Frode Sandvik (born 1976) is a Bergen-based art historian and curator. He holds a degree in Art History from the University of Oslo. Since 2007, Sandvik has worked as a curator at KODE Bergen Art Museum, where he is responsible for the modern art collection. He has written extensively about artists, collectors and institutions with a particular focus on the Norwegian 20th Century Art. Selected curated and co-curated exhibitions include: Th. Kittelsen: Do Animals Have Souls? (2011), The Bergen Avant-garde 1966–85 (2012), The Needle’s Eye: Contemporary Embroidery (2014), Bård Breivik: History (2014), Art in Battle (2015), Rolf Aamot: Maximum Information Per Time Unit! (2016), Edvard Munch: There Are Worlds Within Us (2019), and It Might be Beautiful. The Art Collector Rolf Stenersen (2022).
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How has your curatorial activity developed over time?
FRODE SANDVIK: I was educated at the University in Oslo, where I graduated in 2003 with a degree in Art History. Following my education, I joined KODE (Bergen Art Museum). The latter is the second-largest art museum in the country (Norway). My first job was as a museum assistant and through this role I had the opportunity to learn about the nuts and bolts of exhibition making – elements that were not taught at the university. As an institution curator my activity is relying on teamwork and the priorities of the museum. During my early curatorial years there was a large museum reform in Norway. KODE was the result of a merging of the Bergen Art Museum and the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art as well as three composers’ homes. In that period, we staged several cross-over collection exhibitions as a way of finding common ground. In one case, we assembled ceramic works and paintings from different periods according to intuitive criteria such as “wildness” and “fluidity”. That was fun!
My projects at KODE are rarely that experimental, but I’m motivated by exhibitions that question conceptions and hierarchies. Art historical exhibitions tend to avoid complex narratives. Since my student days I have enjoyed spending time in archives, retracing the oftentimes chaotic unfolding of events. Many of the exhibitions I have curated at KODE are retrospectives, a format that can be very repetitive and carries a certain narrative. It’s interesting to see how these conventions can be challenged, or even utilised in new ways.
During the curatorial process of the early retrospectives, I strived to achieve equal significance across the artists’ opus. It’s hard not to reproduce the usual linear development through certain phases. But I found that you can also play with the idea of temporality. In 2014, I curated a retrospective exhibition of the Norwegian sculptor Bård Breivik (1948–2016), in which the narrative was borrowed from cultural history exhibitions. Breivik’s work is informed by an interest in anthropology, and this gave us the idea to model his retrospective as a display of historical ages, from pre-historical time to an imagined future.
LŠ: Activation of institutional art collections is also a challenging task.
FS: Of course, working at any museum, the collection at the core. The majority of a museum’s collection will in most cases be in the storage, and the challenge is to curate collection displays that allow for circulation of works. Activation requires that you to look into the collection differently, with other questions in mind.
At KODE, we had a project going on for some years where we devoted a wing of the museum building to the local art scene and its development in the 1960s and 70s. The Gruppe 66 was a group of locally based artists, composers and poets with links to the Situationist movement. They were among the very first to do happenings in Norway. Equally important, they addressed the need for studios, artist-run spaces, an art academy and so on, and were in that sense crucial in making Bergen a viable place for young artists. However, most of these artists were rarely on view in our collection displays.
As we looked for traces of the Bergen avant-garde in the collection, we saw that the museum had acquired ‘safe works’ such as abstract paintings, while more controversial works charged with political or provocative content were left out for unknown reasons. Furthermore, we had no documentation of happenings and other ephemeral activities. Without developing the collection further through acquisitions and actively working with members of the group that are still around, we would not be able to provide a representative portrayal. Our collection expanded through archival materials such as photographs, textile and collage works.
LŠ: You co-curated an exhibition of Edvard Munch titled There Are Worlds Within Us. A fascinating thing about the artist is that he had this reputation of being a very quiet person but he loved observing people. What were some of the things you learnt of him in the process?
FS: Yes, that’s the impression that comes across when looking at his works. But then again, there are many records that contradict this reclusive image. The privilege of working on exhibitions of Munch is that there is just so much material available and so much research to build upon. Munch is not just an artist but a whole field of expertise! From a curatorial point of view, this poses an interesting challenge. The exhibition should ideally bring something new to the table and at the same time there is an impulse to “get it right”, knowing that every choice you make will be scrutinized (laugh).
The exhibition There Are Worlds Within Us at KODE was co-curated with Line Daatland. It was really a unique opportunity and a result of a certain situation at that time (2019): The National Gallery in Oslo was closing down to prepare for a move to the new exhibition building that opened last year. So was the Munch Museum. Thus, several important works were available for loan that normally would be reserved for the museums’ permanent exhibitions. We combined the works with our own collection – the third-largest Munch collection globally.
The core of the show was Munch’s Frieze of Life, a cycle of images that include several of his most well-known works. These are motifs that he would constantly reinterpret in new iterations throughout his career. It is open-ended and non-conclusive. Edvard Munch’s interest in repetition and the unfinished work, as well as his intuitive and experimental methods, guided the layout of the exhibition. We invited the scenographer Bård Lie Thorbjørnsen to do the architecture, and he came up with a quite radical exhibition design where the walls were curved. The whole space was shaped as an open circular structure, mirroring Munch’s cyclical concept of life and art.
LŠ: What project(s) are you currently working on?
FS: The current project is a collaboration with the Munch Museum developed together with curator Kari Brandtzæg. The exhibition It Might be Beautiful centres around the Norwegian art collector, stockbroker and writer Rolf Stenersen (1899-1978). Besides well-known names such as Munch, Picasso and Klee, Stenersen collected young and experimental artists of his own generation. This was before the presence of a specialised museum for contemporary art in Norway. Stenersen staged several exhibitions based on his collection and made substantial donations first to Oslo in the 1930s and later to Bergen in the 1970s. His activities and donations had a strong impact on Norwegian art history of the 1900s and exemplify the influence a single collector can have. In the exhibition we investigate his interests and motivations.
LŠ: How do you see the role of art collectors in Norway?
FS: Well, Rolf Stenersen’s time was very different, but private collectors are not less influential today. There has always been a close relationship between public and private art collecting in Norway, because of the limited museum budgets for acquisitions. Nowadays the field of private collecting is more complex, varying from individuals to large corporate collections and foundations. The major collectors are still actively complementing museum collections, either by donations, long-term loans, or by establishing new institutions.