Renaissance Society names Solveig Øvstebø new executive director

Solveig Øvstebø, the new executive director of the Renaissance Society.

Solveig Øvstebø, the new executive director of the Renaissance Society. Photograph: Paul S. Amundsen

The Renaissance Society has named Solveig Øvstebø its new executive director. Øvstebø, who heads Norway's Bergen Kunsthall, takes up her new position in June 2013. She succeeds Susanne Ghez, who is retiring after serving as the Ren's executive director for almost 40 years.

Despite its name, the Hyde Park–based Ren exhibits contemporary art—art "relevant to our time," Ghez told me during a phone interview yesterday. "Ahead of its time" seems more accurate, given that its challenging shows aren't crowd-pleasers. When Ghez first joined the Ren, she recalls, "It was very tough. The audiences were not large." But the young or underrecognized artists with whom the nonprofit institution collaborates have a tendency to become international stars. Read more after the jump.

The Ren was an early supporter of Lawrence Weiner, Louise Bourgeois and Mike Kelley. It gave German artist Isa Genzken, Belgian artist Luc Tuymans and Canadian artist Jeff Wall their first major solo exhibitions in the U.S., and in 2007 hosted the American premieres of Steve McQueen's short films "Gravesend" and "Unexploded." Within the past six years, Wall and Tuymans have had retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, respectively. McQueen's retrospective is on view at the Art Institute now, and the MCA plans one for Genzken in 2014.  

While museums such as the Art Institute "play the role of certifying achievement," Ren board member Canice Prendergast tells me, "we want the Renaissance Society to be an institution that takes risks, sometimes finds underrepresented artists, sometimes finds artists who are young and have not yet reached worldwide exposure." At Bergen Kunsthall, Øvstebø "has managed to do that time and time again," adds Prendergast, a professor at the U. of Chicago's Booth School of Business who was closely involved in the Ren's 18-month search for a new director. He finds it striking that Øvstebø devoted an exhibition to Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo in 2005, "largely before the world knew he existed." A partnership between the Ren and the Art Institute brought Vo's work to both institutions this fall

Øvstebø's experience at Bergen Kunsthall, where she became director 12 years ago at the age of 28, appears to have prepared her remarkably well for her new position. Bergen Kunsthall resembles the Ren in that it is also "a non-collecting institution with its main focus on producing, contextualizing and presenting contemporary art," Øvstebø explains via e-mail. Like Ghez, she has balanced curatorial and administrative responsibilities, growing her organization's annual budget from approximately $80,000 to $1.7 million—the same size as the Ren's. According to Prendergast, Øvstebø transformed the Kunsthall from a local venue into "a truly international institution."

Thanks to Ghez, the Ren has an international reputation for excellence that's particularly impressive given its modest exhibition space on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall at the University of Chicago. (While the university provides free space and utilities, the Ren operates independently of the school.) Over time, Ghez says, "The audiences grew and the programs grew and the publications grew. We had a very small budget when I started.…Today, I have a cash reserve that’s three times our operational budget. That’s a nice cushion. It allows us to take risks, to support artists."

Asked what drew her to the Ren, Øvstebø praises its "strong voice on the international art scene," which doesn't come from staging "massive blockbuster shows…but through a demonstrated will to work in-depth with artists and their projects, resulting in uncompromised and groundbreaking exhibitions that very often present new directions of how to interpret a body of work." She cites Félix González-Torres's 1994 solo show—also a favorite of Ghez's—as an example.

González-Torres's exhibition, "Traveling," was a collaboration with D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. "That was the beginning of understanding that the quality of our exhibition program was equal" to those of larger institutions, Ghez says, because the Ren can devote most of its funds to programming rather than operating expenses. Several partnerships with the Art Institute, such as Vo's project, followed.

Øvstebø, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Norway, hopes to continue such collaborations, and perhaps team up with various departments at the U. of C. Exhibitions organized by Ghez or associate curator Hamza Walker fill the Ren's schedule through fall 2013, but the new executive director expects to curate a show to commemorate the Ren's 2015 centennial.

Ghez laughs when I ask if her four decades at the Ren have left her with any regrets. "I’m a very happy camper," she says. "I’ve been able to do things with great freedom.… Believe me, this is a perfect job."

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)