Elina Brotherus. Morgen i Ny-Hellesund, 2018

Nicolai Tangen in conversation with Elina Brotherus

The Tangen Collection 28.06.2022

Nicolai Tangen is a Norwegian art collector, philanthropist and, since September 2020, the CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management. Tangen has assembled the world’s largest private collection of modernist Nordic art and a growing collection of contemporary Nordic photography. 

Elina Brotherus is an internationally renowned Finnish photographer and video artist who has numerous works in the Tangen collection. During 2018-20, she carried out Seabound, a photographic project commissioned for the collection.

This conversation was originally made as part of the exhibition catalogue in regards to the exhibition The New Beauty. Modernist highlights from the Tangen Collection in May 2021 at the Hämeenlinna Art Museum in Finland, where Brotherus and several other Finnish artists from the Tangen Collection were shown. The interview took place before Nicolai Tangen became CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management.

EB 
Dear Nicolai, I once read in the Financial Times that in the UK every CEO who wants to be taken seriously needs to have an art collection. Is that why you started collecting?

NT 
No, that’s absolutely not the case. I started collecting long before I had any important position in life. I mean, not that I have an important position at all, but… I started about 25 years ago when I was just a normal analyst. I was introduced to the art world by my mother, who was an art historian. She dragged me along to all the museums in Europe, at least that’s what it felt like. You know how it is when you try to educate young kids – you don’t think it’s sinking in, but then, suddenly – bang! It sinks in after a while. Art kind of hit me when I was probably 20 or 25. By then, I had worked for a little while, made my first money, and I started to buy art. Then it just kind of accelerated.

EB 
Do you remember the first work you bought?

NT 
Yes, it was a painting by the Norwegian artist Johannes Rian. But from early on I wanted to do something that was systematic and important.

EB 
So, from the very start you were collecting consciously, building up a collection?

NT 
I always bought what I wanted to, what appealed to me, what I liked. And I did a lot of reading. I started off with the Norwegian art world and got in touch with the people I thought were the leading voices, people who had different opinions on what art history should look like. I bought a lot of books and read extremely widely and thoroughly, probably for a year. Then I decided what the Norwegian collection should consist of. So, I set the goal very early on. I’m of the opinion that a goal without a plan is only a dream. To get somewhere you need to have a plan. That plan I made during the first year.

EB 
The focal points of your collection are Nordic modernism and contemporary Nordic photography. Were they present from the very start?

NT 
Not the photography. My collecting started with Norwegian modernism and then it expanded. I added Denmark and Sweden first, and then, subsequently, Finland.

EB 
You were based in London at the time. Did you see your collection as being like an umbilical cord or some kind of thread that you wanted to establish between your actual location and your Norwegian past? So that you were bound to your home country through the collection?

NT 
I think so. That is probably quite common. If you’re an expat and you live abroad, you seek out the art from where you’re from. Also, as you get older, you look back to your history and to your roots. I wasn’t particularly old at the time, probably like 35, but that process of looking back probably started then.

EB 
Modernism, where does that come from? Does it reflect a personal interest, or do you see it as something particularly important in Norwegian or Nordic art history in general? Why abstract expression?

NT 
Well, that’s simple: that’s what appeals to me. That’s the formal language that speaks to me the strongest. It’s kind of representative of our times. I was born in 1966. Norwegian modernism, of course, started earlier than that, but I grew up with modernism, and that’s what I love. It’s been really interesting to be on that journey, starting off in Norway, and then travelling to see Danish art, the differences and similarities – how the Danish art scene is more oriented towards the continent – it’s more expressive, with CoBrA and so on. And then Sweden, also with a different type of strength. Discovering Finland was a huge experience. I was just completely blown away when I discovered the Finnish constructivists.

EB 
Do you see the Finnish art of that period as somehow different from the Norwegian art or art of the other Scandinavian countries? Is there some distinctive quality in Finnish constructivism that makes it kind of à part?

NT 
It’s a much wider and deeper school than the Norwegian. In Norway you have very few people who were proper constructivists and abstract in the way you were in Finland. The school that started with Sam Vanni and his disciples, students and followers, has continued to develop.

EB 
Modernism reached Finland a little bit late compared to many other countries. We started late and we probably continued longer. Maybe we still are.

NT 
You still are. When I saw the quality of work there relative to the rest of the Nordic region, I was just amazed by what I found. It is just an incredible thing. And I hadn’t really seen anybody outside Finland collecting it, at least not in a systematic way.

EB 
What about photography?

NT 
Within painting, graphics and sculpture, I haven’t really done contemporary. I like to have a time lapse, let’s say 50 years, to see what will become outstanding in art history. I feel I don’t need that filter on the photography side. It’s been a fantastic thing to engage with contemporary photography. It speaks to me in a way that contemporary painting doesn’t.

EB 
That’s interesting. Your modernist collection is abstract, and your contemporary collection is completely non-abstract.

NT
The modernist collection is not solely abstract. The Finnish part is relatively abstract because that’s what the post-war modernist scene there very much was. The Norwegian part is also figurative. In Denmark you have CoBrA and so on. I guess photography is figurative by definition, but I’m not sure. I probably haven’t thought enough about it.

EB 
Well, luckily for me and for all my colleagues you’ve chosen photography.

Recently, a girl emailed me – a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London. She wanted advice on how to find gallery representation and how to place her work in public collections. I didn’t tell her, but I wanted to say that the irony is that, 20-plus years after my own graduation, I could still be asking those same questions. How to get out there, how to get recognition, how to break into the art world. 

I wanted to ask you, Nicolai, what is for you the quality that makes you choose one artist and not another – if we’re talking about living artists.

This is what my colleagues would like me to ask: How does one get into the Tangen Collection?

NT 
I don’t think there’s any one way to get into the collection. The only way to get in is by producing strong works. Works that speak to us. Works that are not too decorative. Ideally, problematic is better than decorative, which is of course why I love your work, Elina. It is profound and it asks questions; it is problematic and thought-provoking.

Of course, if you’re established and if you’ve been working for a long time, you will be taken care of by the auction market. But if not, probably being represented by a gallerist is a good thing. Personally, I don’t generally work with gallerists.

EB
Oh. So where do you find your artists? How do you find the works?

NT 
The sort of way I do things, I work with art historians and critics – with people like the Finnish art critic Timo Valjakka, who has been tremendously helpful. I love to work with someone who is independent, has a strong sense of aesthetics, knows the market, and the people and the art, and the history of art, and the exhibition histories. And who can introduce me to the artists who are still alive and to the estates of the artists who are deceased. Somebody like Timo – there is just no way I could have established the Finnish part of the collection without him; he is completely instrumental.

EB 
Do you have advisors in each country?

NT 
Yes, I work with several people. I have to do that because the day only has a certain number of hours in it. All that background work – there’s no way I could have done it. You need to check provenances, you need to check technical quality, you need to actually buy the works. Quite a bit of work goes into it. I have people who advise me and who are incredibly strong art historians.

EB 
They know what you are looking for?

NT 
Yes. We all speak the same aesthetic language, so I think the collection is coherent across the Nordic countries. And then of course I have technical people who help me restore things. I have art historian Beate Mjaaland, who runs the art foundation and does logistics and all these kinds of things. We have transportation and storage people. It’s a pretty big machine.

EB 
Like you said, you also read a lot, you do a lot of homework. Does it sometimes go the other way round – you tell your adviser: hey, I found this amazing artist, could you find out more about this person for me?

NT 
Absolutely. That’s also the case.

EB
Do you follow artists on social media? Does that play a role today?

NT 
No. I don’t do that. I’m not very big on social media. I follow the museums on Instagram, and I follow you, of course! But I think you’re pretty much the only one.

EB
OK! Can we go back a little to the criteria by which you choose to integrate a new work into the collection? Is it like a love affair each time, or do you follow some general guidelines in your purchases?

NT
The overriding guideline is that it should be a museum-quality collection. That means that one should be able to hang every work in a museum. The artist should be important, and the work should be an important work in that artist’s oeuvre – or it should shed light or provide information on the artist’s production. Most artists have strong and weak periods, and typically I would buy works from the strong periods. I like to go into a lot of depth, so when I buy works of an artist, I normally buy a large number.

EB
That’s rare, and very rewarding for the artist.

NT
Sometimes it takes a bit of time to decide. But after I’ve read the books and seen the artist’s entire body of work, then we typically go in and make it the biggest collection of that artist’s work. We do that, I wouldn’t say most of the time, but more often than not.

And I really like that.

EB 
Can you buy whatever you want? I mean, if you see a good work somewhere, can you just decide, OK, I want this for the collection, and then buy it?

NT
Yes.

EB
That’s a dream situation, but it’s fantastic if that is the case.

NT
We have a good budget.

EB
Do you compare your collection to others – museum collections or private ones?

NT
To a certain extent yes, but not often. Of course, we try to have the best collections of the artists we collect. And, of course, we are competitive people, all of us. I feel strongly that the collection that will go to Kristiansand should be the number-one collection in the Nordic region. That’s the goal.

EB
Are there other collectors you look up to or admire for what they have achieved?

NT
Yes, there are several very strong collectors. Some of them are narrower in scope than I am. Some are slightly differently positioned in time. I haven’t seen anybody who has exactly the same kind of frame as I use.

EB
Are you friends with other collectors?

NT
Yes.

EB
Do you discuss your art collections with your friends? Is that something you talk about over dinner, compare your new findings?

NT
Not that much. To me it is more a private matter.

EB 
Then it will be a big deal when your collection becomes public. Everybody can come and see it, as if they were coming to peer inside your mind!

NT 
Yes, it’s going to be very exciting.
(Laughing.) I hope they like it. It’s my take on Nordic modernism. I think it’s a very comprehensive and solid take. It’s a different take. 

In the Norwegian collection, for instance, there is more focus on the German influence and some of the alternative narratives, compared with what was generally perceived and even accepted at the time, for instance, at the National Museum. It’s a different take on it. It’s a bit of a different take on Sweden, too. And very few museums outside Finland have Finnish collections.

This will definitely be the number-one collection of Finnish art outside Finland, and that’s very exciting. There are just so many wonderful things to showcase here. People are going to be very impressed by the Finnish art scene.

EB 
Do you see your collection as an image of yourself?

NT
No. I see it as a representation of a time. Art represents its time, and to a certain extent it also forms the times. It works both ways.

EB 
Is your goal to make your painting and graphics collection completely representative of the time span that you have chosen, from the 1940s to the 1970s, more or less? Do you want to fill the gaps, to show everything that has been produced then?

NT 
No, that’s not the goal. First of all, the timeframe has been extended a bit. I would say, now, it’s really strong from 1930 to 1980-90. We’ve dragged it out a bit at each end. There are pockets that we avoid, and that’s not because we don’t know what’s there; they just don’t appeal to me.

I’ve been criticized by some Norwegian art historians at the university who don’t think I have post-war figurative art represented well enough in the collection. And I just think that the most wonderful thing is to have what they call a hole and what I call a liberating lack. It’s a completely deliberate choice from my side, and I can live extremely happily with whatever criticism those art historians bestow upon me.

EB 
That’s the privilege of being a private collector and not an institutional collector – you can really act on your personal wishes.

NT
Absolutely. This is not committee work, because committees can’t really collect art in a good, stringent way – you end up with this kind of common denominator for buying art. And I don’t do that. One thing that sets the collection apart is that I collect a lot of paper-based works. I did my master’s degree on graphic art. The concept of graphic art and the socialist concept of making art available to the people is, I think, a very good concept.

EB 
It’s in line with the modernist idea that good design and good architecture should be made available to all – mass-producing good things for people’s everyday lives.

NT 
Graphic art was strong in Norway, but it was particularly strong in Finland. There’s a huge number of Finnish graphic prints in the collection. And I guess this socialist thinking continues with photography. Some years ago, I was down in Cape Town at the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, and it struck me how strong the photography was there, in terms of African contemporary art. I asked about it, and again, it’s the socialist concept, access to the means of production. If you’re less fortunate, you haven’t got canvases and all that stuff, but you may have a small camera. It’s something really appealing, I think.

EB
You just mentioned your degree in art history.
In addition to art, you also collect academic degrees. Can you say something about that?

NT 
(Laughing.) I’m a huge believer in life-long learning. It’s one of the most important things. It’s actually something I got from my mother. She studied when I was growing up. It was incredibly motivating for me to sit and do my homework together with her. She did her homework from the university and I did my homework from school. I was probably eight or nine.

EB
That’s a great example.

NT
One of the things I did when I wanted to have a little break from working was this degree in art history. And again, when I had worked at my next company for a little while, I did a degree in social psychology, which I think is incredibly fascinating. I think the art-history project and the collection fit into that in a way, because it’s just such an incredible learning exercise.

EB 
Have your studies influenced the way you collect, especially now that you’re an art historian yourself?

NT
Absolutely. It’s more systematic; there’s probably more theory to it. And then, of course, one of the good things about studying art history is you’re better able to see through all the bullshit. Because there is just so much bollocks in art-history writing. Of course, I’ve done my fair share of it, since I studied it. But knowing what it is, and being able to cut through the crap and not listen to all that kind of stuff, is I think very important.

EB
Artists are constantly told that they should be verbally fluent and able to converse about their work. Do you find that important? Or would you rather trust your eye and your intuition and your own knowledge when you look at a work? Should the artist or the gallerist be able to do some blah blah?

NT 
That’s just completely awful. For that same reason I never go to wine tastings. I just don’t like the concept of having a small sip and then talking ten minutes about it. Lots of, kind of, fluffy words and descriptions. I’d rather just have a good bottle of wine and drink it with a friend. Just forget the crap and enjoy it. And I feel exactly the same about art. Let’s look at some good art, and you can strip away a lot of the words and all that kind of fuzzy pretentiousness around it and enjoy the art for what it is.

EB 
I grew up in Ekenäs, a small, introverted Swedish-speaking town on the southern coast of Finland. It is picturesque, though; people love it as long as they don’t have to live there. You come from Kristiansand, which is also a small town on the southern coast of your country. Tell me about the place. I know that you have lived abroad for a long time, but should we know about your early years in Kristiansand? Should we know where you come from?

Also, you’ve decided to give your collection to the art museum in Kristiansand, not to Oslo or London. There must be something in Kristiansand that you feel indebted to or related to. You want to put Kristiansand on the world map?

NT 
Yes. I grew up in Kristiansand. How does coming from a small place form you? I mean, Kristiansand is kind of small, but it’s not super- small, right? I think it triggers something in you, a need to show the world to a certain extent. I bet you have it, too? You’d love to conquer Centre Pompidou and so on, because you’re a girl from Ekenäs and it’s kind of cool to conquer a major museum in Paris. It depends on how psychologically deep you want to go.

Of course, everything is rooted in some kind of inferiority complex, for most of us, and I probably have my fair share of that. I was just terrible at sports, a complete disaster, so therefore I probably put more time into academia and my schoolwork. From that point of view, my journey probably was a bit of a revenge of the nerd. 

But in terms of the art, I do think that coming from a small place, I’m proud of it and I think it’s nice to put the place on the map. It’s nice to give back to the town. I think it’s going to be fantastic to have a proper art collection there to make the place even more interesting as a place to live. And for the young people – it’s going to add another element to the whole growing-up in terms of the people who live there.

Also, it’s going to be great to have another centre of gravity for art in Norway, because the country is quite Oslo-centric. Of course, there is Bergen. But they need some friction; they need some challenges. I’m a great believer in the underdog and in what a bit of friction can do. And, of course, we’re seeing it now in terms of building up the collection: when a top work is up for sale, it can only end up in one place, and if it ends up in Kristiansand, I’m super happy. As the exhibition programme develops in Kristiansand, I’m again hopeful that it will create some kind of constructive and positive friction in the Norwegian art scene. That’s certainly the goal.

EB
A Dutch collector of mine, Han Nekfens, recently stopped buying existing artworks and is entirely focused on commissioning. He has scouts around the world who help him to find artists. Then, working together with different museums, he commissions new artworks. He says that he realized that even well-established artists have problems producing. You’ve also started commissioning. My latest project, Seabound, is one of your commissions.

NT 
So far, the commissions have centred on Kristiansand and have been mainly photography. We’ve had Per Barclay doing his oil rooms, which came out really well, and Per Bak Jensen from Denmark with his landscapes. Those commissions have been really strong. We have also had Mette Tronvoll making a series of portraits in the area, the people of our times. It’s like a social-psychological statement, which I find interesting. So, commissions are something I hope we can continue to do. Your wonderful project is going a bit wider, taking in the whole area. It has been very inspiring to see what you can do when you explore and interpret a geographical location in your way.

EB 
My project was very meaningful to me. Essentially, for art to happen, the artist needs time and a place. And the place, for me, can be anywhere. It’s the occasion that is important. To be offered an opportunity to just go somewhere, but to have some fixed parameters, too: OK, this is your playground. Do what you want, but do it here. See this new place through foreign eyes.

NT
Your project shows exactly that: a combination of the known and a foreign take on it, which is really exciting. If you’d just shown the landscape the way I remember it, then it wouldn’t have been so interesting. You want to have that juxtaposition between what you already know and a surprise element. You’re bringing that into all of it. I think the book you’re working on is going to be spectacular.

EB 
Do you see the museum’s exhibition policy as also showing things other than your collection? Or is that something you leave to the museum director?

NT 
I leave that completely to the museum director. I have no part in that. But I do think it would be great to have a very high level of exhibition activity. You can build great exhibitions from the works in the collection, but you need something else, too: you need something more provocative, you need something more contemporary, you need to include different mediums, and so on. From that point of view, the museum definitely has the right director in Reidar Fuglestad. He is a specialist in creating these kinds of experiences. He’s also very strong in terms of thinking outside the box, linking up with all the players and forces nationally and internationally. I’m really confident that it can be a big success.

EB 
Let’s talk about the Kunstsilo, the new museum that’s currently under construction. You’re not only giving your artworks to Kristiansand; you’re also giving the town a new building. Can you say a few words about the Kunstsilo project and maybe also about your relationship to architecture in general? Is architecture a part of your aesthetic philosophy?

NT
It’s not me who’s giving the building. It’s the AKO Foundation, which I founded in 2013, that’s giving a part of it through the AKO Kunststiftelse. One of the important things here has been that it’s a co-operative venture with the local municipality and the county, and actually the Norwegian state as well. It should really be a good example of public-private co-operation. 

What I like about architectural competitions is that it’s probably the most meritocratic thing you can do. They had an open international architectural competition where there were more than one hundred proposals from around the world. The top seven proposals were from places like Japan, the UK, Germany, Spain – truly global, with many of the world’s leading firms participating. The winner was a collaboration between Mestres Wäge Arkitekter AS, BAX Studio SP and Mendoza Partida Arquitectos SP, all Barcelona-based firms.

It was a privilege to be a part of that committee. There were two stand-out projects, of which the one that was chosen was clearly number one. It celebrates the silo as a monument museum definitely from the time of the collection as well. The original architecture of the silo has clear links to the collection. They are building some new, modern exhibition spaces, kind of wrapping the old silo, because of course hanging paintings on the interior of a silo wall isn’t very practical.

It’s all going to fit in really well.

I also think that in today’s Instagram world you need to have a bit of a wow factor as part of a museum building, and I think they’ll have that here. The really cool thing is that this was a derelict building and they didn’t know what they were going to use it for. I mean, it had no usage. So, this is taking something that was of no use, with no future, and turning it into a flagship project, a singular building standing there. And instead of containing grain it will now contain more important things.

EB 
Kunstsilo’s location is excellent, considering what stands next to it: the famous Kilden concert hall designed by the Finnish office ALA Architects. Together, these two landmark buildings can probably create the heart of a whole new neighbourhood in Kristiansand.

NT
Absolutely. They have a development project there as well, so they’re uplifting that part of the town. Interestingly, Kilden was also an open international architectural competition, which brought these people to fame. I love their concept.

EB
The New Beauty exhibition at Hämeenlinna Art Museum in 2021 – is this the first time your collection is being made available for public viewing, even if it just shows a small fraction of the more than 4500 works in it?

NT
It’s the first exhibition that is being done this way, yes. And it’s certainly the first time anybody will see any important works from the Finnish part of the collection. Very exciting!

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