Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Photography by Golli
Akureyri is the largest town outside of the Capital Area, but its 18,000 inhabitants still make for a relatively small town in an international context. But a sense of identity can’t be quantified in numbers only, and Akureyri has a long and rich culture and history. Last year, its residents unveiled the newly refurbished Akureyri Art Museum, housed in two former factory buildings connected by an annex, featuring 12 exhibition spaces, storage spaces, artist and academic residencies, as well as the traditional accoutrements of an art museum – a gift shop and a café. According to museum director Hlynur Hallsson, the new museum is a point of pride for the town’s inhabitants, and it’s been a long time in the making.
“When the bulk of the town’s industry and factories moved to the outskirts of town, the buildings in the town centre stood empty,” Hlynur explains. “The Akureyri municipality bought some of them and a decision was made to transform them into exhibition spaces to house art and artistic work. The municipality took an active initiative then, as well as now, when the decision was made to finish refurbishing the buildings and opening the new museum.” The two buildings were not the only ones recently vacated for larger properties on the outskirts of town, in fact, the whole street was taken over by artists, opening galleries, workshops, and boutiques on the street, which is today known as Art Street. “The museum is founded in 1993, so it was 25 years old last year when we opened the new building. For those 25 years, we only had one floor, as well as one hall known as Ketilhúsið. It took a little longer to get the rest of the buildings refurbished than originally intended but we’re just very pleased that it’s finished.”
Today, the museum uses every inch of the two buildings, redesigned by architecture firm Kurt og Pí. “They got an award for their work with the Marshall Building in Reykjavík so they have some experience changing old factory buildings into exhibition spaces,” Hlynur says. Most of the new space is allocated for exhibitions, with 12 spaces, varying in size, shape, and headroom, but within the building, there’s also room for independent grassroots artists to exhibit their own work as well as artist and scholar residencies. “These new spaces are not just a welcome addition to the museum, they will also make the whole street feel more complete as a community.” It’s important to Hlynur that the museum is actively involved with the artistic community around them. “We have Art Street Days every now and then, where we close the street down to traffic, galleries and the museum open exhibitions, and artists and independent spaces open up their workshops.”
As for the art on display in the art museum, Hlynur explains that he strives for balance between old and new, Icelandic and international, traditional visual art, design, and performance art. “The plan is to have diverse exhibitions, to feature new and exciting art as well as the classics.” For Hlynur, it’s as important for the museum not only to showcase Icelandic art from their collection, but also to be a window to the world for the people of Akureyri. “We will have an international direction this year, one of our main exhibitions this summer will consist of Latvian art, but we will also be focusing on art from Akureyri and the north of Iceland.”
The tight-knit artistic community on Art Street isn’t alone in celebrating the opening of the museum after the construction. Hlynur tells me the reception from the people of Akureyri has surpassed all his expectations. “A community of 18,000 building a museum like this – it’s a big project. It’s interesting how many people approve of the project, despite the cost. People are proud that this got done and to be able to say we have a large and powerful museum. We’ve sold almost 500 annual passes since we opened.” Hlynur feels the weight of people’s expectations but is confident the new museum will meet them. “Townspeople are proud of their museum and want it to be competitive on an international scale. Those are the demands. We have to meet those demands so being able to offer international exhibitions as well as the best Iceland has to offer, with a special focus on the north, that’s important.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.