The Renaissance Society, existing quietly and discreetly on the fourth floor of the University of Chicago’s Cobb Hall, is no stranger to artistic genius. Since its founding in 1915, the non-collecting contemporary art gallery has hosted visionaries that are now household names: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Réné Magritte, to name a few. 

Susanne Ghez, executive director and chief curator of the Renaissance Society from 1974 to 2013, carried the space and its featured artists into the twenty-first century. From confessional artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois to celebrated photographer Jeff Wall; from postmodernist Mike Kelley to conceptual artist On Kawara, or the much-discussed and oft-debated Jeff Koons (recently in the spotlight for designing the album art for Lady Gaga’s “Artpop”), Ghez managed somehow to consistently keep the Renaissance Society at the forefront of up-and-coming contemporary art for her entire forty-year tenure.

This summer, the Renaissance Society said a bittersweet goodbye to Ghez and began a new chapter in its rich and colorful history. Solveig Øvstebø, previously the director of the Bergen Kunsthall gallery in Norway, has taken over Ghez’s position as executive director; she is already deeply engaged with the continuous process of bringing new and relevant contemporary art to Chicago from around the world. We sat down with Øvstebø to discuss the transition and her plans for continuing the legacy of one of the world’s oldest contemporary art spaces.

What was the decision process involved in getting you to the Renaissance Society?

They came to me. I had just said yes to a new term at Bergen Kunsthall; I’d been directing there for ten years. And I was about to give birth, so when they called me it was not something that I thought I could do. I was very honored, of course. I’d heard a lot about the Renaissance Society, working in the field for many years. The Renaissance Society has such a strong voice in the international art scene. So I was very happy about that, but I was very hesitant that it might not be possible for me to do.

And then, about six weeks later, they called me again and they asked me if I wanted to do an interview, and I told them I couldn’t come yet, because the baby was only five weeks old. So then we decided to do a video interview. And that’s when I realized that this institution is not only strong artistically, with a very good history and reputation. But it also has a very competent board that is willing to work in a very uncompromising way with contemporary art.

I don’t know so much about the art scene in the States; from what I’ve seen from outside of it, it’s a bigger corporate museum world than what I’m used to in Norway. But [the Renaissance Society] seemed to be very independent, very free, and very uncompromising, and I really liked the thoughts they had and the questions they asked, so I started to consider it. And then we came over here and had the interview, my family and I, all three of us, and that was it!

When you got here, what did you think about how to continue with, or react to, what Susanne Ghez had been doing for so long?

I think that, first of all, this institution has an amazing foundation, based on the work that she has done, to go in-depth, to present work and shows that might change the way you look at a specific artist because the exhibitions here are so significant.  In a way, when you come into an institution like this you walk into golden slippers—and they’re very big, those slippers. [Laughs]

And I guess that is why many people have asked me, “How do you dare to take over after Susanne Ghez? How do you have the courage to do that?” And if you compare me to Susanne Ghez, well, then it is a bit scary indeed. But I guess my courage to do this comes from the fact that I trust the artists very much. At the end of the day it’s the artists and the exhibitions that are in the center. And here, I have confidence.

For me it isn’t important to change something for change’s sake, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t trying to optimize what’s already here. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m seeking knowledge, both about the institution and the scene around it; and the tweak—I wouldn’t say change— is that I would like to further strengthen the dialogue with the artists by mainly focusing on the production of new works.

Today, you find that new commissions most frequently happen in the context of commercial galleries or in relation to bigger museum shows. With its history, its archive and its intellectual framework here at the University of Chicago, I would like the Ren to be a platform where artists can work and experiment with new ideas, together with us. We can do this because we have a small space, we are flexible, and we can challenge both the artist and ourselves by focusing on where the artist finds him-/herself artistically at this moment, without relying only on existing work we already know.

I think it is important to take some risks as an institution and to not always know what you will get when you enter the dialogue with the artist. This also activates the institution; we’re not just a passive space that shows art. We can aim to be a place where new thoughts and new artistic production come about.

In that respect, has it been challenging, these past three or four months, contacting new artists for this smaller and more intimate space?

This is what I do all the time. I’m used to working very closely with artists, and I’ve had no problems inviting them here. Everybody’s really thrilled and happy to come. Remember that the Renaissance Society has a very strong reputation. I feel that artists really want to work with us. And now we have the program for 2014 ready! The combination of the Renaissance Society and the network that I already had as a curator from Europe was a good match. Nobody has turned us down.

On the topic of new exhibits and new work, is there anything that you can tell us about the upcoming Nora Schultz exhibit?

Yes! Nora, of course, will make new works. She’s done a lot of performance-related, process-oriented exhibitions where you can sort of see traces that linger after a performance, and you can see the process very clearly in her exhibitions.

This time she will combine this with independent works that she has produced in her studio. The performative and the process will still be visible but more as a context.

She will work very specifically with the space and use found materials to build this context. There will also be an element of sound. Thematically she will work with the notion of independence and look into the perspective of language—actually, I was supposed to talk with her today for an update, so I don’t know how much I should say yet about this! You can come back in January and talk to her. [Laughs]

Could you say a bit about the event schedule for the season, in conjunction with “Suicide Narcissus”?

We have a lot of events coming up this autumn. One of them is a conversation between [Renaissance Society Associate Curator] Hamza [Walker] and me; that’s the first one coming up, next week. I will talk a little bit about where I come from and what I’d been doing earlier as a curator, and my thoughts about institutional models. Together we will also discuss the Renaissance Society and its role in the States.

And then on November 23, in conjunction with “Suicide Narcissus,” we have an artist talk with Paul Petritsch, Lucy Skaer, and Daniel Steegman Mangrané. Also, it is important to mention the concerts that come along with that, which are a very important part of the Renaissance Society’s program and will continue to be. Events and concerts have always been an important part of my curatorial practice and in Bergen we had a broad event program in addition to the main exhibitions.

Also upcoming is the “Black Is, Black Ain’t” book launch and symposium. This event takes as a point of departure the group exhibition “Black Is, Black Ain’t” that was curated by Hamza Walker and shown at the Ren in 2008.

For the event I decided that I wanted to revisit the topics that were raised in this show by making a symposium together with the launch and so I asked Hamza to organize a panel. [The panel will examine “Black Is, Black Ain’t” and earlier exhibitions about African American culture in contemporary art. Writes Hamza Walker in the conceptual essay that accompanied “Black Is, Black Ain’t”: “By inseparably linking race and culture, the term ‘blackness’ counters a notion of culture divorced from race as that split might downplay the extent to which race was institutionally formalized and the very real role race continues to play in shaping our society.”]

I’m really looking forward to this. I look forward to learning more about these issues. This symposium exemplifies what I would like this institution to be—an active part of the dialogue, around art but also around the issues that art raises.

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