A museum lent an artist $84K — so he kept the money and called it 'art'

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN | Oscar Holland, CNN

    (CNN) -- When an exhibition about the future of labor opened at a Danish art museum on Friday, visitors should have seen two large picture frames filled with banknotes worth a combined $84,000.

The pieces were meant to be reproductions of two works by artist Jens Haaning, who previously used framed cash to represent the average annual salaries of an Austrian and a Dane -- in euros and Danish krone respectively.

But when the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg took delivery of the recreated artworks ahead of the show, gallery staff made a surprising discovery: the frames were empty. Rather than being the handiwork of thieves, the loaned cash was missing thanks to Haaning himself, who says he is keeping the money -- in the name of art.

"I have chosen to make a new work for the exhibition, instead of showing the two 14- and 11-year-old works respectively," Haaning told the museum in an email, the text of which is now displayed next to the empty frames.

"The work is based on/responds to both your exhibition concept and the works that we had originally planned to show."

The "new" conceptual piece, which Haaning has titled "Take the Money and Run," is now at the center of a dispute between museum and artist over labor, contractual obligations and the value of work -- all fitting themes for the exhibition.

"I saw, from my artistic point of view, that I could create a much better piece for them than what they could imagine," Haaning told CNN over the phone, adding: "I don't see that I have stolen money... I have created an art piece, which is maybe 10 or 100 times better than what we had planned. What is the problem?"

Contractual dispute

As well as lending Haaning 534,000 Danish krone ($84,000) for the cash-filled artworks, the Kunsten Museum had agreed to pay a further 10,000 krone ($1,571) for his work, as well as covering costs like framing and delivery. But the artist said the project would still have left him out of pocket, due to studio costs and staff salaries.

"I normally find myself in a better position when I'm showing abroad," he said. "I'm a Dane and it's (a) Danish museum and they expect me to invest because then maybe one day they will buy something."

Kunsten's director, Lasse Andersson, maintained that the museum has upheld its side of the agreement. "It's really important for us because we have always been known for honoring contracts and also paying artists a reasonable fee," he said over the phone.

Haaning said he has no plans to return the money and is "not worried" about possible consequences. Andersson said the artist has until January, when the exhibition ends, to repay the loan, after which the museum will consider legal action.

For now, the museum is displaying "Take the Money and Run" as it is, putting it on a platform to be considered and critiqued. In the art world, works that question the value of art itself -- like Maurizio Cattelan taping a banana to a wall, or Banksy shredding a painting at auction -- are nothing new. Neither are invisible works of art, with the late Yves Klein exhibiting an empty room to thousands of people in 1958.

Commenting on the value of work is, after all, what Haaning intended. "I think behind the piece is a much more general statement: that (you) should look at the structures you participate in and reflect on them," he said, listing religion and marriage among them. "And if needed, you know, take the money and run."

Andersson has his own interpretation of the empty frames, which he sees in the context of his museum's show, "Work it Out."

"Do we have to work for money, or can we just take it?" Andersson asked. "Why do we go to work? All these kinds of things make us start to reflect on the cultural habits of society that we are part of. And then it also applies to the question: Are artists paid enough for what they do?"

Still, the museum director would like to see the cash returned.

"It's not my money -- it's public money, it's the museum's money," he said. "So that's why (by January) we need to make sure it's coming back to us."

Top image: A visitor at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art inspects Jens Haaning's "Take the Money and Run, 2021"

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