An art society is a non-profit membership organization, with the core mission to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of visual art.
Art societies organise art exhibitions, public lectures on art, and initiate learning programmes for children and youth. Art societies are open to public membership: Anyone who wants to can become a member by paying an annual membership fee. The art societies are governed by a board, which is elected by the members at the general assembly. In Norway, most of the art societies are based exclusively on voluntary work, but approximately 20 art societies have hired staff.
Many art societies take on a special responsibility for local and regional artists, by offering them gallery space. The art societies are especially important to young, newly educated artists – several well-known Norwegian artists have had their first exhibition in an art society. The art societies in the major cities mainly show exhibitions by prominent Norwegian and international contemporary artists.
Lately, some of the art societies have changed their name to kunsthall, but they are still organised as art societies. The name change underlines that they to a large extent produce and curate exhibitions of their own, and have a more international focus.
A non-profit approach to art
What all the art societies have in common, regardless of budget and profile, is the non-profit model. Their aim is to promote art, not to earn money. Commission income from art sale is used to produce non-commercial art exhibitions.
Several art societies receive public funding from the municipality or county, and a handful is supported by Arts Council Norway. Others get their income from membership fees, project funding, voluntary work, sponsors and commission on art sale. Some own their own galleries, others get free gallery spaces through the municipalities, or they rent at market price.
The art societies are an important part of the infrastructure of the Norwegian art scene. For many Norwegians, the closest art museum is hours away, hence a large proportion of the public has their first encounter with the visual arts in an art society. As democratically run art venues the art societies contribute to the diversity of the art scene.
Most of the art societies in Norway are members of The Norwegian Association of Art Societies. In total the art societies have approximately 20.000 members.
The history of the art societies in Norway
The first art societies in Norway were founded in the 1830s, by inspiration from the art societies (kunstverein) in Germany. It was the Norwegian painter and professor J. C. Dahl who brought the idea back to Norway from the art academy in Dresden. His involvement was vital to the establishment of the first two Norwegian art societies, in Oslo in 1836 and in Bergen in 1838. The art society in Oslo was actually the very first public art venue in Norway, as the National Gallery was not established until 1842.
In the statutes for the first art societies the main objective was to induce love for the visual arts, and to promote Norwegian art. Like today, the members payed a member fee, organised exhibitions and an art lottery for the members.
In the span of time between 1836 and 1900 art societies were founded in several of the historically important cities of Norway: Trondheim (1845), Stavanger (1865), Drammen (1867), Arendal (1873), Fredrikstad (1875), Kristiansand (1881) and Kristiansund (1883). In the beginning of 1900s and until the second world war broke out in 1940, art societies were established in more and more cities: Ålesund (1906), Skien (1910), Haugesund (1913) and Tromsø (1924). Prominent members of society and famous artists often took the initiative to establish art societies. The first art society in the countryside was founded in Volda in 1937.
In the 1970–80s there was a boom in the number of art societies. In these two decades art societies popped up all over Norway. In the years after 1990 there is a decline in new establishments, but new art societies are still being founded today.
Many of the art societies have over time built large art collections. Some of these art collections later became the backbone for founding regional public art museums, such as the art museums in Trondheim, Haugesund and Stavanger.
Even though the way art societies are run have changed a lot from 1836 till today, the main aim has remained the idealistic promotion of visual arts.
The need for a national association
The Norwegian Association of Art Societies was founded in 1934 with 16 art societies as members. The association’s main aim was to tour exhibitions of high quality art. The following years several art exhibitions were on tour, among them an exhibition of graphic art by Edvard Munch. However, due to poor economy the association ceased to exist in 1949.
In the three northern counties of Norway an association for all art institutions in the region was established in 1976, and there was also collaboration between the art societies in Akershus county. Based on this work, there was an initiative to found a national association for all the art societies. An interim board was put together in November 1977, and the first general assembly of The Norwegian Association of Art Societies was held on 10th of November 1978. Since then The Norwegian Association of Art Societies have doubled the number of member societies, and from being based on voluntary work the first years, the association now have an administration with five employees. The association receives its funding from Art Council Norway.