a beach in Longyearbyen last summer. The hut, initially scheduled to be taken down last October, is still standing and during Sunday’s seminar people gathered outside it for a beach fire/swim/sauna party.
Katya Garcia-Anthon, director of Norway’s Office of Contemporary Art, said “history tells us the north has always been provocative, a desire to cross abyss at edge of the north and what lays beyond.” The new Svalbard museum and residencies, she said, should look beyond tradition art boundaries when selecting projects.
“I would favor something more along the lines of research and reflection, symposiums, texts, lectures or publications,” she said.