The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík:
Thirty Years of Living Art
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, and its board has an ambitious plan that includes special exhibitions and commemorative events. It also aims to totally revamp the institution and its operations, catalogue and rehouse its extensive but somewhat chaotic collection and research its own history. That such projects should be initiated now, after thirty years of operation, reflects the unusual history of the museum and its unique place in the art world.
The Living Art Museum was founded and has always been run by the artists themselves – a collective of sorts or a loose but loyal coalition of mostly younger artists, though some of early members, now older, have remained active. It grew in the late 1970s out of a desperate need for exhibition space that would suit the new emerging art of the younger generation and the growing interest in conceptual art, performance and Fluxus – what came to be called simply "nýlist" or new art (hence the museum's name, Nýlistasafnið). Such art was then being exhibtied in the short-lived but hugely influential Gallery Suðurgata 7, and had already taken root with the exibitions of the SÚM-group (including, among many others, Sigurður Guðmundsson, Hreinn Friðfinnsson and Kristján Guðmundsson) and in the highly visible outdoor exhibitions of the late 1960s and early 1970s that led to the founding of the Reykjavík Sculptors' Society, another long-standing bulwark of new art. At that time the National Gallery had no exhibition space of its own, having only limited facilities within the National Museum of Antiquities. The Reykjavík Art Museum was operating out of Kjarvalsstaðir but functioned mainly as a space for those artists who could count on sales to cover the costs. The few galleries of the time, mostly short-lived, also counted on sales to recover costs, all of which left little room for the new, experimental and non-commercial art. The Living Art Museum alleviated this situation by taking over, in 1979, an old industrial building in centre of Reykjavík that had earlier housed some of the exhibitions of the SÚM-group, now spread all over the world as its artists pursued their careers in an international context. The early members included many of the veterans of the 1960s and 1970s along with several younger artists, many of them still in art school – a broad-based collective that has continued to grow as new generations of artists have emerged. For many of them, the Living Art Museum has provided not only early exhibition opportunities, but also a chance to mingle and work with older like-minded artists. It gave a much-needed introduction to alternative art and to currents and influences from abroad that were, until surprisingly recently, underrepresented in the larger institutions.
Members were, and still are, expected to take an active part in the operation of the museum and until quite recently it was run almost exclusively on a volunteer basis. They curated and mounted their own exhibitions and provided all the infrastructure. With remarkable foresight, it was also decided that each member should donate one work each year to the museum's collection, a rule that was in place until 1989, though artists have continued to donate works on a voluntary basis. Over the years, this has grown to include some 800 works. Inspired by the members, many artists visiting from abroad have also left works in the collection.
The collective and loose nature of the Museum has been both a strength and a weakness. While the exhibitions have been wonderfully eclectic and the Museum has served to launch the careers of dozens of artists who might not have had a chance to find an audience or develop their individual ideas without it, there has been little opportunity to pursue the normal internal work associated with museums. Even the history of its exhibitions is only sketchily preserved, and the collection has mostly piled up in inadequate storage and without any of the curatorial or conservation work required to preserve and properly catalogue it. "The history of the institution is mostly oral," says the current chairman of the board, Nína Magnúsdóttir. "The collection is almost mythical and no one knows exactly what its value is, either in cultural or monetary terms. There are certainly key works by Dieter Roth and a number of his graphic works and books, as well as important works by the generation that founded the museum thirty years ago."
The collection certainly includes work by a large number of artists who are now household names, at least in the artier households. To name only a few: Finnbogi Pètursson, Sigurður Guðmundsson, Rúrí, Gabriela Friðriksdóttir, Joseph Beuys, Matthew Barney, Magnús Pálsson, Richard Hamilton, Dorothy Iaonne, Jan Voss, Steingrímur Eyfjörð, Jan Knap and Franz Graf.
To celebrate the first thirty years, the Museum will present a roster of new exhibitions, but the members have also decided to focus on recovering the history and to unpack, catalogue and preserve the collection. "This will be a huge one-year installation. All aspects of the museum's operations will be made visible and everyone is welcome to take part in it, contributing stories and information on all that has been done in the last thirty years. It will be a one-year marathon in the Living Art Museum."
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 15 January 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.