STAVANGER SITS on the picturesque west coast of the social democratic oil state of Norway. If I say Norway, you might picture Vikings, fjords, and northern lights. If I say Norwegian art, you might think of Edvard Munch, or Bjarne Melgaard, or even Ida Ekblad. If I say art in Stavanger you might be left with a blank expression. In fact, the city is littered with art. But not where you think it would be.
With 132,000 inhabitants, Stavanger is Norway’s fourth-largest city. It has an art museum, an oil museum, a symphony orchestra, a concert house, a kunsthall, and a handful of galleries—but there’s no art academy, and art history is not even offered as a course of study at the university. And although you will find art at the museum, in the kunsthall, and in the offices of Statoil, the state-owned oil company, that’s not what I meant when I said that the city is littered with art. I meant that literally: there is street art everywhere. Let me explain with a brief history lesson.
In the nineteenth century, Stavanger grew from a small, sleepy fishing village into the center of Norway’s canning industry. In 1865 the Stavanger Art Society was established by sixty-two upstanding citizens representing the booming businesses in town—shipping, building, and retail—who wanted to cultivate an interest in art by assembling a public collection. The Art Society still exists today, reborn and rebranded as the Stavanger Kunsthall in 2013, and its holdings became the basis of the Stavanger Art Museum, which opened in 1992. Both institutions are traces of Stavanger’s history of wealth, offering evidence of the connections between financial and cultural capital, of the city’s taste for the pleasures of high art.
Fast forward to the late 1960s and another boom—this time not of cod liver oil, but of the more lucrative crude oil. The Norwegian government decided to locate its new Petroleum Directorate in Stavanger, ensuring the city’s close ties to black gold. But the new flood of capital did not increase interest in highbrow cultural fare. These days, Stavanger’s ruling class favors Porsche Cayennes and street art. The rift between cultural and financial capital has been studied by, among others, University of Stavanger professor emeritus of sociology Lennart Rosenlund, who observed that, despite global pop culture’s promotion of individuality, Stavanger’s citizens make lifestyle choices in order to fit in, not to claim cultural distinction. A recent doctoral candidate at the university, Merete Jonvik, found support for Rosenlund’s work through in-depth interviews. Her informants revealed that high art suffers from low status in Stavanger. Even people who did possess some form of cultural capital downplayed it.
It is hard to find an empty square in Stavanger. There are monuments of the usual sort: run-of-the-mill statues commemorating important men or cute farm animals, as well as an occasional modernist sculpture. Blank walls are even rarer. You can’t go far without being confronted by street art, like Martin Whatson’s riff on Michelangelo’s David, a two-dimensional rendering of the famed sculpture covered with colorful tags, or his version of René Magritte’s The Son of Man, where the face of the man in the bowler hat is obscured not by an apple but by graffiti. There are two murals showing exotic women draped in colorful garb by British artist Hush.
The density of graffiti in one small city is primarily the result of the NuArt Festival, advertised as a “leading celebration of street art.” NuArt was founded in 2001, when street art was attaining new prominence, thanks to artists like Banksy and Barry McGee (not to mention the mass production and marketing of streetwear fashions). Since then, numerous similar festivals have appeared elsewhere. They have become important to cultural tourism, urban planning, and civic identity in smaller cities across Europe and the Americas, proliferating in parallel to biennials.
I FIRST TRAVELED to Stavanger in 2012, to interview for the position of director of the Rogaland Kunstsenter, a regional exhibition hall. I stayed at a nice designer hotel. The rooms and reception area boasted graffiti-inspired designs. The entrance was covered with street art. I found myself looking for a blank wall to stare at. I soon learned that the local art scene had been overtaken by this instant art, which is highly visible and cheap to make and show, and bathes itself in the illusory glow of subcultural rebellion.
When I took the job at the Kunstsenter, I was surprised to find that the street art scene had taken such a strong hold in the city, even though few street artists actually lived there. Artists who worked in other mediums and styles—easel painting, sculpture, video, traditional crafts—were desperately trying to gain the public’s esteem and maintain art venues (the Stavanger Art Society had been suffering from declining membership and a heavy turnover in the director’s office). NuArt, on the other hand, has been highly successful at public outreach and winning access to state and private funding. It speaks to the general public, particularly to the youth segment, in the culturally shy Stavanger.
In 2012 NuArt founder Martyn Reed, who moved to Norway from the UK in the late ’90s as a DJ, launched Reed Projects, a for-profit venture that sells . . . street art. This summer, it was rechristened NuArt Gallery, further blurring the distinction between Reed’s commercial and civic activities. (In September, artist Jeff Gillette was showing both at NuArt Gallery and in the festival.) A few other commercial ventures—the most prominent of which is Galleri Opdahl, whose stable includes local painters like Natasja Askelund as well as international stars such as Jimmie Durham—are doing their best to compete for a handful of collectors in a small city. NuArt offers something they don’t: street cred. Reed has shaped a situation where new collectors are mostly looking for “cutting edge” street art.
Reed’s street art empire has been built on a lot of hard work and dedication, but NuArt is still small. The festival recently made a relatively huge investment by hiring a new manager, James Finucane, who previously worked as a research assistant to Julia Peyton-Jones of London’s Serpentine Galleries, to head operations throughout the year. Apart from Finucane and Reed, the institution runs on the work of a handful of assistants and a large number of volunteers who support the festival during the late summer and fall period. Finucane’s hiring means that NuArt can look beyond the walls of Stavanger. The festival is expanding not only to neighboring towns in Norway but also to Oslo and Aberdeen.
In addition, NuArt is developing plans for a center for urban art, and lobbying to make Stavanger an “Art City.” This would align the street art organization with the EU’s Smart Cities program for developing innovations in urban planning. What is an Art City? Well, according to a promotional video made by NuArt, its primary traits are: “well-being, growth, and community.” The promo also promises “increased cultural tourism, an influx of talent and investment,” and “an efficient use of public money.”
Those values are hard to argue with. But the video’s claim that an art city “is socially inclusive, uniting through social class, gender, and ethnicity” is a bit more dubious, given that NuArt’s program is dominated by white men. The roster for the 2016 festival includes only one woman, Hyuro from Argentina, who was featured in a previous edition, and Kennardphillipps, a duo from the UK consisting of a man and a woman. Street art, as it’s represented in Stavanger, is very white and very male, so the connection to the promise of unity across boundaries of gender and ethnicity seems tenuous at best.
Can the contemporary art scene in Stavanger learn anything from NuArt? Reed has managed to sell himself to the city as a renegade savior, maintaining an antiestablishment credo while receiving public funding and promoting cultural tourism. That’s politics. This situation is not unique to Stavanger. It’s common in smaller cities where the competition for public and private funding is won by projects that offer high visibility and mainstream appeal. In Stavanger, as elsewhere, members of the contemporary art community will have to step up and organize to offer an alternative. If they don’t, Stavanger will lose a valuable diversity of voices in its artistic expression.
Geir Haraldseth is director of the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, Norway.