OSLO, NORWAY–The Oslo neighborhood of Tjuvholmen is a noisy place these days. Construction trucks rumble past large moving vans while sparks fly from welders soldering metal onto several skeletal structures soon to be loft apartments, office buildings and cafes.
Situated on a peninsula that sticks out into the Oslofjord, Tjuvholmen was historically a shipyard, and while there are still parts that are littered with shipping crates and large boats, the area has been transformed by a multimillion-dollar urban renewal investment.
The openings of art galleries like Peder Lund, Galleri Riis and Stolper and Friends (one of the partners is the A-ha guitarist and artist Magne Furuholmen), have helped the neighborhood gain the reputation of being a “small Chelsea,” said Gunnar B. Kvaran, director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
But the real feather in Tjuvholmen’s cap was the opening on Sept. 29 of the Astrup Fearnley — as it is known on the Oslo contemporary art scene — designed by Renzo Piano. The private museum had existed in another locale in central Oslo since 1993, financed by foundations set up by descendants of the Fearnley shipping family.
The museum has focused much of its collection on international and American contemporary art. This new location is four times the size of the old site and cost £70 million to build, about $110 million. Despite its modern look — it is made of wood and curved glass that covers two buildings separated by a small canal — it fits in the surroundings.
“The growing consensus is that this building is quite an achievement that works well with the nature and as part of the fjord,” Mr. Kvaran said. “This museum now becomes our identity. We now have the possibility to expose the collection, giving us a totally new profile in the city and in the art life of Oslo.”
Contemporary art in Oslo is thriving. Norway’s economy is booming — its rich North Sea oil reserves have helped isolate it from the global recession — and several of its largest companies have been investing in contemporary art collections. Some are focused mainly on Norwegian contemporary art while others also are buying up some of the big names on the international art scene.
Several of the city’s most important art institutions, meanwhile — the Munch Museum, the Stenersen Museum, the Henie Onstad Art Center (HOK) and the Astrup Fearnley — were private collections that have been opened to the public.
Considering that Oslo has a population of less than 600,000 people means that per capita a significant chunk of the city’s modern and contemporary art holdings came through donations by philanthropists and company collections.
“There has been a tradition for donating and giving large collections to the public,” said Oystein Ustvedt, an art historian and author of “New Norwegian Art Since 1990.” “I think it has to do with this building up of national identity. Norway for so long was very poor so it was important for a few rich people to build up a collection of art.”
That idea of building up a national identity through culture — Norway only became a nation in 1905 — has played an integral role in Oslo over the past century. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) bequeathed 25,000 of his works to the city when he died, though the Munch Museum did not open until 1963. His friend Rolf E. Stenersen, a stockbroker and art collector, donated a large part of his collection, which consisted of more than 400 prints by Munch and work by such artists as Reidar Aulie, Erling Enger and Sigurd Winge.
The Stenersen Museum — though housed separately, it is part of the Munch Museum — opened in 1994 in a small space in central Oslo. The museum is home to the philanthropist’s collection and puts on several exhibitions a year. The current show, “The Storytellers: Narratives in Contemporary Art,” includes works by Tracey Snelling, Georges Adeagbo and Eder Santos and is on until Nov. 4.
While HOK has no plans to move from its location in suburban Oslo, the center’s new director, Tone Hansen, wants to update the building, which opened in 1968 to exhibit the modern and contemporary art collection of the Olympic figure skater and actress Sonja Henie and her husband, the art collector Niels Onstad.
“We want to take the building back to its former glory,” Ms. Hansen said. “It has a certain ‘Mad Men’ style to it, so we have to work with the architecture, not against it. I want to bring life back, to make it breathe again.”
The center, which has a collection of pieces from the Fluxus and CoBrA movements, has built up a strong multi-disciplinary platform with music and performance archives, including pieces by John Cage and Laurie Anderson, that Ms. Hansen plans to integrate into the center’s exhibitions. For example, the HOK show that opens on Oct. 28, “I Want the Beatles to Play at My Art Center,” will focus on documentation of dance, theater and music produced at the center in the past four decades.
“Very early on, instead of acquiring new works, they started commissioning works from composers and artists,” Ms. Hansen said. “So we are thinking now that documentation should be looked upon as part of the collection, not just for the archives.”
Many companies here have made collecting part of their corporate code. “I think it is unique,” said Peder Lund, who, while running his contemporary art gallery in Tjuvholmen, advises companies on their collections. “The first company was Norsk Hydro, which started collecting in 1905 just as the company formed. They were always extremely generous with their collection, loaning to several museums. So I think other key Norwegian companies saw that this endeavor was one that was appreciated.”
The technology company Telenor has been collecting contemporary art since moving its headquarters to Fornebu on Rolfsbukta Bay in 1998. The company has amassed a significant photographic collection and has several integrated art pieces, including 90 columns scattered across the large front courtyard done by Daniel Buren.
There is also a striking LED display by Jenny Holzer that scrolls across the top of one of the buildings. At first glance the display looks like stock market numbers or news headlines, but it is actually a series of short texts.
Nordea, a bank that set up a committee to collect art in 1999, has decorated its Oslo offices with several contemporary pieces and has a small exhibition space in the lobby that is open to the public during the week. In 2007, the company organized an exhibition titled “Clusters” to present a portion of the collection to the public.
“We want to show that we are a modern institution,” said Sigurd Carlsen, who looks after Nordea’s collection. “When you come into this bank you want to visually meet a company that is up to date, that follows the here and now rather than a bank with heavy oak furniture and an oil painting of the old C.E.O.”