Danish artist ordered to repay museum $72k for submitting blank canvases

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The story you are about to read is not the plot of the next Coen Brothers film, it is all true. In 2021 the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Denmark gave Danish artist Jens Haaning $84,000 to recreate an older sculpture of Haaning’s. The original 2007 work was covered with Danish krone bills and titled An Average Danish Annual Income. The $84,000 the museum lent to Haaning in 2021 was supplied not as the payment but as materials for the recreation, to be included in an upcoming exhibition. Upon opening the finished work from Haaning, however, Kunsten MOMA was met with two blank canvases. At least they were framed. When asked to explain himself, Haaning said the pieces he had submitted were called Take the Money and Run. In a quirky move, the museum included the blank canvases in the show, then waited for both the show’s run and the terms of the agreement with Haaning to expire, before suing to get their funds back. This week saw the outcome of that lawsuit — Haaning has been ordered to pay back Kunsten MOMA nearly $72,000:

A Copenhagen court has ordered a Danish artist to repay the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art nearly $72,000 after he delivered two empty frames in lieu of a commissioned artwork in 2021, claiming that the frames were a new conceptual piece, provocative titled Take the Money and Run.

The museum had loaned the artist, Jens Haaning, 534,000 krone ($84,000) to recreate a 2007 sculpture, in the form of banknotes, titled An Average Danish Annual Income, which represented the salary using krone bills affixed to a canvas. A 2010 version used euros to represent a typical Austrian income.

The Danish museum used money from its reserves to commission Haaning, and it wasn’t until the works were being unpacked that staff realized they had been sent two empty frames instead. The museum displayed the works in the exhibition for which they were intended, but when the artist refused to repay the borrowed money after the show was taken down, as his contract had stipulated, it decided to take legal action.

After a lengthy legal battle, the court ruled on Monday that Haaning must refund the museum 492,549 kroner ($71,000), the sum that he had been given minus the artist’s fee and cost of mounting, within two weeks.

“It has been good for my work, but it also puts me in an unmanageable situation where I don’t really know what to do,” Haaning told the Danish news outlet dr.dk about the judgement, adding that he has no plans to appeal.

“The work is that I have taken their money,” Haaning told the Danish radio program P1 Morgen in 2021. “It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.” He also claimed that the conceptual trick was a protest against the artist’s fee that he was offered, which he claimed was insufficient and would require him to spend 25,000 kroner ($3,900) of his own money.

“We are not a wealthy museum,” the museum’s director, Lasse Andersson, told the Guardian in 2021. “We have to think carefully about how we spend our funds, and we don’t spend more than we can afford.” The museum has declined to comment on the judgement since there is a four-week period in which it could still be appealed.

[From Artnet News]

In the spirit of this story, I wanted to submit blank commentary for this section, complete with a deadpan, on-the-nose title like You Said It Yourself That It Was Breach of Contract, Idiot. But instead I’ll use my words. Like the name “writer” suggests (although the argument could be made that Haaning fulfilled the title of “artist” if you count “con artist”). I’m a little rusty on my Danish Art Commissioning law statutes, but the fact that Haaning brazenly said “The work is that I have taken their money. It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work,” seems fairly incriminating. But again, I’m no legal scholar. So, has Haaning made a powerful statement on poor wages? Or does he come off as a gimmicky, ego-driven Artiste? At least he’ll always have the satisfaction of not spending that $3,900 of his own money to make the piece back in 2021. He really showed them. Now we wait a month to see if Haaning appeals, and, more importantly, if he presents the appeal in the form of blank protest paper.

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42 Responses to “Danish artist ordered to repay museum $72k for submitting blank canvases”

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  1. Smart&Messy says:

    I don’t get his punch line. What am I supposed to find funny or clever about this?

    • Sugarhere says:

      The punch line is utterly ironic and humorous, as it emphasizes the absurdities of contemporary art, when taken to the extreme of voidness and filled with unfathomable vacuity.

      • BeanieBean says:

        Sure. Or he was being a complete jerk. Either way, I love it! What a great story! Even better than that museum that found out it had a work hanging upside down for 30 years! Or Banksy’s work that shredded immediately upon being sold.

      • ATLMathMom says:

        This! This is everything that I dislike about contemporary/abstract art. It may make me pedestrian, but give me old-fashioned representational art any day.

        This artist thinks he is more clever than anyone else.

      • Golly Gee says:

        He had balls — I will give him that —and I laughed out loud when I read what he titled it.
        It reminds me of the time The national Gallery of Canada purchased the painting Voice of Fire —consisting of three vertical stripes (imagine the Austrian flag hanging sideways, only in blue and red)— for $1.8 million in 1990. It is now reportedly worth $40 million. Massive eye roll.

  2. Mario says:

    Honestly, the museum showed a great sense of humor and deference to the artist when they accepted the pieces as submitted and displayed them, allowing him to make the artistic statement he wanted to, at the cost of their not having the work they commissioned. They ran his blank canvasses, instead, and he got to make his creative point without interference.

    But it was always clear the money was on loan, not a payment or gift, and that was memorialized in a binding contract he signed. It should not have been a surprise when, at the end of the show, they requested the money back, nor when a court said “yeah, you have to give it back.”

    I disagree it was “just” breach of contract, though. Given he ran a con and had no intention to pay it back (even hired a lawyer to try and keep it) it was at least an attempted grand theft, and will remain so until the money is repaid.

    And that’s the next question. It sounds a lot like he may have spent it? Come.on, dude!

    • It Really Is You, Not Me says:

      ^This. According to the article it was never supposed to be a payment for the materials, it was supposed to be a loan so he has to pay it back at the end.

      I am also rusty on my Danish art law, but under American law he could be liable to pay back the money even if the money was a payment for supplies if the terms of the contract specifically stated that the submitted work was to be the recreation of his earlier work. Sorry, bud, there’s no “grand artistic statement ” exception to contract law. He sounds like an arrogant ass who spent all the money and thought he would get Away with it.

    • BeanieBean says:

      Yeah, he knew what he was doing. It was a con. Still love the story though. The brazenness! The hubris!

    • DK says:

      I think the museum directors should just claim that they too are working on a piece, and it’s called “Enforcing the Contract.”

      • BlueNailsBetty says:

        The museum should print the contract and the judge’s ruling on two very large separate canvases and hang them next to the artist’s blank canvases.

    • Robert Phillips says:

      Wouldn’t the fact the museum displayed it. And people came and viewed it. Mean that the artists contract was fulfilled? The contract was for the artist to have something for the museum to hang for people to come see. Which is exactly what happened.

      • Sugarhere says:

        I would love for a Suits movie with the original cast, to tackle that topic from a legal standpoint.

  3. North of Boston says:

    Like if it was in the US or other country where many people struggle to earn a living wage while the 1% are making millions on top of their billions, I could argue it’s social commentary on end stage unrestricted capitalism.

    But as it is? I got nothing.

  4. MinorityReport says:

    Honestly? I’m team artist on this one. I get the concept AND they displayed the art. I would probably side with the museum if they hadn’t displayed and profited off the submitted pieces.

    No, they didn’t get what they commissioned, but they did get two works of modern art and they did display them, rather than returning them and immediately asking for their money back.

    • Mario says:

      Yes, but even with the original commission, the cash was always a loan and he was contractually obligated to return it all, minus his fee, afterward. It was like them loaning him jewels. So when he kept the money he’d promised to return (but only after the installation was over) they had to go to court. If it was a payment, I’d be team artist, too for the brilliant subversion. But a loan is a loan is a loan.

    • Kitten says:

      Yeah I think we might be unpopular here but I agree. He generated a TON of publicity for the museum and the exhibit which, for a small independent museum, is priceless. I know people will say this is annoying or shitty or whatever but I love art stunts like this as much as I loved Banksy’s self-shredding canvas.

      • BeanieBean says:

        Ditto! Those photos crack me up, with the people standing & contemplating, or better yet, reading the accompanying label. I’d give it a glance & keep moving! Not these folks, it’s art, it’s on a wall in a museum, I should ponder it!

      • ML says:

        Kitten, I also loved Banksy’s shredded auction piece, but to me the difference is that it went to one very rich person. Lots of museums don’t have insanely huge budgets here and to me Haaning tried to profit at the cost of other artists. It is a funny story though! And now to your next comment…

    • goofpuff says:

      I would be on team artist if he returned the money afterwards as dictated in his contract. But that he kept it just made him a con artist instead of an actual artist. This isn’t a fancy rich museum. They need the money to support other artists.

  5. ArtHistorian says:

    As a Danish art historian who have worked in various museums: This is just a disrespectful con-job with no deeper message. The art museums in Denmark really don’t have much money because of ever decreasing public funding and they rarely commission works because they generally don’t have the money for it. Running museums is EXPENSIVE and they can only mount special exhibitions through external grants from private foundations. The artist is simply being an asshole and he’s trying to pad out his assholery with lazy concept art speak.

    This reminds me of another legal case involving another contemporary Danish artist and museum. This artist defaced a work of art in a museum by writing their name on a famous Danish painting (“signing” it) with and then pouring a strong corrosive contact glue on it. They claimed it was a conceptual art piece about modifying another artists work. Modifying an existing art work IS an artistic thing. The painting in question is such a modified work. The difference is that the original artist bought some generic painting in a second-hand show and modified it. He didn’t modify/deface a major piece of art in the Danish history of art. You could argue that the “artistic” defacing of a valuable painting owned by a museum is a comment about the commodification of art but it doesn’t hold true since the museum in question isn’t some large rich corporation but rather a museum that grew from the artists own donations to the museum because the local art association sponsored his work because they wanted to support local artists. Ibi-Pippi’s defacement of “Den foruroligende ælling” was a cheap stunt (this is why concept art can get a bad rep – because of cheap stunts design to make the artist notorious). Ibi-Pippi got jail time and had to pay a huge fine.

    I’m not against concept art but I find that it often results in lazy art that is more about publicity stunts than making meaningful statements about our world in an interesting way. It often becomes the Emperor’s New Clothes.

  6. ML says:

    Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea who Jens Haaning was. Technically, I’m amused by this story, but the arts have had a difficult time over the past two decades. Covid hit cultural jobs , museums, theaters,… much harder than other sectors as well. I’m pretty sure that that would also be true in Denmark, and that Jens would be aware of that. Him attempting to benefit himself at the cost of an institution that also funds other artists and agreeing to sign a contract? He actually still wound up with huge name recognition, several thousand euro, and a really good story he’s free to monetize. My sympathies are with Kunsten MOMA.

    • Kate says:

      Yeah I really don’t understand the premise of this – he just looks childish and passive aggressive to me. If you don’t like the terms of a contract then negotiate different terms or don’t accept it? Seems more like he mismanaged time or for whatever reason couldn’t do the work he intended to do and just came up with this petty idea at the last minute. There are more creative and interesting ways to make a social commentary with your work rather than simply not doing any work.

  7. FancyPants says:

    I’ll be honest- I do not appreciate art, I don’t understand who decides what is good and what is not, and I believe the whole concept of “fine art” is a global money laundering scam. Why is this painting priceless and this other one is $9.99 at Target? [shrugs] When I lived in Arkansas, I went to Crystal Bridges because I always do the local tourist stuff, and as I walked through the museum I just kept getting angrier and angrier. I looked at one “painting” and thought, that’s just a plain blue canvas, and when I read the description it said it was meant to represent that “all art is simply paint on a canvas.” The final insult was the last “piece” on the way out- a giant pile of candy on the floor. Not even good candy- generic green hard candy, and you were encouraged to take a piece because it was a “dynamic” piece. All I could think was “eff you, Alice Walton, how much did you pay for this scam?!?” All of that is to say that both parties here got exactly what they deserved- nothing.

    • bubbled says:

      Because it was “just” breach of contract, paying the museum damages is the appropriate remedy. If it were theft, he would get jail time instead.

      You can’t say “But I gave you another conceptual artwork!” when you contracted for a different one. If you entered into a contract to get paid $300 for a wedding cake, you can’t just show up to the wedding with a dozen muffins and complain that $300 wasn’t a fair price.

    • Kitten says:

      The fact that all that benign, inoffensive art made you so angry is exactly why art is awesome. It’s sad most Americans don’t have an appreciation for it but in this country sports is all anyone cares about, sadly. Oh, and the guns…can’t forget the guns. #Merica

      • BeanieBean says:

        One more thing I like about this one: the cheap frames. He didn’t even use nice frames!

      • Kate says:

        To be fair Kitten I think there are a lot of people in America who enjoy certain types of art but not necessarily conceptual stuff and who are not gun or sports enthusiasts (raises hand).

      • Kitten says:

        LOL the frames are pure shiite. Just hilarious.

        @Kate-Oh I’m sure. But generally-speaking, Americans are not known for their interest in art. It’s why art budgets are always the first to get slashed in American public schools. In my town, the art budget for the entire fiscal year in the highschool is $1,000. $1,000!!!! The highschool athletics budget is six times that.
        I got my degree in art education 23 years ago but I went into insurance because I didn’t want to teach “art on a cart”. I wanted my own classroom and I didn’t want to spend the little money I made on art supplies for my students.

        And as someone who is both French and American, I can assure you that this is not something that happens in most western European (and honestly probably not most eastern European) countries. I mean, even just the utter lack of public art–even in some major cities–is just so drastically different than what you see outside of the US, where art is just everywhere. A disinterest and sometimes an outright distaste for art is not a bug but a feature of American culture. It just is.

      • ML says:

        “The fact that all that benign, inoffensive art made you so angry is exactly why art is awesome.”
        Kitten, well said❣️

      • Satish More says:


        I know I’m very late to this party, but…..sports is all anyone cares about in this country??? Are you talking about the United States?? I don’t think that’s true at all. None of my American friends seem to be interested in any sport…..however, I do agree that the commenter who had the angry reaction to the modern art is a very good example of the transformative power of art. After all, art isn’t always just something pretty to look at, it is supposed to incite our emotions. if the person is changed after viewing the art, then the art did its job.

    • Eurydice says:

      There’s a difference between art and who decides what is art – one is communication and the other is gatekeeping – over time, certain works become acknowledged to be great by society. But if the $9.99 painting from Target pleases you, then what’s wrong with that?

      I’ll admit to feeling quizzical when I see a giant hamburger that’s basically a pile of pillows, or a plain bookcase with 6 ordinary volumes of Proust – like WTF? But I remember seeing at MOMA a giant piece by a Nigerian artist, all made of bottle caps, but stunningly beautiful. And here in Boston, a giant installation of old shoes and shoe boxes. It sounds weird, but it made me think about who wore those shoes and what their lives must have been like.

  8. Bumblebee says:

    At first I thought the cash was to be the material used to make his art. Like the original art. But it sounds like part of it was a loan and the rest intended to be used to purchase other materials/supplies for the artwork?

    • Linden says:

      No, you had it right. If you look at the prior work he was contracted to recreate, it is “made” out of cash. So if I wanted a temporary statue made out of cash for a party, I’d have to take out the amount of cash from my bank to make it, but if it was a lot of money, I’d of course want to get the cash back and redeposit it when the party was over.

      That’s what happened before and that’s what everyone expected would happen here: he made art LITERALLY “worth”/”made out of” an average annual salary in cash (with some additional materials to structure and keep it together) but of course they expected it back.

  9. Eurydice says:

    “The work is that I have taken their money,” – he’s redefining theft as art. Maybe next he can beat up the museum director and call it a performance.

    • Linden says:

      If he tried that in NY or Boston and a few of the more “organized” benefactors might beat HIM up and call it art…and still sue him, lol.

  10. VilleRose says:

    This story slightly reminds me of the “Made You Look” documentary, though the artist here didn’t produce forgeries. He just didn’t produce any art at all. From an outsider perspective, I find the story entertaining and ridiculous, it’s just the kind of thing an entitled artist would pull. But I’m glad the courts didn’t find the stunt amusing for the museum’s sake and let Haaning get away with his BS excuse “but I’m an artist and this was an art piece!”

  11. one of the marys says:

    I thought it was a great PR stunt and the museum handled it well. I think professionals will be leery of hiring him in future though. will be interesting to see where he is in a couple of years

  12. rawiya says:

    Had they just commissioned him for ~art, then yeah, what he did would have funny. But he was supposed to recreate something and he didn’t. I think the museum has been very ‘nice’ (for lack of a better word) in all of this.

  13. LeahTheFrench says:

    I think the museum took it pretty well, considering. $84k is a lot of money for a cultural institution (at least in Europe).