Into the wild with the champion of museum directors

You might well ask why someone who gets to spend around 150 million euros on art for a living would ever choose to resign. Artworks Carl Larsson finds out.

8 min read

For the four-time museum director Lars Nittve it was certainly no easy choice to leave the distinguished role as the director of Asia’s premier contemporary art museum. At M +, he had the Chinese nickname “Lili-wei,” which means “he who builds important things”. But after five years of construction, it was clear that it would take another five years before the official opening could take place. At that point Nittve chose to head back to Sweden, to the forests of Jämtland – Into the Wild. “I am convinced I made the right decision. As the opening of M + was pushed back, it wasn’t realistic to stay another five years. It felt too long for an old man like me. This was a good solution.” He will continue to follow the project as an adviser. But it is far from a full-time job. “I will go to Hong Kong once a month to act as a sounding board. Otherwise I’m in Edsådalen in Jämtland where my wife and I now live. I won’t be taking on any big assignments or join any new organisation. Lately, I have been enjoying skiing and taking time off. I have thought about writing some more in future. After 25 years of substantial museum projects in four different countries, he can count himself among the heavyweights of the industry. But despite what you might think from his success, he had no grand plan to go into the art world when he was young. “I first worked as a ski instructor before I started studying at Handelshögskolan in Stockholm. But then I dropped out of Stockholm School of Economics and started reading art history instead. I went from being a teacher at the University of Stockholm, and writing art criticism to becoming senior curator at Moderna Museet. It was not like I knew what I wanted to do when I was 16.” Nittve believes there is a cultural problem in most countries that it is increasingly difficult to get a younger audiences interested in art, not that he claims to have the answer. “All over the world people complain that we have poor quality arts education in elementary schools, and that it is therefore difficult for children to understand all the amazing things the art world has to offer. Compared with many other countries around the world we are way ahead in Sweden. We have a very sophisticated, engaged audience who are very knowledgeable, even compared to the UK. But even in Sweden art teaching is weak, so it is obviously not only affecting Swedish young people. Instead, what we have in Sweden is access to really good museums and art institutions. School classes often go to these, and that’s where they get the best early introduction to art. The job that museums do year after year, and have done for decades is extremely important.” Perhaps the most important of these museums in Sweden is Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where Nittve served as director for nine years, from 2001 to 2010—the maximum length of a term possible for a director at that museum. Even though it was only six years ago that he left the job, the museum audience has increased enormously since then, and the number of tools to attract visitors have grown exponentially thanks to the digital revolution. “There is a constant rise in visitor numbers for museums around the world. It suggests that art is democratised, and becoming increasingly accessible. It’s all to do with the digital revolution. If you compare things now to when I started working at the Moderna Museet they probably have three times as many visitors today. The accessibility of images and information about art is so much greater now. You don’t have to buy an expensive art book to find out about art. Today, people can educate themselves through information on the web. The museum experience is much more educational to the extent that you can prepare for your visit by reading about the exhibitions before the visit.” With more digital tools art also becomes more accessible to people who aren’t just around the corner. Developments now allow audiences to sit at home, and see the art on their computer devices. “I’m not a huge fan of this particular development, but I think it is inevitable that new solutions like these will keep emerging. Much of the art that is displayed on the web are works made in a particular medium that can only be fully appreciated in person.” Making art, and information more accessible is part of Artworks’ vision. We are creating your local art guide to find out what art shows are on, and which artist and artworks are being shown. “The technology is already there. Why not apply it to this area. More and more people are traveling and going to art galleries as part of their trips. The art industry is a dynamic world, and it is constantly changing, so those who travel a lot may find this useful. I often say, “The more you know the more you see.” At M + Lars and his team also worked on the digital aspect of the museum to improve the visitor experience with the help of advanced websites and apps. He says that they wanted to give everyone the choice of learning in their own way. “We wanted people to come here prepared, or at least with some background before they entered the exhibitions. It is about creating opportunities for people to learn more about what is in the museum in a way that doesn’t make them feel stupid. Some want to go with a guide, some want to prepare at home by reading online. Others are downloading apps or watching videos of artists talking about their shows. The key is that people don’t get excited about this if they don’t know. Being able to provide these resources to people who want it before they come is crucial. This is the opportunity that digital provides. It is a way to break the divide between those who know, and those who don’t. It means you can get the inside track. Google’s art initiative, which among other things allows users to zoom in in detail on individual works at museums around the world isn’t something Lars wants to comment on just yet. “The jury is still out regarding Google’s project. I ask myself what the museums’ reasoning is when they agree to take part. As a museum they have a responsibility to represent the art they are showing. When museums allow people to view paintings in other ways than they were originally meant to when they were made, they may well be betraying the mission of the artists.” But Lars is not afraid that Google’s art project will make the museum visitors stay at home in front of computer screens instead of getting to the museums. “I do not think there is any risk that people will go to museums less because of this. Indeed, it seems that audience numbers actually increased. Those who have not ventured out to the museum in the past may have an increased interest now that they have gotten a taste of the museum through Google, and may feel more comfortable.” Google is not the only company that have tried to digitalise the arts industry in the last few years. David Zwirner has invested in auction site Paddle8, and Larry Gagosian has joined the art world’s equivalent of Spotify – Artsy. As a former museum director business opportunities are aplenty for Mr Nittve, but as yet he hasn’t snapped anything up. “I’ve had all sorts of requests over the years, but so far nothing I’m interested in enough. Perhaps it has been because I have been too busy until now. I’m mainly interested from the educational perspective rather than the market view. I think I have a strong pedagogical talent. That is the reason why I have been working in this industry. Much of my life has revolved around artistic experiences that I’ve had. There is a clear before and after. For me it has been about giving others those kinds of experiences. Helping people find out something about themselves that they haven’t seen before, when something becomes clearer, and they see it in a different light: that’s my motivation in life.” Is there therefore a better chance he will go back to being a ski instructor than being a business minded art dealer? “No, hehe, don’t go there. I may well be more interested and better suited to other things, but I’ve learned you should never say too much about things like this because you never know where you might end up.”

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