When the much-respected Susanne Ghez announced she was stepping down as executive director of Chicago's Renaissance Society after nearly 40 years in the post, the contemporary art space's board ventured halfway around the globe to find the person it believed could best replace her: Solveig Øvstebø. Beginning in 2003, the art historian and curator served as director of the Bergen Kunsthall, transforming the Norwegian institution into one of Europe's top contemporary art venues despite its seemingly out-of-the-way location in a city of only about 250,000 people.
Now, her challenge is to build on the forward-looking reputation of the Renaissance Society, where 22 artists had their first solo institutional exhibitions in the United States between 1990 and 2000 alone. Øvstebø's debut presentation will be the first solo American museum exhibition devoted to Berlin-based sculptor Nora Schultz (Jan. 12-Feb. 23, 2014).
Although Øvstebø is working in the United States for the first time and getting used to regularly speaking English, she seemed right at home recently in her new office as she talked to A.i.A. about working in a new country and her preliminary plans for the Society.
KYLE MACMILLAN Please tell us about your first exhibition. What will be featured in the Schultz show?
SOLVEIG ØVSTEBØ We will be doing a completely new show-all new works. That's what I'm interested in: having a dialogue with the artist and supporting the artist in producing new work where the artist is at that exact moment.
MACMILLAN What other kinds of shows do you envision?
ØVSTEBØ I think it's important to have a combination of shows that go into one artist's production in depth and those that take a more thematic approach. For me personally, in the case of group shows, I find it more rewarding to work with a smaller group of artists so that each has his or her own space rather than to do a bigger group show with a more defined, overarching theme. The shows I did at the Bergen Kunsthall very much reflect that, for example, "Gambaroff Krebber Quaytman Rayne" (2010). We presented the four artists together, but there were four different presentations in the same exhibition and we discussed concepts that were relevant to all four of them.
MACMILLAN What does the Renaissance Society need to do remain on the cutting edge?
ØVSTEBØ I think an institution like the Renaissance Society, in order to keep its strength, needs to not chase the trends-actually, not chase anything. Just do proper, solid, in-depth work and work closely with artists and also seek a kind of relevance, even urgency, in our projects. I'm careful with the words "trends" or "cutting-edge" or "avant-garde." Even though I can see that this has been that type of forefront institution, it's a dangerous manifesto.
MACMILLAN What do you believe is the most important development or direction in today's contemporary art world?
ØVSTEBØ I wouldn't have an answer to that. That's actually my answer. I don't see it as my task to figure out what is most important in art today. For me, my task is to provide good intellectual frameworks for artists to work within, and, hopefully, we will be able to do good artistic productions together.
MACMILLAN Are there some areas in the art world that you feel like the Renaissance Society has not explored as much as it might?
ØVSTEBØ When you look at what has been done here, it is very diverse. But one could say the performative element-perhaps more performance would be interesting to have seen here. Maybe we should do that a little bit more.