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Renaissance Woman

Straight from Norway, an international arts power player arrives in Hyde Park.

The Renaissance Society’s new director, Solveig Øvstebø

With its lone gallery, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago might be one of the city’s smallest art institutions—but it’s also one of the most influential. For nearly 100 years, it has held the first North American exhibition for scores of artists, including Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger. The titular renaissance refers not to an era but to artistic rebirth. This year it faces its own renaissance with a new director, Norwegian curator Solveig Øvstebø. Before her first exhibition opens, we discuss her Chicago birth and the advent of an entirely new museum.

You turned Bergen Kunsthall, a fledgling museum in Norway, into an art powerhouse. What then made you decide to leave it and come to Chicago?
I wasn’t looking for something else. But The Renaissance Society has such a strong voice on the international art stage, especially Europe. I was [ready] to take a step out of a little town in little Norway.

But you were born here, right?
My family moved here in 1972; my father worked here for two years, and they moved back to Norway. We lived in Logan Square when it was a rough area.

You’re arriving as University of Chicago opens several new art spaces. That’s some stiff competition.
I think it’ll make Hyde Park even more of an arts destination. I really do feel we have different platforms, and we complement each other in different ways.

How would you describe the Society’s platform?
I’m still figuring it out. [laughs] For me, it’ll be important to develop a dialogue with artists and focus on producing work. Very often you find production in the gallery scene, but it’s also important new works are not necessarily linked with a commercial space.

That’s hugely different from other art museums.
For me it’s interesting to go to artists, talk to them and say, ‘What do you want to do; what are your ideas; what things have you had on your mind that you haven’t been able to produce yet?’

Your first exhibit opens soon. What shows are you looking forward to in the coming year?
I’m really excited about Nora Schultz’s exhibit [this month]. She’ll produce new works and a book. When curators do shows where we know the artists and what the artists are doing, it’s safe—we know what artworks we’d pick, how they’d exist in the art space. Since she’s producing new work, this will be more of a challenge.