When The Guardian published an article called “Movers and makers: the most powerful people in the art world” in 2014, the Norwegian gallery owner Eivind Furnesvik was one of sixteen dealers included in the list, stating that “His artists are so in demand that American collectors fly to Norway to see sold-out shows, just to curry favour for next time.” Furnesvik is, then, the only Norwegian art dealer who has successfully carved himself a place within the upper echelons of the private international art market – and from Oslo, at that. On Tuesday 7 June Furnesvik gave a lecture at Litteraturhuset in Oslo, invited by the Norwegian Critics’ Association, with the title Why don’t you open up a gallery in New York? Apparently this is the question most frequently asked of Furnesvik; a question that is, as he very accurately pointed out, an insult wrapped in a compliment, or possibly the other way around. Oslo is the periphery, New York is the center. Also, the very name of his gallery – Standard (Oslo) – has always implied something else: Standard (New York), perhaps Standard (Zürich) – but of course never Standard (Berlin). That is common knowledge to anyone who has ever heard Furnesvik talk about how he advises the artists with his gallery against moving to that city, where life is far too simple (if not downright banning them from doing so).
The story of Standard (Oslo) is quite unique within Norwegian art history. Never before have we seen a Norwegian gallery at this level emerge out of an Oslo location. The two other galleries to most closely approximate Standard (Oslo) – Gerhardsen Gerner and Peder Lund – were built along very different lines. While Atle Gerhardsen originally launched his project in Oslo, he set up his gallery in Berlin before joining forces with the Gerner family to re-establish his presence in Norway. And even though galleries such as OSL Contemporary and Galleri Riis have, or have had, some presence at international art fairs, the overall impression is always one of regional players visiting the international league. Today, Standard (Oslo) might just as well have been located in Los Angeles or New York.
During his lecture, Furnesvik repeatedly, and most often indirectly, addressed the question of how his gallery succeeded. Perhaps the answer may be summed up by stating that he and his employees have always – as the gallery owner said, quoting the artist Matias Faldbakken – “worked their asses off”. Of course, it also helped that Furnesvik’s programme while head of Fotogalleriet very much contributed to setting up his future stable by staging solo shows featuring no less than four artists who would later join his gallery – Kim Hiorthøy, Marius Engh, Gardar Eide Einarsson and Matias Faldbakken – as well as a public project featuring Einarsson. In 2004 he took Fotogalleriet to the art fair Liste in Basel; Standard (Oslo) would subsequently have a stand there in 2006, at which point it had already taken part in the fairs Art Copenhagen and NADA in Miami, this during the gallery’s first years of (official) existence. It is hard to believe that Standard (Oslo) didn’t already germinate at the back of Furnesvik’s mind during his years as leader of Fotogalleriet. When Furnesvik left Fotogalleriet in the autumn of 2004 he went to New York, courtesy of the OCA’s ISCP residency. While there he presented the exhibition Standard Escape Routes featuring Einarsson, Engh, Faldbakken, Hiorthøy and Ane Graff.
Some might say there is something dodgy, perhaps even dishonest, about using a small institution like Fotogalleriet to sneakily launch one’s own commercial project in this manner, but in fact the case may really be that Furnesvik was simply the first to realise that within the Norwegian art economy you have to employ any and all structures that might give you a leg up. Given our present-day proliferation of various hybrid forms where publicly funded project spaces and sales-oriented activities intersect – examples include the Oslo-based 1857 and VI, VII, and perhaps Entrée in Bergen – and given the current Norwegian government’s predilection for such things, it would appear that the rest of the art scene is following suit.
Such insight into the commercial mechanisms of the art world is undoubtedly part of what sets Furnesvik apart from the majority of his Norwegian colleagues. This is, however, also partly due to the fact that Standard (Oslo) was launched at a time when the global art market was undergoing radical change, with an explosive growth in the number of art fairs and a corresponding, if slower reduction in the number of galleries that collectors deemed attractive and worth dealing with. At the outset of his lecture at Litteraturhuset, Furnesvik mentioned how galleries such as Wang, Riis and to some extent Atle Gerhardsen were anchored in a Nordic community founded on e.g. NIFCA (Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art), Kunsttidsskriftet Nu, and possibly the first versions of the Momentum biennial, whereas Standard (Oslo) was set up after these structures had disappeared. This meant that there was no longer a Nordic art scene in place to act as a rung on the ladder on the journey from the Norwegian to the international scene. Around the same time the rest of the world became accessible to Norway via the Gardermoen airport in Oslo, which opened in -98, meaning that travellers no longer had to make a stopover in Copenhagen. I remember that Furnesvik once said that an important part of the recipe for Gardar Eide Einarsson’s success was the fact that he always carried out all production locally, which made him accessible to impoverished, but important institutions abroad that basically only had to pay the price of a plane ticket. Of course, the arrival of Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) in 2001 also played a central part in this internationalisation of the Norwegian art scene, and it attracted no small amount of attention when the director of OCA, Marta Kuzma, and Furnesvik became a couple. However, it is doubtful that Furnesvik’s artists were ever overrepresented among those who received funding from OCA, as some have claimed. What is quite beyond doubt, however, is that Standard (Oslo) and OCA, under Kuzma’s reign, established a kind of uncompromising elitism that felt quite new in a Norwegian context.
Furnesvik has always had an impeccable instinct for how credibility is generated, epitomised in the gallery’s press releases. They originally began as densely theoretical presentations of the artists and works featured, but gradually took on a lighter, more experimental tone – perhaps because the credibility was total, which meant that there was no reason to retain theory as a tool to promote sales. Whatever the case may be, we certainly gradually saw press releases of an increasingly crypto-humorous nature, topped by the so far unsurpassed 2010 press release which read, in its entirety: “STANDARD (OSLO) has no choice but to present a new sculpture by Matias Faldbakken.”
Increasingly the gallery has focused its strategic attention on the mechanisms of the market. In recent years, Standard has rehung its booths in Basel, London and Miami several times during the fairs, often using works that have already been sold, in order to introduce the gallery’s younger artists, such as Ann Cathrin November Høibo, to an important international audience. Norwegian artists who have failed, or been disinclined, to evolve in keeping with the gallery’s growth and profile have fallen by the wayside. There can be no doubt that some artists have also terminated their collaboration for non-professional reasons. The same holds true for other partners: you don’t have to attend many gallery dinners in Berlin or New York to gather up a solid selection of stories about angry or hurt collectors and gallery owners who feel they have been let down by the Norwegian star dealer. Be that as it may, Furnesvik has always been good at forming strategic ties to other galleries, and those galleries have grown in scope and size over the years, which means that an artist such as Matias Faldbakken is now also represented by two of the world’s premier art dealers, Paula Cooper in New York and Eva Presenhuber in Zürich. In this sense Furnesvik is not the lone rider that many in Norway see him as; he is simply riding a different race than the one followed by most people here. (It is also possible that Furnesvik feels, to some extent at least, that on his home turf he is the only rider astride a horse in the midst of a donkey race).
In terms of money, many of the Standard (Oslo) artists have experienced very lucrative increases in price levels, especially Auerbach, Faldbakken and Værslev. One of the most interesting market-related details of the technical aspects of operating a gallery – which Furnesvik did not focus much attention on in his lecture – is the fact that for seven out of the gallery’s eight American artists, Standard (Oslo) was their first gallery ever. This in itself speaks volumes about the international outlook of the gallery. During its first years, Furnesvik likely benefited from Gardar Eide Einarsson’s network from the ISP programme at Whitney, but even so Furnesvik’s ability to build these artists’ careers from his Oslo location is quite striking.
Today, smaller galleries tend to worry if Furnesvik comes sniffing around one of their young artists. Everybody knows that the prices will skyrocket, often reaching levels where the original galleries are no longer able to mediate sales to their own collectors, but Furnesvik has in fact also found himself in similar situations. He touched upon this subject as he replied to a question from the floor: creating the right buzz around a young artist to attract attention from collectors, critics and curators is one thing, but growing at the same rate as such artists is quite another. It can also be difficult to navigate the kind of advanced market management you need as the galleries you work with grow larger, the art fairs increase in number, and the collectors become richer and more experienced. In this regard Standard (Oslo) is quite unique in a Norwegian context. There are galleries who operate within the same market, featuring similarly high-profile artists with prices to match – Gerhardsen Gerner and Peder Lund spring to mind again – but none of them work with artists whose careers they have nurtured from early on in the same way as Standard (Oslo).
Perhaps the single most interesting aspect of Standard (Oslo) is how this professionalism and success is offset by idiosyncratic glimpses that make it clear how Furnesvik’s gaze is also firmly directed towards the art history of the future. Furnesvik often refers to Leo Castelli, a clear indication of the level of his ambition. Of course he knows that art history is not written on the basis of commercial success alone. You also need myths. This is where a range of elements enters the picture, small, yet laden with significance. These include gallery dinners at the eccentric dim sum-restaurant Beijing Palace, featuring an assorted guestlist from the art scene; the gallery’s representation of Kim Hiorthøy (who has a markedly low profile as a visual artist, outside his showing with Furnesvik); and, poignantly, the absurdly tall desk at the entrance to the gallery’s outer wing in Waldemar Thranes Gate. Perhaps the Oslo location, which we must now assume is permanent, is a similarly myth-making element from an international perspective. Towards the end of his lecture, Furnesvik waxes almost lyrical in his obvious love of Oslo and what he describes as the city’s finest qualities. Maybe Oslo’s many temporary artist-run projects do not in fact, as he used to think, indicate a lack of professional ambition; perhaps it can more accurately be regarded as an indication that the city’s unique qualities reside in its diversity and in an energy that he described, with reference to Noplace, as “a cross between great generosity and a sawn-off shotgun”.
At the same time it is obvious that Furnesvik feels rather alone in Oslo, and indeed in Norway. He laments the absence of Norwegian critics who publish internationally, the absence of Norwegian curators with an international practice, and – very prominently – Nasjonalmuseet’s glacial pace as regards their embracing of young Norwegian art. Pointing to e.g. the USA, where the board members of the large museums are often collectors themselves, he states that a certain element of vested interest might be preferable to a sense of obligation to eternity, which seems, in the case of Nasjonalmuseet, to have induced a permanent state of inaction. For as Furnesvik points out, art history is written when art dealers, collectors, curators, critics and museums rally round an artist and a body of work because they agree that it is important and of high quality. However, such consensus is not enough if it remains tethered at a local or national level. As long as there are not enough players, agents, critics, curators or institutions with the ability (or inclination) to present Norwegian art internationally, then Norwegian artists will largely remain exotic from an international perspective.
Here we not only find an incisive analysis of certain shortcomings in the ecosystem of Norwegian art, but also an idirect example of how Standard (Oslo) operates within a field where it is actually possible to form alternative alliances. We will just have to wait and see who buys Fredrik Værslev first: MoMA or Nasjonalmuseet.