Gallery leader Mikaela Bruhn Aschim in front of Christian Tunges art
The gallery is full by the time I get there - an excitement is lingering in the air. Small groups are talking amongst themselves, while other visitors have their eyes locked on the images on the wall. What once were blank canvases have been turned into works of art by painter Audun Alvstad.
A white canvas represents so much; creation, contentment, euphoria, anxiety and despair - feelings most artist go through on a regular basis. Artists' lives are often written about, but what about the person representing the artist? The person responsible for the gallery where the art is presented, the curator of the exhibition – what about the fixer?
Mikaela Bruhn Aschim is one of Norway's youngest gallery leaders. At the age of 25, she was assigned the task of managing QB gallery in downtown Oslo. QB gallery, a daughter company of the esteemed auction house Blomqvist, was established four years ago, with the goal of being a high-quality graphic edition gallery. Today, it is so much more.
Mikaela started her career as a receptionist at Blomqvist while studying acting at Hartvig Nissen. Although she thought about pursuing an acting career, it never felt quite right. The competition to become an actress is harsh, and requires a lot more dedication than Mikaela was interested in. As she was already working at Blomqvist and had a burning passion for art, a passion nurtured by her father since childhood, she decided to pursue a different path: art history. In retrospect, that choice turned out to be a wise one.
After studying at the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, Mikaela came back to Oslo and was offered the job as gallery coordinator at QB. After a year, she became the gallery leader.
- I think I have the greatest job I could possibly hope for. This truly is my dream job. QB being such a young gallery as well, makes it all very exciting. There are a lot of great galleries to look up to, with more years on their backs, but we are working our way up, slowly and steadily. A good month for us might be a shitty month for the other galleries, but we´re getting there. I also think being a smaller gallery forces me to be a lot more “out there,” I have to network a lot and develop our position on the market – both compared to other galleries and in our relationships with art buyers.
Painting from Audun Alvestads exhibition "High hairline". Photo by Istvan Virag / QB
What do you look for in new artists?
- I am looking for a career on the rise, or sometimes someone straight from the academy with an innovative and exciting expression. Someone who stands out. There isn’t exactly a check list, it is hard to tell why it feels right – I just work on instinct.
QB has about 10 exhibitions each year, and around 20 artists in their solo and group exhibitions combined.
How do you work with the composition of group exhibitions?
- They are often theme based, and I like when the theme is quite fluid with few guidelines - not too complex. Like the pink theme we had last year; as the theme was a colour, all the artwork had some pink in it. The overarching theme of our last group exhibition was still life, with artists Frants Bøe, Ingrid Eggen, Marit Følstad, Christian Tunge and Munan Øvrelid.
The six artists mentioned above have one thing in common – they are all Norwegian. QB have since the beginning had a focus on Norwegian artists.
- We have so many brilliant artists in this country, and not that many galleries. Working with Norwegian artists also makes it possible to have a close dialogue and meet with the artists in their workspace and create something together. We sometimes have group exhibitions with international artists as well, but it´s rare. Norwegian art sells well in Norway, so I don´t see why we shouldn´t take a chance on Norwegian art.
Painting by Sindre Braathen from the group exhibition "Pink". Photo by Istvan Virag / QB
Galleries need to sell art to able to become and remain sustainable, and there will always be some sort of rivalry between the different galleries, especially in a small town. Having great placing power is something every gallery leader strives for – having recurring customers because you can offer what they want, or what they didn't know that they wanted. It is like every other business. Mikaela explains that galleries are almost like football clubs‚ everyone wants the best artists and the artists move around. But of course, the biggest artists, or football players, go to the biggest clubs or galleries.
- We have to sell art, if not, we will go bankrupt. However, I am not planning exhibitions with that as my main focus. It is hard to know what will sell, and we would miss out on a lot of great artists and art if everything was done from a sales- and commercial perspective. The bigger galleries have a lot of placing power and being a new gallery, we have to work harder to achieve that, but we have a lot of satisfied and recurring customers now, and we will establish even more such relationships in the future.
Working with artists is not always a walk in the park. We have all heard the artist myths and stereotypes; mental problems, alcohol problems, drug problems, cutting-off-your-ear problems, or just problems with other people in general. Mikaela is reluctant to talk about the artists she’s working with.
- Most artists I´ve worked with are great, but of course, some exhibitions and artists are tougher to work with than others. "The brilliant artist who is going through a rough patch" is something that has occurred, and it is not always easy, but they make brilliant work. From my perspective, working with that type of artist demands a lot more work on my end, but it is most often completely worth it.
Image from Josefine Lyches exhibition. Photo by Istvan Virag / QB
Whether easy or hard relationships at work, some collaborations and exhibitions make more impact than others on a personal level:
- I like most of the things we do at QB, and they all have some sort of impact on me. However, one of the first exhibition I did by myself at QB was one of the most powerful ones. It was with painter and sculptor Josefine Lyche, whom I for a long time really had wanted to work with. We have displayed her work many times after that as well, but that first time was really vulnerable, fun and nerve-racking.
How do you think QB differs from other galleries, and how do you want it to differ?
- We want to be Oslo’s nicest gallery to come to! A gallery that is welcoming and makes it easy to ask questions and learn about the art and artists. A lot of galleries are welcoming, but I think there in general is some prejudice that galleries can be a bit intimidating. We like to post information about both our artists and prices on our webpage, and I experience that customers really appreciate having that information before they visit the gallery. I also think we have a more accessible price-range than some galleries.
Painting by Munan Øverlid from the group exhibition "Still life". Photo by Istvan Virag / QB
Why do you think art often becomes a thing for the elite or just a small part of the public, and how do you want to make it more accessible?
- You don´t learn that much about art in school. In Norway, we have art and crafts, but that’s more about learning to do something practical like how to sew or use a hammer, you don´t really learn anything about art or art history. Learning so little about it creates a barrier. People often say that they don´t know anything about art, but I don’t think you have to have such deep knowledge to know if you like a piece of art or not. It is a matter of taste as well. I don´t think people should be so afraid to have an opinion about art just because of a lack of knowledge, but I understand why it is that way when people aren't exposed to it that much. Many also feel that art is expensive, and that also creates a barrier and substantiates the feeling that art is for the elite. Norwegians spend a lot of money on furniture and redecorating, yet few think that buying a 40.000 NOK sofa from Bolia is a symbol of elitism. Meanwhile, if you buy a work of art for that price, people interpret it completely differently. It is a cultural thing, you don´t have to go further then Sweden to see that they spend more money on art. It could of course be because Sweden has been a rich country longer then Norway has. We don´t have the same culture for culture here.
To make it more accessible we have, like I said, our prices available online and we also do down payments over several months so that people can afford it. At the same time, we have quite generous prices and people can buy our art online and instead of going to the gallery if they want to.
Mikaela has valuable knowledge about the Norwegian art scene, and before we say our goodbyes, I therefore ask her for some tips about which artists we should keep an eye out for:
- Munan Øverlid does a lot of brilliant work, early on he did a lot of performance and video installations, and now he has moved on to more classical paintings. I am also a big fan of painter and sculptor Yngve Benum. Urd Pedersen og Josefine Lyche are also some of my favourites. You should also check out painter Malin Gabriella Nordin, artist Jorunn Hanke Høgstad and Benjamin Tallerås. There are so many great artists out there – people are really in for a treat if they are just starting out on their art journey!