A Grain Silo Turned Museum Offers a New View on Nordic Art

Kunstsilo is the new home to the world's largest private collection of Nordic art amassed by Norway's 'trillion-dollar man' Nicolai Tangen.

Kunstsilo. Photo credit Alan Williams. Courtesy of Kunstsilo.

On the waterfront of the picturesque town of Kristiansand in southern Norway stands Kunstsilo, which opened its doors to the public on May 11 after eight years in the making. Dedicated to Nordic art, this enormous institution is aiming to put art from the region in the global spotlight.

“We believe in art,” said Stein Olav Henrichsen, chairman of the board of Kunstsilo. “We want to be a part of the international discussion, to make Nordic art more present on the international stage.”

Through exhibition and programming, collaboration with Nordic and international partners, and commissioning of new works, the institution will shine a spotlight on the previously lesser known Nordic art movements of the 20th century while archiving the work of living artists featured in the museum’s collection.

The project’s ambition is reflected in its sheer size and scale, which is somewhat disproportionate to the city. Located on the peninsula of Odderøya, which is Norway’s sixth largest municipality with a population of just around 116,986, Kunstsilo is billed as the largest museum in the southern part of the country. It occupies three expansive floors, totaling more than 90,000 square feet, in a towering structure with a white facade designed by the Barcelona- and Oslo-based architecture studio Mestres Wåge Arquitectes, together with BAX and Mendoza Partida. They transformed the functional silo—which was originally built in 1935 by Korsmo and Aarsland Architects and can hold 15,000 tons of grain—into a sleek museum building with a top floor that offers a panorama view of the city.

inside the building of massive concrete structure

Inside the Kunstsilo. Image courtesy Kunstsilo.

The building is also the new home to the Southern Norway Art Museum (Sørlandets Kunstmuseum) and what is branded as the world’s largest private collection of Nordic art. Known as the Tangen Collection, this is a trove of some 5,500 artworks tracing the development of Nordic art from the beginning of modernism in the 1920s up to the 1990s. The collection was assembled by Kristiansand native Nicolai Tangen, the CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management, responsible for managing the $1.6 trillion oil fund of Norway, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

Tangen, 57, started collecting art in the mid-1990s with the acquisition of first work Artist’s studio (1953) by Norwegian modernist Johannes Rian, and plays an instrumental role in the Kunstsilo project. Prior to joining Norges Bank Investment Management in 2020, he had a successful career in London having founded hedge fund AKO Capital (named after his children’s initials) in 2005 and, in 2013, the charity entity AKO Foundation, which supports arts, education, and climate initiatives primarily in Norway and the U.K. He also studied art history at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.

Such background has contributed to the formation of the Tangen Collection, which is a systematic and meticulous collection that aims to present a comprehensive picture of Nordic art movements and works in a vast range of media by artists from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. Works by key artists including Reidar Aulie, those of the CoBrA movement, and modernist photographers are among the 600 pieces drawn from the collection for the opening exhibition, “Passions of the North,” curated by Åsmund Thorkildsen, The exhibition, which spans 25 galleries across the museum, runs until September, offers a focused and diverse overview of Nordic art, which, in Tangen’s view, that have long been underexposed.

A colourful painting with lots of people, houses, and a carosel.

Reidar Aulie, Tivoli (1935). Courtesy of Kunstsilo.

“[Nordic art] has been underrated. It has been under researched. It has been under displayed. And typically, you display one artist, but you have not displayed the whole region,” Tangen said during an interview at Kunstsilo. “Museums generally collect art from their own country, [but] there is no pan-Nordic collection.”

Tangen’s said his greatest discovery over the course of his collecting journey has been “the richness of the material, all the sub-movements and sub-groups,” which are detailed in the collection’s two-volume catalogue that weighs more than 11 pounds.

In 2015, Tangen announced the decision to give away his collection, valued at around $46 million today, to his hometown, with the intention of showing the art at the then-idle grain silo, five years after the city council decided to preserve the structure after the mill business closed down in 2008. Growing up in Kristiansand, did he always have a vision to have a museum of the scale of Kunstsilo in his hometown?

“I didn’t really have a vision. When you are 14, it’s not like, ‘gee, I wish there was a museum’ because you don’t know what it can add to your life. But after having lived in other countries for a long time, you see what it could be like and how it enriches your life,” Tangen said. “When we came to realize this project, I thought that, ‘wow, I wish we had a museum like this when I was young.’ I think it’s going to improve the quality of our life.”

many paintings on the wall, with a bench in front of it

Installation view of “Passions of the North.” Courtesy of Kunstsilo.

In 2016, Tangen transferred the ownership of the collection to AKO Foundation, which entered a perpetual right of disposition of the collection to Sørlandets Kunstmuseum. The same year, the Kristiansand municipality approved NOK 50 million—an equivalent to $6 million, according to the historical exchange rate—for the construction project. Then, in 2017, Reidar Fuglestad, the administrative director of Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, was named director of Kunstsilo, and in the following year, Cultiva, a cultural foundation established by the Kristiansand municipality, approved NOK 100 million (around $12 million) for the project.

The public-private partnership was met with criticism for its tax-payer price tag and a petition against the project gathered around 1,200 signatures in 2018.

During a press preview, Henrichsen noted that it had been “a controversial project during the building process but ultimately the space “will change the city.”

“After the [Second World War], museum’s collections tended to focus on the inspiration from France,” he added. “This museum fills the gap of Nordic art history and looks at Nordic art as one scene, offering a much wider context than the French influences. That’s why this is important. We hope that people coming from abroad will take a detour to visit the museum.”

View of an art exhibition, with a dark colored bronze sculpture in the middle the room and many paintings on the walls.

Installation view of “Passions of the North.” Courtesy of Kunstsilo.

“I think Norway is one of the most transparent countries in the world, right? There was a lot of discussion here, which meant everybody in the country knows about this project. So that’s the positive silver lining, right?” Tangen noted.

How audiences will receive this museum, both locally and internationally, is yet to be seen, but to artists from the region, the existence of Kunstsilo offers a welcome spotlight. During the week leading up to the public opening, nearly 300 artists attended a pre-opening event dedicated to their cultural contributions. The museum also conducted a total of 46 hours of interviews with the living artists featured in the collection.

“We need more culture, more museums, and more interests in art,” said the Oslo-based artist Marianne Heske. Her signature conceptual work Gjerdeløa (1980), which is widely recognized as a key work in Norwegian art history and among the artist’s 21 works acquired by the Tangen Collection, is on view on the museum’s top floor.

a caucasian woman in blue trousers standing next to a hut

Artist Marianne Heske and her iconic work Gjerdeløa at Kunstsilo. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

The artist transported a then three-and-a-half-century old hay barn made of logs from Tafjord in Norway to Paris in 1980 for the Biennale de Paris exhibition at Centre Pompidou to represent the country, and then moved it back to Norway for an exhibition at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter before returning it to where it stood originally. The walls of the wooden cabin are full of carvings and inscriptions accumulated over the centuries, representing the marks left by people who took shelter there. The work was on show again in 2014, and the artist created a replica of the hut in resin. The current display at Kunstsilo sees the original hay barn and the replica shown back to back.

As one of the world’s wealthiest countries, more should be invested in art and culture in Norway, commented Heske, noting the country’s cultural development over the past decade and a half. Since then, the country has seen the inauguration of the iconic Oslo Opera House in 2008; the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand in 2012; the opening of Munch, a new home to the museum that houses the vast collection of Edvard Munch, in 2020; as well as the recently built National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design (Nasjonalmuseet), which opened its doors in 2022.

If once the silo fed the masses with grain, now it aims to sate a hunger for art. Following the opening exhibition, Kunstsilo will stage “Playing with Fire,” a show curated by British artist Edmund de Waal in which the artist will show his own works alongside those by Axel Salto, the Danish ceramic legend.

“In this climate, it was enough to use all your power to survive the cold and the storms,” Heske said. But she adds that one cannot survive on bread alone. “You also need something intellectual, something cultural. We have a very young culture. We have been isolated from the world, but now we have started to really be proud of our own culture. Let’s bring it forth.”

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