Fight Rages in Norway over Sale of Barbara Hepworth Sculpture

Kunsthall Stavanger Photo: Courtesy Kunsthall Stavanger

Kunsthall Stavanger.
Photo: Courtesy Kunsthall Stavanger.

A battle has broken out over the sale of Barbara Hepworth's Figure for Landscape (1960) by Norway's much-loved Kunsthall Stavanger, in the country's third largest city. The 2.6-meter-tall (8.5 feet) sculpture holds a £1-2 million ($1.70-3.41 million) estimate in Christie's London's Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale this Wednesday evening. Proceeds from the sale are to be used for the Kunsthall's operating and exhibition budget. Without those funds, supporters argue, the Kunsthall will likely be forced to close its doors.

The local organization Stavanger Byselskap, which helped fund the initial purchase of the sculpture, was first to file legal action against the Kunsthall, hoping to bar the sculpture's sale, according to The Foreigner. And, while that suit was settled in favor of the Kunsthalle, over 260 members of the community have signed a petition protesting against the work's deaccession. Members of the Norwegian art world have condemned the sale as “a theft," while Stavanger Art Museum acting director Vibece Salthe explained, “There aren't many of Barbara Hepworth's works in Norway either. I think it's a shame."

Kunsthall Stavanger supporters were quick to respond, creating a social media campaign to argue that the benefits generated by the sale of Hepworth's sculpture far outweigh the cost. In crafting their petition to let the sale go through, supporters of the Kunsthall don't mince words about what's at stake for the city's art scene:

“Does one want institutions that are ambitious, and strive towards taking part in a large national and international artistic discourse? Does one want institutions that produce critically engaging exhibitions and display some of the best of what the contemporary art world has to offer? Does one want an exhibition space that actively and innovatively disseminates art to a growing audience? Or does one want a sculpture in front of an empty building? The choice should be obvious."

Barbara Hepworth, Figure for Landscape (1960) Photo: Courtesy Christie's London

Barbara Hepworth, Figure for Landscape (1960)
Photo: Courtesy Christie's London

The group admits that it will be “painful" to lose Hepworth's Figure for Landscape. However, where others have placed blame for the current lack of funding for the institution with its own management, the Kunsthall Stavanger's supporters claim the situation is the result of, “longstanding lack of political will…to pay the price to maintain important art institutions." They also cite the basic conceit of kunsthalle worldwide, which rather than building collections—something for which museums are typically responsible—is to foster and display new production. Numerous international artists and curators such as Lauren Cornell, Jayson Musson, Lorna Simpson, and Cecile B. Evans, have joined in calls of support for the sale.

Norwegians haven't been alone in condemning the sale—the Hepworth estate isn't happy about it either. “We feel it's unethical for the work to be resold by Stavanger for short-term financial benefit. As this is the only Hepworth in a Norwegian public collection, it would be additionally regrettable to see it sold," Hepworth's granddaughter told Norway's public broadcasting service, NRK via Professor of Architecture Harald N. Røstvik. They claim that Figure for Landscape was sold to the institution for about half its value at the time, due to Hepworth's desire to have one of her works in a Norwegian public collection.

Figure for Landscape first went on view at the Kunsthall Stavanger in 1968. It is the sixth of seven casts of the work, which Christie's says, “is the first example of Hepworth attempting the wrapping process in plaster for bronze." It was created during one of her most prolific periods. Other casts of the sculpture have been exhibited at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington DC, Tate Modern, and London's St. Paul's Cathedral, among others.