Empty canvases or art? A Danish artist is having it out with a judge over repaying a museum for the commission of two blank paintings.
The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark commissioned artist Jens Haaning two years ago to contribute two works to their exhibition themed about labor conditions. The commission specifically was meant to be for Haaning to recreate two earlier works, of canvases covered in bank notes meant to represent the average annual wage in Denmark and Austria. They gave him over $69,000 in euro and Danish kroner to be part of the works, and an additional $3,900 for labor. In return, Haaning delivered a pair of nearly-empty canvases titled “Take the Money and Run.” Both wide canvases are just plain white, with scattered bits of tape.
When Haaning first pulled the stunt, Kunsten director Lasse Andersson said he laughed. “Jens is known for his conceptual and activistic art with a humoristic touch. And he gave us that – but also a bit of a wake up call as everyone now wonders where did the money go,” he told CBS News in 2021.
According to the District Court of Copenhagen, the works were created on a contract that said the cash would be returned to the museum after the temporary display of the exhibition, which was titled “Work it Out.” Haaning didn’t deliver it, and didn’t return it after. He denies that this was a crime, saying they commissioned him to use the money to create a work of art, and his keeping the money is a part of his artistic statement. So they sued him.
On September 18, the court ruled that Haaning has to return most of the money, minus a modest artist’s fee because the exhibition did wind up displaying both empty canvases for the duration of the exhibition, which ran from September 2021 to January 2022.