While Scandinavian countries may not have quite the same degree of deep-rooted art canon relevance as Spain, France, or Italy, there’s no shortage of art historical background in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden; Edvard Munch hailed from Norway, and Swedish sculptor Carl Milles imbued folk art traditions with a modernist twist—but only recently has the Scandinavian contemporary art market emerged as a world competitor.
This influx is partly the result of the area’s general increase in economic welfare in recent decades. One could compare the benefits of the public arts funding initiatives of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark to, on a smaller scale, improvements and innovations in post-Depression era American art, when Roosevelt’s WPA programs enabled then-struggling young artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock funding to paint public murals. Federal money allowed young artists a chance to prove themselves before being ushered into the private market.
Since 2001, Norway has enacted its handlingsregelen, or “spending rule,” to regulate the massive federal profits resulting from the tapping of oil reserves. As its nest egg grows, so does government support for the arts. In 2012, Norway’s Minister of Culture announced the country’s largest ever arts budget, continuing to allow for the allocation of resources toward both art museums and the funding of young artists’ projects.
Marta Kuzma, the American director of Norway’s Office for Contemporary Art (OCA), said last year to the Wall Street Journal, “If you go to New York, the financial industry is the biggest thing … Within that, if you are to be considered an educated person, you have to aspire to collect art. There is none of that in Norway. It’s a culture of equality.” Also located in Norway is Oslo’s Standard Gallery, which might be the best single indicator of the country’s continued market success, seeing as 75% of the work sold at the gallery ends up leaving the country. The Scandinavian art market is anything but isolated.
Denmark’s contemporary art achievements also exemplify a growing appeal. The international acclaim of artists like Olafur Eliasson, Tal R, and Elmgreen & Dragset has garnered the region’s art scene much attention since the early ’90s. The inherently globalized nature of today’s art market is revealed in the widespread recognition of these artists, many of whom do not live and work in their Scandinavian home countries but still carry an identifiably Danish influence into parts of the world previously unexposed to it. Elmgreen & Dragset unveiled a massive sculpture, Rocking Horse, in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2012, and Eliasson’s monumental 2008 project New York City Waterfalls, in collaboration with Public Art Fund, was the most expensive public arts endeavor since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates was installed in 2005. Within the country, Denmark’s CHART art fair, only in its second year, signifies an increased interest in contemporary art within the country, exposing Scandinavian artists and galleries to international collectors while also exhibiting a variety of international galleries that may otherwise go unnoticed in the region.
In Sweden, a large population of collectors has attracted a thriving arts scene within the country’s borders, heavily centered around Market Art Fair, founded in 2006. While it tends to be selective with exhibitors, like CHART, attendance numbers have been impressive all along. That Scandinavian art markets are embracing an international perspective rather than isolating themselves seems to be both a response to their successes and one of the reasons for their continued prosperity. Public funding enables emerging artists to get a grip on building their careers, while comprehensive fairs and continually increasing private market interest allows established artists to reach previously unattainable audiences around the world.