Three weeks ago Martin Clark took the director’s chair at Bergen Kunsthall after Solveig Øvstebø’s ten-year tenure came to an end. During that period the institution went from being a traditional art society to become a well-respected exhibition venue for international contemporary art. In other words, the Kunsthall now taken over by Clark has been a success story from a peripheral location. Clark has previously worked at institutions located some distance away from the art centres of the world, most recently as artistic director of Tate St. Ives on the west coast of Cornwall. Here he helped transform the venue’s profile from a conservative regional museum to a contemporary institution with international ambitions. So, Clark ought to be excellently qualified for understanding the landscape in which Bergen Kunsthall operates, a place where strong local roots and international ambitions intersect.
In a Norwegian context you are relatively unknown as curator and director. Could you tell us a little about your background?
I studied in Sheffield, where I got my bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. Becoming involved in writing and curating happened through my work with artist-run organisations such as S1 Artspace in Sheffield. I never deliberately chose to stop being an artist; that was simply the result of a process. I ended up applying for the MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, and over those two years my practice shifted increasingly from that of an artist to that of a curator. I later got a job at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, where I curated and ran the art school’s galleries. My next job was exhibitions curator at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. In 2007 I was appointed as artistic director at Tate St. Ives. At that time the institution had, perhaps, a rather conservative programme that emphasised both the collections as well as a certain generation of contemporary British artists. I wanted to make the programme more international in scope while also honouring the institution’s obligations in relation to the collection. Back in the 1920s, St. Ives was home to an artists’ colony and played an important part in the evolution of British modernism, and these histories needed to be reflected in the collection and the programme. At the same time I wanted to develop both St Ives and the institution as a place of ambitious international contemporary practice.
What aspects from your career, including your time at St. Ives, will you draw on when you embark on your work at Bergen Kunsthall?
The context is very different here compared to St. Ives. Bergen Kunsthall is more like Arnofini in the sense that there is no collection to manage and the programme is contemporary and international. Tate St. Ives is a part of Tate – a brand that also attracts visitors who do not generally seek out contemporary art. One of the things I learned whilst at Tate St Ives was that it is possible to stage challenging contemporary art exhibitions for a wide audience as long as you present that work in a way that is open and accessible, and that supports audiences with many different levels of knowledge and experience. One of the things I look forward to when working for Bergen Kunsthall is to see whether we can attract a larger general audience in addition to our core audience – but, and this is an important point, without changing the nature of the programme. The Kunsthall has an important core audience that creates a vibrant critical scene and dialogue, both of which are crucial for the institution. Indeed, one of the most attractive parts of taking over this job after Solveig Øvstebø was the strong programme she established, and I greatly appreciate many of the artists whose work has been on display here in recent years. The current programme I’ve inherited over the coming months is also typically strong, featuring e.g. Haegue Yang in the autumn and The Otolith Group next year.
How will you be working with the exhibitions as director and curator?
The size of this venue allows the director to be heavily involved in curating the exhibitions. This close, day-to-day connection with curatorial projects, as well as the co-operation with the fantastic colleagues at this place are important reasons why I wanted to come to Bergen Kunsthall. I am very keen to work collaboratively and have often brought in co-curators with specific areas of knowledge and experience. I want a dialogue-based process, so I hope we can also get independent curators involved; that’s healthy for the institution.
As a curator I believe that one of the most important things you can do is to be sensitive and receptive to artists’ own practices – wherever they might take you. Artists are often better informed than curators. Too many curators are more concerned with what other curators are doing than they are with really engaging with and following the art. For me the starting point is almost always an attempt to address, understand and share artistic practice, rather than the imposition of pre-determined themes or ideologies. I hope that the ideas will emerge from the situation and the work.
The current financial situation for Bergen Kunsthall is good, but as you know Norway has a new government now, and this is likely to change conditions within the field of art and culture. You have seen similar changes in the UK before. Is this a cause of concern to you?
I have only been here for a very brief period of time, so I do not feel qualified to speak with any authority about the political situation in Norway even though your election was widely covered in the UK. I have no immediate sense of alarm, for as far as I can gather there is a strong dedication to and respect for culture in Norway. In the UK we got a right-wing conservative government after a long period of left-wing Labour rule, and this led to budget cuts within the arts, particularly within the British Arts Council. I’m hopeful that this won’t be the case in Norway, however. In the UK at the moment the challenges are great, but at the same time people are working with the situation as it is, trying to raise awareness of the importance and value of public-sector funding. Artists are very good at adapting, though, and institutions should always remember that art is resourceful and that the institutions themselves are more than their given budget framework at a particular point in time. At the same time it seems as if the distance between institutions and the councils and ministry of culture is much closer here in Norway than in the UK, and that’s got be a good thing.