By Elliot Reichert
Solveig Øvstebø is the executive director and chief curator of The Renaissance Society, an institution devoted to the creation and presentation of contemporary art. This year, the Renaissance Society is celebrating its hundredth anniversary with exhibitions and events that examine the institution’s legacy and charts its future. Øvstebø spoke with us in her office at the University of Chicago, where she was overseeing the installation of new works by Irena Haiduk, whose exhibition will open the Centennial season.
In your first two years in Chicago, what have you observed about Chicago’s visual arts community, and how do you see the Renaissance Society fitting in to this art ecosystem?
Norway’s entire population is half the number of the population of Chicago, so that gives you an idea of what a different context I came from. Of course, the global art world is small, and Europe works with the American art scene a lot, but when you are a practitioner there are many things that are different between these places. I was eager to understand how things worked here. When I arrived in Chicago, I was so taken by the incredibly strong institutional ecosystem, and the support that these institutions have in the city. And I saw immediately how the universities and schools in Chicago cultivate strong student voices. Finally, I was amazed to find how robust the alternative scene is in Chicago.
Speaking of voices, The Renaissance Society seems to speak with many at once, since it exists within a university context but is autonomous from it, and since it maintains strong connections between an international art scene and a local Chicago context.
The Renaissance Society has this interesting quality of “in-betweenness.” It is not a university gallery and it is not a museum in a conventional sense. It does not collect art, and it has an intimate scale and few public obligations. The Renaissance Society has always been research-based and inquiry-based and it has operated with a great deal of freedom. I don’t know of any other institutions that have both the freedom and the strong voice that the Renaissance Society has. We don’t need to label our institution; the most important thing is what we do, especially what we do for artists. The freedom that we have as an institution we are able to pass onto our artists, and that’s special.
How does that institutional and artistic freedom reach audiences?
The contemporary art world is multifaceted. More than ever, it is important to figure out how we can do the best work in supporting artists. For me, it was important to take stock of our situation: we do not have a collection and our space is modest, but we have the possibility to go very deep into the artistic practice. For us, it is most relevant to work directly with the artist. We ask them what they are doing right now and what is it that they want to test out. We have the possibility to be quite experimental. We can give the artist a chance to test out ideas that they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do in a commercial gallery or in a bigger museum, where there are different conditions that affect the work.
Of course, this is risky. When you invite an artist to present work you do so based on what you’ve seen. But after we invite them, we talk and decide what they want to do. Maybe they want to go to Mexico, and do colorful sculptures, like Josef Strau wanted when he came here. The work he had been doing before was very text-based, very conceptual pieces. At the Renaissance Society, you often see shifts that you are able to follow. And this is where the audience shares in the freedom, because they can see these movements in the work we present. For example with Varda Caivano, who had these very layered, dense paintings that were very crowded. But here, she made paintings with expansive space. She took a part of her practice and showed it in full scale. She was then able to see it as a first step in a new development, but one that is still connected to a history of her practice.
Speaking of history and its connections to the present, how are you considering this historic year of the Renaissance Society Centennial? This is a moment when you have the opportunity to look back at a hefty history while also looking forward to what comes next. The Renaissance Society focuses on what is new in artistic practice instead of what they have done in the past. How does that tension play out in the curatorial strategy for this hundredth-anniversary season?
I think that it is important to see that the past and the present are not in opposition to each other. Knowing this is precisely why this institution is so strong. It has always been able to look at its past with an eye for the future. This is exactly what we are doing as a team with the Centennial season. We are celebrating our incredible history, our curious and strange history, which is full of seminal moments and surprising detours. We could have been self-congratulatory, but we are instead looking back and finding things that make us ask questions. These questions come from the past but we ask them for the future. And this returns us to the freedom that we have, which we do not take lightly. We are a very independent institution and it would be a waste of this independence not to use it to ask critical questions about art and about our times. So it’s both a celebration but also a moment to honestly grapple with things like what it means to be an artist today, or to be a critic, or what it means to run an institution today.
It seems that you are addressing these questions very directly in your fall symposium, called “In. Practice.” In this symposium and in the season overall, what kinds of conversations are you hoping to inspire, and who do you hope will join these conversations?
The symposium is based on the institution that we are. We are looking at ourselves and our own model or non-model, this “in-betweenness” that is the Renaissance Society. What have we been? Where are we now? Where are we going? We believe that our questions are also relevant for others, and that’s why we are opening this conversation to the public. We want to share these questions with a larger audience, as well as one that is professional and international. It is not only the institutional platform that we will be discussing. We are also concerned with: what is important for artists today? What is the relationship between institutions and artists? What do artists need? Institutions sometimes think they know what artists need, but maybe we are not asking the right questions. So, that’s where we will start.
The Centennial season is rather discursive, with parallel programs and pendant exhibitions in Istanbul, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and sites around the University of Chicago campus. The Renaissance Society has always engaged in off-site projects, but there seems to be a new energy in this current outreach. What do you hope to bring to new audiences?
The Renaissance Society is so important for so many people in the city, but it should be important to far more people. I think it is a diamond in this city, and I can say this because I am still rather new. I would love for more Chicagoans to know about what is going on here, and I would love for them to see the space and to use it, and to get to know these artists that are visiting here. We want them to experience what we have to offer, which is a very uncompromised presentation of art.
One of the great qualities of the Renaissance Society is that it has been allowed to be uncompromising for all these hundred years. This is incredibly important to continue, and a quality that our audience especially values. If you go too far trying to please, you might lose sight on what you were supposed to do. What is most dangerous in the art world today is the effort toward consensus. If the voice of the Renaissance Society could contribute to dissonance in the art world, I would be happy.
Turning back to the matter of history: you are doing an archive exhibition and putting out a book this fall. Can you talk a bit about how those things address the history of the institution?
These are two components that are both looking back, but they are dealing with history in two different ways. I wanted to have an archive presentation, and the idea was to allow for the not-so-known issues of the past to emerge, those things that we don’t necessarily know are a part of our history, to ignite new discussions. Jordan Stein, our curator of special projects who is working on Centennial programs, is putting together a lot of fantastic visual material.
Karen Reimer, our director of publications, has been working on the book for three years. It traces different tendencies that the Renaissance Society has presented, and it considers what this institution has meant not only to Chicago but also more broadly. It has a massive scope, with a hundred years of many different projects, tales and anecdotes.
Where do you see the Renaissance Society going from here?
I work very intuitively with art. Although I believe in having a vision and direction to guide an institutional platform, I am hesitant to create manifestos. Here, we listen to art, and its expressions change over time. We are here to create the best intellectual and physical frames for those expressions. This is what we focus on, and we need to strive to always do this better. Of course, we are not a passive structure of white walls. At the Ren there is a team of people with a lot of capacity and competence. So this is a dialectic between artists and the institution, which is made of people. This is the overall way we think, but of course we also can be more practical and say that it is important to provide means for the artist to produce work.
It seems that advocacy for artists drives a lot of what the Renaissance Society does. This implies that you have a kind of underlying assumption about the value of art and what artists can do.
Art is an incredibly important voice in our society. I believe in art, and I believe that it is important to take care of it to maintain its voice. Art is a way to communicate that is different from other ways of communication that are available in our times. Hence, this is art’s main task, communication. Can art change society? This is a huge question, and I think we can only do our best to enable artists to speak. I believe that artists can say things that we could never imagine. That is what drives us to work with contemporary artists. They challenge us, and they change us.
This interview was published in EXPO Chicago magazine 2015.