Danish artist ordered to repay museum $72k for submitting blank canvases

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The story you are about to read is not the plot of the next Coen Brothers film, it is all true. In 2021 the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark gave Danish artist Jens Haaning $84,000 to recreate an older sculpture of Haaning’s. The original 2007 work was covered with Danish krone bills and titled An Average Danish Annual Income. The $84,000 the museum lent to Haaning in 2021 was supplied not as the payment but as materials for the recreation, to be included in an upcoming exhibition. Upon opening the finished work from Haaning, however, Kunsten MOMA was met with two blank canvases. At least they were framed. When asked to explain himself, Haaning said the pieces he had submitted were called Take the Money and Run. In a quirky move, the museum included the blank canvases in the show, then waited for both the show’s run and the terms of the agreement with Haaning to expire, before suing to get their funds back. This week saw the outcome of that lawsuit — Haaning has been ordered to pay back Kunsten MOMA nearly $72,000:

A Copenhagen court has ordered a Danish artist to repay the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art nearly $72,000 after he delivered two empty frames in lieu of a commissioned artwork in 2021, claiming that the frames were a new conceptual piece, provocative titled Take the Money and Run.

The museum had loaned the artist, Jens Haaning, 534,000 krone ($84,000) to recreate a 2007 sculpture, in the form of banknotes, titled An Average Danish Annual Income, which represented the salary using krone bills affixed to a canvas. A 2010 version used euros to represent a typical Austrian income.

The Danish museum used money from its reserves to commission Haaning, and it wasn’t until the works were being unpacked that staff realized they had been sent two empty frames instead. The museum displayed the works in the exhibition for which they were intended, but when the artist refused to repay the borrowed money after the show was taken down, as his contract had stipulated, it decided to take legal action.

After a lengthy legal battle, the court ruled on Monday that Haaning must refund the museum 492,549 kroner ($71,000), the sum that he had been given minus the artist’s fee and cost of mounting, within two weeks.

“It has been good for my work, but it also puts me in an unmanageable situation where I don’t really know what to do,” Haaning told the Danish news outlet dr.dk about the judgement, adding that he has no plans to appeal.

“The work is that I have taken their money,” Haaning told the Danish radio program P1 Morgen in 2021. “It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.” He also claimed that the conceptual trick was a protest against the artist’s fee that he was offered, which he claimed was insufficient and would require him to spend 25,000 kroner ($3,900) of his own money.

“We are not a wealthy museum,” the museum’s director, Lasse Andersson, told the Guardian in 2021. “We have to think carefully about how we spend our funds, and we don’t spend more than we can afford.” The museum has declined to comment on the judgement since there is a four-week period in which it could still be appealed.

[From Artnet News]

In the spirit of this story, I wanted to submit blank commentary for this section, complete with a deadpan, on-the-nose title like You Said It Yourself That It Was Breach of Contract, Idiot. But instead I’ll use my words. Like the name “writer” suggests (although the argument could be made that Haaning fulfilled the title of “artist” if you count “con artist”). I’m a little rusty on my Danish Art Commissioning law statutes, but the fact that Haaning brazenly said “The work is that I have taken their money. It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work,” seems fairly incriminating. But again, I’m no legal scholar. So, has Haaning made a powerful statement on poor wages? Or does he come off as a gimmicky, ego-driven Artiste? At least he’ll always have the satisfaction of not spending that $3,900 of his own money to make the piece back in 2021. He really showed them. Now we wait a month to see if Haaning appeals, and, more importantly, if he presents the appeal in the form of blank protest paper.



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