Museet for Fotokunst – the long perspective
By Finn Thrane
Curator, Museet for Fotokunst
The formative years
The principle underlying the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 was that the best way to experience and study different types of visual art was in terms of the way they fitted together. The project group responsible for planning Brandts in the city of Odense, Denmark, half a century later seems to have had similar syncretic notions in mind. This was confirmed for the group members on a tour to other parts of the world when they also visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Hayward Gallery in London. Their objective was to gain inspiration in conjunction with allocating the 7,500 square metres of floor space available for “the three institutions in the public sphere”. These institutions were known as Det Fynske Kunstakademi (Funen Art Academy), Danmarks Grafiske Museum (the former Danish Museum of Printing/Danish Press Museum)and kunstudstillingscentret (the art exhibition centre – italics inserted by the author). This is an indication that the local residents’ involvement in pictorial art at that time – in 1983 – was still somewhat lacking in definition, and the idea of dividing it into an art centre and a photographic museum had not been fully developed. This happened in 1984, and a brochure printed the same year stated: “In connection with the Kunsthallen, but as an independent institution, a Museum for Fotokunst (museum of photographic art) will be opened, for the purpose of building up a permanent collection of contemporary aesthetic photography, the first of its kind in Denmark.”
When Museet for Fotokunst (abbreviated as MFF in Danish) opened to the public in January 1987, this took place in conjunction with the opening of the Kunsthallen itself. Although there was significantly less space available for photographic exhibitions than for traditional forms of art, the splendid building nevertheless now had an area where inquisitive visitors could view the works the new curator dared hang on the walls of MFF – the exclusive name allocated as a birthday present a few years previously. The opening featured a solo exhibition by the Belgian colour photographer Mark de Fraye, a group exhibition of contemporary Hungarian photography, and the first presentation of the museum’s own collection of mainly contemporary Danish photography. Right from the start, the museum thus complied with section 2 of its articles of association: As a nationwide special art history institution, the museum must collect, preserve and exhibit more recent photographic art from both Denmark and abroad. The museum must thereby – and by organising special national and international exhibitions – work towards spreading awareness of and interest in photographic art.
The chairman of the project group, Gert Garmund, at work preparing the Nordic Photographic Art 85 exhibition to serve as a travelling exhibition. Brandts Klædefabrik 1985. Photo by Leif Hansen.
Experience has shown that museums frequently spring up when a passionate collector and enthusiast has devoted so much intense activity to his or her interest over a number of years that shortage of space makes storage a problem and the public authorities have to take over. This was not the case for Museet for Fotokunst, however. When I took up my appointment in September 1985, the museum was no more than that abstract idea the brochure previously mentioned had fantasised about, and the place did not actually possess one single photograph. Nevertheless, the basic idea, as conceived by the architect Gert Garmund, chairman of the project group, was good. His concept soon struck a responsive chord with Flemming Johansen, director of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and one of the knowledgeable consultants associated with the project. And the local municipality was also very soon ready for action, because opening a new type of museum not only provided benefits in terms of cultural politics, but also ensured that financial support from the Danish state would be become available – ultimately, at least.
In the beginning, as a newly appointed curator, I did not find much inspiration in my home town and home country. The real know-how in this field was in the hands of my colleagues abroad. This led to hectic study tours to the Photographers’ Gallery in London, Museum Folkwang in Essen and not least the museums of photography in Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo, which had already built up photographic collections in the 1960s and 1970s. I was able to learn from their acquired experience, but even more important perhaps was the contact with the photographers who lived in these countries. In a strange way, I became both their colleague (1) and very soon curator in a series of Nordic group and solo exhibitions. The most important of these was a retrospective exhibition of works – 9 sekunder af mit liv (Nine Seconds of my Life) – by the Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm. This coincided with the completion of my first year and left permanent traces, both in the minds of visitors to the exhibition and regarding the museum’s ongoing exhibition procedures. Both the height selected for hanging the works and the base colour used are still, by and large, a continuation of this photographer’s standard practice. In contrast to Strömholm’s previsualised exhibitions, it was an exciting challenge six months later to provide the venue for work by the Finnish photographer Timo Kelaranta. Nothing at all was planned here, and everything was improvised on the spot. The wooden panels were either toned down or painted over in black, some series were hung at “Strömholm’s height”, others at a height of more than two metres, while others still were leant up against the wall or lined up in a band across the floor. Natural light entered unhindered through the large windows, based on the idea of letting the available light do exactly what it wanted. The idea of art existing in perpetuity was not a focus for Kelaranta, but it is for the Museet for Fotokunst. It is therefore natural to add that intense, successful collaborative situations such as those outlined above have played a major role in forming the museum’s collections. These now include a number of major works by both these artists – some purchased, others donated. We will return to this point later in this article.
Remigius Treigys, Lithuania. Pictures from MFF’s collections, acquired in 1993 after the collaboration that resulted in the Baltic Photography exhibition in 1992–93.
The exhibitions themselves were really the focal point, and meant that the newly opened photographic museum had its work cut out the first few years. Visitors were eager to learn more about photography as an art form and we were ready to meet this need throughout Denmark. Apart from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Danish Museum of Art & Design and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which occasionally featured work by photographers, those involved in cutting-edge photographic work were referred to small, enthusiastic photographic galleries in Copenhagen and Aarhus – to the limited extent that these even existed – in order to show their latest works. However, their very existence was uncertain, and the Copenhagen galleries closed one after another during the 1970s. Museet for Fotokunst held an average of 19–20 exhibitions a year for the first few years, and the number of visitors grew rapidly. There were some seasons when our attendance figures exceeded those of the Kunsthallen, our sister institution in the same building. Three important exhibitions from this period are worthy of special mention. The first was Pioniere der Kamera (Pioneers of the Camera), arranged by Robert Lebeck, the German photographer and a major collector. This exhibition was encyclopaedic in its degree of detail. It featured close to 400 pictures that zigzagged their way across Det søjlefri Rum (the Room without Columns) on huge panels, and focused the gaze of visitors on all the major names from the first 60 years of the history of photography. I first realised that the exhibition had a hidden agenda when we received visits from a number of major museums in the USA, and one freezing January day, we concluded a transaction when the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased this invaluable collection. Another exhibition that attracted visitors from all the Nordic countries was the retrospective presentation of the significant post-war Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu. As a child, he experienced the dropping of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki and, ever since the 1950s, he had made it his documentary mission to portray the traumas of dying from radiation and the subsequent dramatic change to modern Japanese society. This exhibition took up three storeys and, was seen by between eight and nine thousand visitors, who thus became more familiar with the recent history of the Japanese islands. The third exhibition did not get included in the official programme for 1988, but more than 300 pictures were delivered just before Christmas and displayed in a compact arrangement on the ground floor. This was the Ny Sovjetisk Fotografi (New Soviet Photography) exhibition, selected and compiled by two Finnish teachers at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. During frequent trips to their Russian neighbours, they had established connections with the photographic underworld and were now smuggling into the West the results of the budding glasnost. This was a powerful exhibition, and the curator was Henning Hansen, editor of the recently started journal KATALOG (Catalogue). He chose an artistic – rather than a political – interpretation of the comprehensive material provided. Following this premiere in Odense, the exhibition continued to the Kulturhuset in Stockholm, before doing the circuit of Sweden right up until a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The museum’s ambitions were not restricted to Nordic and other foreign countries alone, but were also intended to take Danish photography into account and raise its profile. In autumn 1988, this led to a much-wanted reunion with the acclaimed group of Danish photographers called Delta Photos, where Jesper Høm prompted the six surviving photographers to reprint their stimulating, spontaneous documentary photographs from the 1960s in a finish that was almost too elegant and finely honed for the museum venue. However, the photographs proved to benefit from this renewal, and the visitors were pleased.
- There was no question that it was the right thing to do when 39-year-old Per Bak Jensen – recently appointed lecturer in photography at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen – requested space for a solo exhibition. This led to Den gådefulde By (The Mysterious City), Zoologisk Museum (Zoological Museum) and a number of other series, with which he had recently made a name for himself as an innovative artist and an astute mystic. Things were more difficult when it came to Keld Helmer-Petersen, who was nevertheless clearly a must. This Danish celebrity, who had gained an international reputation for himself as early as the 1940s with his abstract colour photographs, was also chairman of the board of the Museet for Fotokunst and thus the person who had appointed me as curator in 1985. It was therefore impossible to reach this obvious conclusion without running the risk of being accused of nepotism. When Helmer-Petersen turned 70 in 1990, this passive approach gradually became unbearable, and I enthusiastically threw myself into arranging a retrospective exhibition as the occasion demanded. It was an immensely exciting task, partly because close collaboration with the photographer opened doors into his previous work with negatives and contact sheets, for which I wrote an introduction after conducting my own research. This exhibition proved to be an eye-opener for the majority of the Danes who still rejected the idea that photography has special properties over and above what is topical and documentary. They were able to see with their own eyes that photography could change what is observed from an object to a shape, without relinquishing reality.
The following year, in 1991, the three institutions at Brandts Klædefabrik – a former textile mill – amalgamated for the first time to make available the space they could not provide individually for the Danish all-round artist Peter Brandes. He exhibited paintings and sculptural work in the Kunsthallen, graphic works in Danmarks Grafiske Museum and photographs featuring long exposure and involved finishing work in the Fortid II (Past II) exhibition in the Museet for Fotokunst. As indicated by the title, this exhibition was an extension of the study of the ancient world that Brandes had initiated five years previously in the Fortid (Past) exhibition and book of the same name. It was now understood that the title also referred to the simple technology and photographic method used, as well as the strongly alchemistic revelations carried along by the impact of both the brush and the chemistry on the very creation of the picture. However, in spite of these expressive and dramatic elements, Brandes’ photography was a confirmation of the basic theme on which the photographic museum’s exhibitions were based, both then and now. It should be common knowledge that a photograph is a picture and thus an interpretation and not just a clear glass wall providing a view of the real world.
Launching a new journal is no mean feat, and MFF had considered the idea even prior to opening. However, we were deterred when the attempts made by others ended in failure. Meanwhile, the expenses associated with producing the small catalogues we were obliged to provide for each exhibition – no matter how important – were just as enormous as the profits were disappointing. It therefore made good sense to appoint someone to take over the demanding work involved in launching a journal that could provide ongoing information about new exhibitions at the museum, as well as the other features that such journals normally contain, such as reviews, exhibition schedules, debates and interviews. In spite of this double role, the new journal was called KATALOG (Catalogue), edited by Henning Hansen, a recent postgraduate who conducted most of his work while based in Copenhagen. The journal has appeared in four different formats, and the board was somewhat nervous by the time the third of these occurred (with changes from a quarterly publication to three times a year, and in a larger format with more pages). However, it went well – although the print run did not exceed 1800 copies – and at one point there were subscribers in 23 countries around the world. By the time the editor (2) resigned in 2003 to seek further training and a new job, and Jens Friis took over responsibility for KATALOG, the market had changed once more and the journal acquired the handy, user-friendly format that is still being used, and which appears to still be attracting readers in growing numbers.
It took several years of contact with the Danish National Council of Museums before the Museet for Fotokunst became eligible for state authorisation. This council had declared that such authorisation could be granted when the museum had acquired premises that were of sufficient size to exhibit the Permanent Collection. To remain in Brandts Klædefabrik, there was only one room that could be considered for this purpose, and this was the run-down reception room that extended over the first floor, above Restaurant Amfita in Svendehjemmet, the wing facing south in the former textile mill. The problem, however, was that this venue belonged to the entrepreneurial businessmen who had originally purchased the then disused mill, and which was now leased quite profitably, while the rest of the building had been purchased by the municipality for public purposes. Assisted by Niels Transø, head of culture and recreation for the municipality, the museum made an arrangement that assured us the premises, thus paving the way for state authorisation. The only drawbacks were that the museum itself had to pay for the restoration work by taking out a loan that put us in debt for many years, and that the state subsidy that had been earmarked for increasing the collection now had to go towards heating expenses and paying off the loan throughout these years.
On a positive note, however, the venue was – and still is – ideal for its purpose. MFF had counted on celebrating state authorisation with an all-round event that linked the official speeches by getting the opera singer Edith Guillaume and the pianist Rosalind Bevan to perform in a combined classical and modern programme right in the middle of the first comprehensive presentation of the museum’s own collection. This consisted of 250 photos in a series entitled 5 facetter af en samling (5 Facets of a Collection), which provided visitors with an enormous picture book to leaf through when they followed it chapter by chapter: 1. Historical photography, 2. Nordic photography, 3. International photography, 4. Danish photography and 5. Gregers Nielsen. The latter exhibition was a retrospective assortment, consisting of about 60 examples selected from a large acquisition of 200–300 pictures, supported by the New Carlsberg Foundation, and which I had collected from Gregers Nielsen’s own archives during a lengthy stay with the artist. I was even able to explore the attic in his legendary house at number 8 Asgårdsvej, and it was here under the eaves that I found – covered in dust and definitely looking the worse for wear – the well-known group picture of the Delta Photos people, standing, sitting and lying around the beautiful Lillian Bolwinkel. This work immediately underwent conservation and is now one of the treasures of the collection. (3)
Right from the planning stage, International Centre for Art and Culture was the explanatory subtitle that the project group allocated to Brandts Klædefabrik. This was thus the guideline that MFF worked with, not only because two thirds of our exhibitions throughout the years have come from abroad, but also because foreign colleagues requested exhibitions that could introduce Danish or Nordic photography to the people of their countries.
This led to some years with hectic travelling exhibition activity, in which our own exhibitions toured both Denmark and the other Nordic countries, earning sufficient fees to enable us to balance the budget, in spite of our debts. However, we had not planned that Bernard Millet, director of the enormous Centre de la Vieille Charité in Marseille, would suddenly arrive in Odense in autumn 1989 to assess the major Danske Billedkunstnere fotograferer (Danish Pictorial Artists Take Photographs) exhibition, which I had just finished curating. He was looking for material for the international Photographie – Arts Plastiques (Photography – Plastic Arts) biennale, planned for the Mediterranean city six months later. My focus on the Danes was thus a matter of perfect timing. The exhibition was accepted and placed the 21 Danish participants in company with Dieter Appelt, Cindy Cherman, Joan Fontcuberta, Duane Michals and other important artists. Participation meant that I came close to losing the wonderful Jytte Rex photographic collages, which Monsieur Millet did not want to part with when the festival closed. However, I had decided on the collection in advance – provided I could get support from the New Carlsberg Foundation – and managed to send off a cheque to the artist just in time. This unique series thus remained in Danish hands.
Yearning for Yearning. The Austrian architect couple behind Felleshuset, along with the photographers Pekka Turunen from Finland and Kristján Maack from Iceland, on the right. On the left is Eva Merz from Denmark and the curator of the exhibition, Finn Thrane. Berlin 1999. Photo by Finn Thrane.
A few years later, it was Barcelona’s turn to invite us. I managed to get Keld Helmer-Petersenand the young new talent Niels Larsenas dialogue partners in an essentially pan-European exhibition project called 13 kritikere, 26 fotografer (13 Critics, 13 Photographers), initiated by the Catalonian Chantal Grande and attractively hung at the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica in the city centre.
However, it was not until 1997 that MFF organised an exhibition in Odense that once again attracted attention as a travelling exhibition. This was the HØJLYS & DYBTRYK. Fotogravure i Norden (Highlight & Copperplate. Photoengraving in the Nordic countries) exhibition. In 1994, the Bergen National Academy of the Arts in Norway made enquiries about whether the museum in Odense would take part in a study of the noteworthy resurgence of the use of photoengraving to the Nordic countries. We were very willing to take part, and – following a seminar, a workshop and the appointment of a selection committee – we laid the foundations six months later for what turned out to be an extremely viable and interesting exhibition. Interest in photoengraving had wained throughout most of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and its use took on the status of “salon art”. However, Scandinavian photographers and graphic artists displayed considerable ingenuity and a desire to experiment that broke new ground in the 1990s. This took most of us by surprise, and curators were faced with the challenge of exhibiting installations, metre-high colour engravings, photographic sculptures and digital engraving hybrids. This became a much sought-after exhibition, and was shown and reshown at Møstings Hus in Copenhagen, the Gallen-Kallela Museum in Finland and Grafikkens Hus near Stockholm in Sweden, before being invited to the USA to close. This was appropriate because inspiration had begun with Stieglitz and Steichen in the USA a century earlier – at the Houston FotoFest in Texas, to be precise. When the exhibition was finally dissolved in 2001, most of the artists acknowledged the circulation of the attractive catalogue – with layout by Rhodos – by donating their works to the museum’s collections.
Nordic was also a key word in 1998, when I was contacted by Björn Springfeldt, former director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. He was now head of the cultural programme promoted by the joint Nordic embassy complex in Berlin, which had just been completed. With the backing and financial support of the Nordic Council, he invited me to compile a representative exhibition that could provide a focal point for the inauguration of the newly built embassies for the five Nordic countries. The aim was to draw attention to the Nordic identity in the period leading up to the new millennium by focusing on contemporary photographers. Once the ambassadors had approved the outline I submitted, I was able to conduct research on trips to Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo. These trips enabled me to assemble the sextet of mature, young photographers who – in combination – could support my vision of a contemporary Nordic region. These six photographers were Lars Tunbjörk from Sweden, Pekka Turunen from Finland, Fin Serck-Hanssen from Norway, Kristján Maack from Iceland, Pia Arke from Greenland and Eva Merz from Denmark. The exhibition was called Sehnsucht nach der Sehnsucht (Yearning for Yearning), a title that reflected Nordic countries in which dreaming of the good life had allowed itself to become saturated in material goods to such a degree that yearning could be a sentimental target in itself. The artists from Iceland, Denmark and Finland were present at the opening, and had the opportunity to meet two presidents and three royal couples. The exhibition then travelled to Denmark, Iceland and Slovakia, and was subsequently invited to both Brazil and Argentina. Unfortunately, these plans had to be abandoned, however, when the requisite transport subsidies proved unattainable.
The Permanent Collection
The above concept is the prevalent – albeit dust-laden and vague – designation of what I could be tempted to call the most vital and most dynamic section of the museum. From resoundingly empty archives in 1985 to more than 9,000 autographed works on the shelves in 2006, annual expansion has amounted to an average of about 430 new acquisitions. Such figures are basically irrelevant, however. The driving force behind the current size of the collection is summed up in three equally important considerations: 1) consideration of our cultural heritage (photographs as socio-cultural and artistic evidence, posterity assigned to its canonisation considerations), 2) taking the artists into consideration (name and work preserved), and 3) taking cultural dissemination into consideration (providing information about international art in a broad context, i.e. as evidence of other ways of living and thinking, materialised in visually sensuous objects).
Philip Halsman’s famous portrait of Einstein in the “Main Works” section of the Permanent Collection III, in 1996. Photo by Finn Thrane.
During the early years of the museum’s existence, I could simply hang newly acquired works in a row under the heading New to the Collection. However, as the size of the collections gradually increased and the nature of the additions began to vary, it became possible to divide the works into special themes and arrange the festoons of pictures into narratives, such that they naturally demanded the understanding and active participation of visitors and their imaginations.
I cautiously – but concretely – began with Planter og Blomster (Plants and Flowers) in 1992, but caused a sensation among the critics in the Danish newspaper Information with a sampled Cold War vision entitled I Skyggen af Nagasaki (In the Shadow of Nagasaki). Det legende Menneske (Human at Play) and Spejlkabinettet (Mirror Room) were very popular among visitors, but the tenth anniversary exhibition in 1997 – Status quo vadis (The Existing State of Where You Are Going) – with its intentional balance between frightening past and hopeful future, was probably slightly too sophisticated for the general public. The Hans Christian Andersen paraphrase I Skyggen af Skyggen (In the Shadow of the Shadow), which was the museum’s contribution to the Danish celebrations in honour of this great writer in 2005, and which is still part of the Permanent Collection, has also continued to focus visitors’ attention for long periods.
The fact that these exhibitions have enabled the museum to advantageously increase the size of the collection – via good collaboration and friendship – is mentioned in a number of examples above. The museum’s considerable inventory of Danish works by photographers who include Keld Helmer-Petersen, Viggo Rivad, Poul Pedersen, Per Bak Jensen, Frank Mundt, Eli Ponsaing, Inger Lise Rasmussen, Ole Christiansen, Torben Eskerod and – most recently – Svend Thomsen, has to a large extent been acquired in this way. Frequently – but not always – this was aided by funds provided by the National Council of Museums, the New Carlsberg Foundation or the Danish Cultural Heritage Board.
There have also been unpredictable surprises, however, such as the time Imogen Cunningham’s daughter and son-in-law, Elisabeth and Ron Partridge, turned up in the early years of the museum on behalf of the Imogen Cunningham Trust and bequeathed us five of her New objectivity pictures from the 1920s, in an excellent finish. Or when another American trust, bearing the name of Harold Edgerton – the scientist and ballistics expert – approached us without being asked in 1995 to see if we were interested. This trust subsequently sent us 35 original prints from the 1940s and 1950s by this very experimental, high-speed photographer. Contemporary photographers have also made large and – fortunately – permanent donations to the museum. One example is Igor Savchenko from Belarus, who agreed to meet me at a sidewalk café in Berlin in summer 1997 because he had something he wanted to show me. After five hours of intense perusal of a stack of meticulously hand-copied and hand-coloured prints, he gave me all 500 pictures – “if MFF would be my museum in the West”. Indeed we would, and I have subsequently both presented him in a special exhibition in 2000, curated by Mette Sandbye, and used him recurrently in thematic contexts, where his suggestive reminiscent art, with a hint of political repression, has been able to play a role. Similarly, in 2000, we received a gift hand-delivered by the pinhole camera specialist Carlos Jurado, the father of Mexican photography. He was 74 at the time and came to Odense to attend the hanging of his own small, slow-speed icons at the festival that was featuring slow speed as its theme. He thanked us for the invitation by donating 14 individual copies of these small items of luminous, personal folk art to the museum.
The collection is not only based on the generous donations of individuals, however. On several occasions, MFF has also been fortunate enough to be able to add to our collection by being in a favourable position as regards transforming parts of an important foreign exhibition we had housed. This was the case with the pioneer-like presentation of Latin American photography we got hold of in 1990 via contacts in Belgium – in which the rest of Europe seemingly showed no interest. MFF’s whole-hearted defence of the Magiske Virkeligheder (Magical Realities), as the exhibition was called, not only brought it to Denmark, but also sent it to Finland, and provided us with access to favourable terms for the purchase of a dozen of these Argentinian, Brazilian, Mexican and Chilean photographs, featuring a new, self-aware generation of artists. In 1992, MFF’s own reconnaissance efforts in the former “Russian border states” during Perestroika led to the first authentic presentation of Baltic photography in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Funds were limited, as regards not only the visiting artists from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also their MFF hosts. There was no lack of determination, however, and financial shortfalls were compensated for by gifts of clothing, photographic equipment and salami. We can actually now display an authentic cross section of the wonderful works created using only simple means by the 12 Baltic photographic artists in the years leading up to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Since the new millennium began, our collection has also gone in new directions and we have acquired works from Africa, the Philippines and China. The double profile of Argentina and Brazil that MFF exhibited in autumn 2005 under the name Pampas & Jungle, and which was based on contacts made when visiting festivals in both countries in 2004 and 2005, led in 2006 to the registration – in literal terms – of the largest works the museum has received as gifts to date. These are the 18 huge photographic canvases each measuring 120x 280 cm by the Brazilian Numo Ramas, in which the artist expressively documents the plight of the underprivileged in Brazil.
The Festival of Light
In 1988, I made my first trip to the USA to take a first-hand look at the Houston FotoFest in Texas, which had been recommended by Swedish colleagues. I was well received and immediately invited to return with a Danish exhibition for the next event in 1990. I did so, and have subsequently regularly attended this biennial event, with its international selection of photography. This has served as an invaluable source for my own professional enquiries regarding exhibitions or acquisitions that could be purchased for our collection. Houston covered my travelling and accommodation expenses provided I attended “The Meeting Place” for discussions with the aspiring photographers from so many countries, who had come to Texas to promote their artistic careers, part of which might be achieved by meeting me or some of my numerous colleagues.
I decided that Danish photographers should be given the same opportunity when Copenhagen was named the European Capital of Culture in 1996. Backed with a sizeable subsidy, I invited 25 curators to Denmark from four continents, provided schedules for them to attend different “meeting places” in Odense, Aarhus and Copenhagen, and invited them to an evaluation and farewell party at MFF. Alasdair Foster – director of Fotofeis, the international biennale of photo-based art in Scotland – had requested in advance that he should take advantage of having so many people with common interests all assembled at one time, and host a meeting where a selected group of festival leaders could discuss and set out guidelines for a possible international working relationship in the future. This meeting took place at my home in Kerteminde and, after two days, resulted in the setting up of an informal collaborative organisation called The Festival of Light. Further development took place at subsequent meetings during festivals in France, Canada and Mexico in 1998 and 1999, and the numbers multiplied. A goal was set for putting this working relationship to the test worldwide in 2000, and bringing about several series of festivals under the common “shining” name in 22 countries covering three continents. This proved to be a success and, with the aid of both the network and the photographs themselves – hung right across different continents from Moscow to Paris and Mexico City – the event achieved some of the humanist-transnational scope that had been intended right from the start.
- Odense, the main city on the Danish island of Funen, gave its name to its very own festival – the Odense Foto Triennale 2000. Small as it was by comparison, the city acquired a valuable profile of its own by virtue of the previously mentioned theme Langsomhed (Slowness), which came to focus on the role that time plays throughout photography. The major exhibition was a comprehensive presentation of contemporary Korean works that, in different ways, reflected the desire to hold onto traditional Taoist values such as quietness and existence as opposed to the restless search for change, and our grovelling worship of its power in the West.
Membership figures for The Festival of Lighthave fluctuated somewhat over the years. However, at a meeting in the USA in spring 2006, the count was updated to 20 members when a couple of additional festivals were added – one from Krakow in Poland and another from Aleppo in Syria.
Odense Foto Triennale (OFT)/Funen Festival of Photography
In the course of evaluating the premiere festival – OFT 2000 – it was clear that the desire to achieve nationwide coverage needed to be redefined. Instead of sending exhibitions round to different parts of Denmark, we should attract visitors from all over Denmark to the island of Funen. That was our vision when I began contacting my colleagues at the different Funen museums of art and art galleries in 2001 and 2002. I needed to hear whether they were prepared for such unconventional collaboration. The reaction was predominantly positive, but there were also cautious enquiries regarding options for adaptation, i.e. how the photography displays would fit in with precisely their museum’s particular profile and exhibition policy. This restriction might well have meant an end to our collaboration, but when the joint theme Gruppen – sådan sét (Group View) was proposed and accepted, the initial challenge was not only to find artists who could match both the theme and the institution, but also to ensure diversity in the project. John Andersen, architect and globetrotter, thus exhibited at the Museum of International Ceramic Art – Denmark. This was because his Manhattan of the Desert photographs of towns of tower houses in Yemen are about ancient clusters of houses, built of terracotta. At Faaborg Museum, the link between the group theme and the museum’s own origins was encapsulated in the decision to work with the Faaborg photographer Marius Mikkelsen’s comprehensive documentation of the different groups of people involved in setting up the museum – the painters and poets flocking around the manufacturer Mads Rasmussen, and the bricklayers and carpenters struggling to finish the building and put the sculpture of the great man in place. The former Svendborg Zoological Museum, now known as Naturama, also recognised the benefit provided by this form of collaboration, because we were able to find herds of photographically interpreted animals in MFF’s collections, and these made their way to the museum on the southern side of Funen as the Noah’s Ark collection between shelves and showcases of biologically imitated animals. There was also room for foreign artists in the theme context, such as Boas Tal from Israel, whose well-known art-historical group tableaux featuring members of his own household resounded throughout MFF. And Annet van der Voort from the Netherlands, whose portraits of very young mothers with their newly born babies were hung at The Tinderbox cultural centre for children, parallel to close-up shots of the faces of elderly women, weary with experience, which left it up to the viewer to pose the question why. At the time of writing, the OFT/Funen Festival of Photography was making preparations once more, The festival was officially opened by the mayor of Odense on 4 October 2006, and seven exhibitions were opened at Brandts itself, six in the Funen Exhibition Building for Art and Design and five in other parts of Odense, including the Funen Art Museum. In the days that followed, exhibitions of work by a further 16 artists opened in all the coastal towns, in addition to Ringe. This time, we launched the event with food as the theme. We also expanded the circle of working partners exhibiting on Funen to include Nyborg Castle, the Ringe Library and the Greenland House in Odense. In addition, there are well-defined educational platforms at Brandts, each taking up the challenge in their own way. These are the information centre, in collaboration with a number of Funen schools, and the Funen Art Academy and its pupils, in collaboration with the Kunsthallen.
The Meeting Place at Brandts Klædefabrik. Bohnchang Koo from Korea assessing photo-engravings by Susanne Wellm, as part of the Odense Photo Trienniale, 2000. Photo by S. E. Sokkelund.
Food is a multifaceted topic with numerous anthropological, cultural history and sociological implications, with aspects relating to nutrition and health policy added in recent years. We invited a variety of artists who have worked with food-related subjects (although sometimes the link was not exactly explicit) in an attempt to arrange meetings on Funen with photographers with a British, German, Swedish, Austrian, Bulgarian, American, Australian, Vietnamese, Finnish or Russian background – people who attended the opening days in Odense and met and swapped experiences with the even greater number of Danish participants. Just as in 2000 and 2003, we also invited photographic experts. About 20 of these came from abroad, and there were 10 Danish curators, periodical editors and gallery staff, all of whom made themselves available for “meeting place” discussions with Danish and foreign artists. This took place over a period of four mornings, and helped to ensure the continuation of our collaboration with colleagues in The Festival of Light association.
The Danish Museums’ Prize
On 18 May 2006, MFF was awarded the generous Danish Museums’ Prize by the Bikuben Foundation. The presentation speech made it clear that the institution received this award for activities “including its impressive efforts as a driving force behind the Odense Foto Triennale”, which was described as “a new creative initiative of international proportions”. In addition to our effervescent joy over this acknowledgement and our gratitude to the Bikuben Foundation and the selection committee, there is still room for some slight bewilderment regarding an obvious paradox. When MFF won first prize as European Museum of the Year in 1988, this was jointly awarded to our colleagues at Brandts – the Kunsthallen and Danmarks Grafiske Museum (the former Danish Museum of Printing/Danish Press Museum) – even though we had, to a great extent, worked independently at that time, without consciously finding or exploiting each others’ resources. In 2006, when the three institutions had drawn closer together for a period of several years, and had actually formed an ongoing working relationship that was both close and effective, MFF was awarded the prize alone.
I have teased my colleagues about this, of course, but have also shared with my staff the pleasure that something has presumably succeeded – our ability to perform at an appropriate level of professional standards without hiding our light in an ivory tower, and to become involved in a regional, social experiment without losing sight of international standards of professionalism and quality.
1) As a photographer, I had gone past the adjudicated exhibitions at Charlottenborg, the Artists’ Easter Exhibition and the Artists’ Summer Exhibition. In 1984, I was invited to attend the joint Nordic review of artistic photography that was the brainchild of Gert Garmund, and which had its preview under the name Nordisk Fotokunst 85 (Nordic Photographic Art 85) at Brandts a few months after I had taken up my position as curator of the museum.
[back to text in English]
2) In 1998, the editor changed his name to Henning Wettendorff.
3) This photograph dates from 1964 and is included in the Gyldendal Dansk Fotografihistorie (History of Danish Photography), p. 290.