COPENHAGEN — While many companies across the globe have art collections and some even hold art exhibitions within their public spaces, what is happening at Denmark’s Aquaporin is unique. Since June, the water technology purification company — in collaboration with the Danish artistic, curatorial and research collective Diakron — has hosted Primer, an exhibition space that is within its open-plan factory, laboratory and offices.
Anyone interested in seeing a free exhibition (“Life Without,” the current show by Michala Paludan, is on view until June 3) must first book an appointment. Then they are guided around the high-ceilinged building by a member of Diakron, walking past scientists conducting research, receptionists signing for deliveries and employees holding meetings on the factory floor.
Peter Holme Jensen, the chief executive and a co-founder of Aquaporin, said that the company was interested in using its large space for art but that it did not know how best to go about it.
“We are a very small start-up and we do not have a lot of money to go out and buy, so maybe that was our luck,” he said, adding that the Copenhagen-based art consultant Christina Wilson linked him up with Diakron. “We had no idea what would come out of it other than making daily life a little more fun, and instead of listening to our footsteps we could talk to artists and look at what we do from a different angle.”
Bjarke Hvass Kure, an artist and a member of Diakron, said that so far, the experience had been intriguing for visitors, artists and employees. “We are trying to do something long term,” he said. “It is very important that we are not coming here and doing one thing and leaving again.”
For generations, contemporary places and collectives operated by artists have sprung up across Copenhagen with varying degrees of impact and lasting power. “There is a pretty active scene of artist-run spaces,” said Rolf Nowotny, an artist and associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, “but the difficulty is to sustain, to do it long term.”
Some, like the three-man artist collective Superflex (their “One Two Three Swing” is the current installation in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern), have been working together for over two decades and have gained an international reputation. Others have either dispersed or moved on to other locales to pursue their artistic careers.
Many of the Danish artist collectives, like Superflex and Toves, have strong design aesthetics in their work and mesh art and design. (This is also a strong element in many Dutch art collectives, including recent pieces by Studio Drift — which flew hundreds of drones at Art Basel Miami Beach last year — and WERC, which at the end of last year created a light installation in a Dutch forest where 1,000 LED lights communicated wirelessly and reacted to one another and to visitors.)
“Artist-run spaces and collectives have been really important in the last 10 to 15 years,” said David Hilmer Rex, an artist and a founder of Diakron, who did a residency in Miami that ended in December. He added that Miami has far fewer artist-run spaces than Copenhagen. “Compared to the scale of the country, the scene here is really strong, as is the amount of practitioners who are really skilled and doing interesting things.”
Though artist-run spaces and collectives have been around for decades, the growth in the last few years has been instigated by a number of factors — some positive, including the Danish Arts Foundation program started in 2010 called “Opstart af nye udstillingsplatforme” (Start Up of New Exhibition Platform), which funds the running cost of new spaces for up to two years.
Less positive factors are that larger public and private institutions tend to exhibit either international or midcareer Danish artists, successful commercial galleries (including Christian Andersen, Galleri Nils Staerk and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, who have shown at Art Basel Miami) have limited space and capacity to pick up newer artists and very few Danish collectors have focused on the local scene.
“Collectors are so important for artists,” said Jens Faurschou, a former gallerist who now runs the Copenhagen and Beijing-based Faurschou Foundation, which will open a space in Brooklyn this year, “because by buying their art, it keeps them going.” Despite these factors, art experts say that the artist-run spaces and collectives have helped create a rich and complex contemporary art tapestry in Copenhagen.
“I think the artist-run scene is extraordinary,” said Janus Hom, an artist, writer and a member of Toves, an artistic collective that is currently (as their last project) selling their brand, copyright and artworks. “There has been big turnaround, things come and go a lot, but it has not been stagnant and it has consistently been a really good artist-run scene.”
Since the postwar period in Denmark, there have been a number of artist-run spaces across the country but particularly in Copenhagen. Mikkel Bogh, the director of the National Gallery of Denmark, said the reason for this had been something of a paradox with young artists, dissatisfied with the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts studio program (which is free), organizing. But he also said that “the very loose nature of the academy program has nurtured a great deal of independence.”
That has meant that Danish artists have had a long tradition of organizing themselves and setting up spaces and projects to exhibit their work that did not fall under the framework of commercial spaces or institutions.
“This is truly a sound, established tradition, which ensures that it is never left only to the institutions to create development,” Christine Buhl Andersen, the director of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a private museum based around the collection of Carl Jacobsen, an heir to the Carlsberg beer fortune, wrote in an email, “but that it is up to the artists to take things into their own hands.”
According to Mr. Faurschou, before the 1990s the Copenhagen art scene was very small and localized with a number of artist-run spaces but few commercial galleries. However, during that decade and the beginning of the next century, dozens of galleries were established.
“The art market exploded, things changed and at that point in time more traditional galleries kind of popped up,” said Rasmus Nielsen of Superflex. “Suddenly there was a lot of money, suddenly also young artists began selling their works for a lot of money. Then came the crash of 2007 and for a period of time all of that stopped.”
A number of those galleries representing Danish artists closed. “The financial crisis meant that young artists lost exhibit opportunities,” Ane Bulow, the Danish Arts Foundation’s visual arts adviser, wrote in an email, adding that galleries that were able to survive tended to take fewer chances on younger artists. Those that continued “drove on with a less risky exhibition profile.”
Christian Andersen, a former photographer who now runs his eponymous gallery in a recently gentrified neighborhood of the Danish capital, said this was one reason there has been a “boom” in artist-run spaces.
“They run their spaces as professionally as anybody else,” he said, adding that the Danish Art Foundation’s new projects grant had been helpful in that regard. “So if you are a good group of people and you have a good idea for something, you are quite likely to get some funding to run your space for two years.”
Set up seven years ago by the government-run organization, almost 70 artist-run spaces and collectives — including Primer — have received funding. “An artist-driven place creates a form of stable self-exposure; the site’s profile is identity-creating both for those who run the place and for the artists they exhibit,” wrote Ms. Bulow, adding that an exhibition platform is a crucial tool. “This is not the basis for starting a place, but the contributing parties are aware of the mechanism and exploit them.”
There has been recent criticism that institutions like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art about 18 miles north of Copenhagen, the Danish National Gallery and other well-established collecting institutions are more focused on working with international or big-name Danish artists like Olafur Eliasson and Henrik Olesen, both of whom have made their careers outside Denmark.
“On one hand, the artist-run scene is really good because of a kind of desperation that there isn’t much other fun happening if the artists don’t create it because there aren’t commercial galleries” to take on artists who live in the city, Mr. Hom said. The institutions, he added, have “a very unfortunate provincial attitude in that they want to be international so they do not really include the local scene” to lift up on an institutional level. “So local practicing artists are, to a large degree, left to their own devices, which is a negative, but the fact that there is so much good stuff happening is positive.”
Mr. Bogh of the Danish National Gallery accepted that critique. “Louisiana virtually never shows young local artists, and even in my own museum we tend to focus on midcareer artists,” he wrote, adding that numerous institutions and other smaller venues do offer opportunities for younger artists “But point taken, both big and small institutions could do a great deal more to support. We should work toward that.”
First Photo, Aquaporin, Second, Superflex at Tate