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Museum gives artist $84K cash to use in artwork. He delivered blank canvases titled 'Take the Money and Run'

"No it [the money] does not have to be returned. The work is in fact that I have taken their money," the artist claimed.

Museum gives artist $84K cash to use in artwork. He delivered blank canvases titled 'Take the Money and Run'
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Vera Livchak

When the staff at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in ​​northern Denmark opened boxes from artist Jens Haaning last week, they expected to see two large picture frames filled with banknotes worth a combined $84,000. The pieces were meant to be reproductions of two of Haaning's older pieces that were made with cash to represent the average annual salaries of an Austrian and a Dane. However, when the museum took delivery of the recreated artworks ahead of an exhibition about the future of labor, gallery staff made a surprising discovery: two empty frames.


"I have chosen to make a new work for the exhibition, instead of showing the two 14- and 11-year-old works respectively," Haaning told the museum in an email. "The work is based on/responds to both your exhibition concept and the works that we had originally planned to show." The email and the "new" conceptual piece — which Haaning has titled "Take the Money and Run" — are both now on display at the "Work It Out" exhibition despite the museum accusing the artist of breaking their legal agreement and demanding that he return the 534,000 kroner, the equivalent of over $84,000.


"I saw, from my artistic point of view, that I could create a much better piece for them than what they could imagine," Haaning told CNN. "I don't see that I have stolen money... I have created an art piece, which is maybe 10 or 100 times better than what we had planned. What is the problem?" According to the network, in addition to the 534,000 Danish krone they lent him for the cash-filled artworks, the Kunsten Museum had agreed to pay a further 10,000 krone ($1,571) for Haaning's work, and cover costs like framing and delivery.


However, Haaning told the Danish radio show "P1 Morgen" that the project would have cost him 25,000 kroner out of his own pocket. "No it [the money] does not have to be returned. The work is in fact that I have taken their money," the 56-year-old said. "I normally find myself in a better position when I'm showing abroad. I'm a Dane and it's (a) Danish museum and they expect me to invest because then maybe one day they will buy something," the artist added in his phone call with CNN. However, Kunsten's director, Lasse Andersson, maintains that the museum has upheld its side of the agreement. "It's really important for us because we have always been known for honoring contracts and also paying artists a reasonable fee,"


While Haaning says he has no plans to return the money and is "not worried" about possible consequences, Andersson has given the artist until January — when the exhibition ends — to repay the loan. "I think behind the piece is a much more general statement: that (you) should look at the structures you participate in and reflect on them," Haaning said, listing religion and marriage among them. "And if needed, you know, take the money and run." Andersson and the Kunsten museum have yet to publicly commit to going to the police if Haaning does not return the money. 


Meanwhile, Andersson has his own interpretation of the empty frames in the context of the exhibition. "Do we have to work for money, or can we just take it? Why do we go to work? All these kinds of things make us start to reflect on the cultural habits of society that we are part of. And then it also applies to the question: Are artists paid enough for what they do?" Andersson asked. "I would give it to Jens [Haaning] that a work of art in its own right has been created, one which comments on the exhibition we are having," he told P1 Morgen. "But this is not part of our agreement."


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