When staff at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg loaned artist Jens Haaning 534,000 Danish krone (the equivalent of $84,000), they expected him to create a new version of a previous artwork in which he framed a large amount of cash to illustrate the difference between annual income in Denmark and Austria. Instead, Haaning came back to them with two blank canvases titled Take the Money and Run.
“I actually laughed as I saw it,” museum CEO Lasse Andersson tells NPR’s Bill Chappell.
According to Euronews‘ Tom Bateman, a museum spokesperson says the institution has a written agreement with Haaning that the money must be returned when the exhibition ends on January 16, 2022. But the artist tells Danish radio program P1Morgen that he has no plans to repay the cash.
“The work is that I have taken their money,” he says.
Haaning adds that he drew inspiration from the pay Kunsten offered for the artwork. Per Euronews, his contract included a display fee of about $1,550 and reimbursement for expenses up to $6,960. Haaning tells P1 he would have had to spend roughly $3,900 of his own money on the work.
“I encourage other people who have working conditions as miserable as mine to do the same,” he says, per a translation by Artnet News‘ Taylor Dafoe. “If they are sitting on some … job and not getting paid, and are actually being asked to pay money to go to work,” they should take what they can and run.
Speaking with P1, as translated by the Washington Post‘s Jaclyn Peiser, Andersson says that he agrees “a work in its own right has been created, which actually comments on the exhibition we have.”
“But,” he adds, “that is not the agreement we had.”
The museum hung the canvases in the spot where he had planned to put Haaning’s work, as part of an exhibition called “Work It Out,” reports Catherine Hickley for the Art Newspaper. It also posted his email explaining the work.
“It’s more or less a performance [piece],” Andersson tells the Art Newspaper.
According to P1, Haaning is well known in Denmark for such works as reproducing the nation’s flag in green and moving a car dealership and a massage clinic into exhibition buildings.
“Work It Out,” which opened on September 24, focuses on the nature of work and the potential to make working life sustainable for individuals and society. Among the other artworks on display are an interactive meeting room by Kenneth Balfelt Team // Johan August, a photo and video installation by Adelita Husni-Bey examining the working conditions of nurses, and a sculpture by Josh Klein consisting of a FedEx parcel containing reproductions of the severed lower arms of delivery men.
“We spend a lot of our waking hours going to work, but perhaps too little time wondering what work really is,” says Dennis Nørmark, an anthropologist and member of the exhibition’s visionary board, on the museum’s website. “We think we know, but it crumbles for many of us when we try to define it.”
In a statement quoted by CBS News’ Caitlin O’Kane, Haaning explains that his canvases are also a reflection on working life.
“The artwork is essentially about the working conditions of artists,” he says. “It is a statement saying that we also have the responsibility of questioning the structures that we are part of. And if these structures are completely unreasonable, we must break with them. It can be your marriage, your work—it can be any type of social structure.”
Nonetheless, Andersson tells the Art Newspaper that the museum does expect Haaning to return the money, which it planned to use for the building’s upkeep.
“We are not a rich museum,” he says. “We are really hoping the money will come back.”