Without art, society would not evolve

Interview with Mads Øvlisen
»Politicians often say that they should support art, but they have no vision of why. Politicians should consider the cultural authorities as knowledgeable advisers instead of, as today, using them as lobby organizations«, says Mads Øvlisen.

Mads Øvlisen (1940) is one of Denmark’s most well-known business leaders. He has also had important positions in the cultural sector. He was a director of the major pharmaceutical corporation Novo Nordisk in 1981–2000, and was then the
president of the same company. He is famous for
his large acquisitions of art for Novo Nordisk, which
now owns one of Denmark’s finest collections.
Mads Øvlisen has been on the boards of several
large Danish companies, including Lego A/S
in 1990-2008. He was the chairman of the Royal
Danish Theatre in 2000–2007, and chairman of
the Danish Arts Council in 2007–2011. From 2009
to 2012, he was the chairman of Council for Social Responsibility. He is also an acting professor of social responsibility at the Copenhagen Business School. Øvlisen has often been called “the father of CSR”. CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, means that
companies take responsibility for how they affect society, from an economic, environmental and social perspective.
The interview took place right before the outbreak
of the corona pandemic.

Arm's length principle
Cultural policy

As a corporate leader and board member, what are your expectations on art?

As you probably understand, I have never seen art as an instrument that should “do something” to us. I see art as a crucial means of social development.

Art is the autonomous little brother of culture, which kicks upwards and creates new insights. I never relate to art as embellishment, but as an encounter, an invitation to communicate, to ask questions.

An example of this is the work “Defining Art” (1996) by Lars Bent Petersen, which can be read as two full stops, a comma and a line, similar to a smiley. I hung it in an office at Novo Nordisk where our planning engineers worked. They found the simplicity provoking and asked with irony if this was really art. But after a while, they didn’t want to have it replaced. They used it as a benchmark for their own critical dialogue in the innovation process. What are we doing? Why are we doing it this way? That gave them new approaches and meanings.

Now and then, I would invite actors and librarians in order to find new approaches and new ways of analysing relationships,
situations, value patterns. They were able to ask questions that had no given answers.

A research-intensive company needs to ask itself constantly if there could be otherways of thinking. For me, it was essential to have art in all kinds of premises:

conference rooms, factories, research laboratories, corridors. In research, it’s better to be openminded than to point out the direction before you start looking. The biggest mistake a researcher can make is to not dare to make mistakes. Good art encourages discussion and questioning. It has something that you will never fully be done with.

Naturally, people sometimes questioned my art purchases at Novo Nordisk. My usual reply was that I wanted Novo Nordisk to be a place where we dared to dream.

Novo Nordisk currently owns 1,200 works of art. Most of them were bought by you. Where you ever challenged for investing that much money in art?

No, the art investments soon became part of the company’s branding. When I resigned from Novo Nordisk, they asked if I wanted to go on managing art acquisitions, but I said no. I didn’t want to feel like my successor’s interior decorator.

Most people don’t have a clue how much art costs, so it is impossible for them to know if a painting is worth 5,000 or 20,000 DKK. When the economy was in decline, I obviously adjusted to that. I didn’t buy art as an investment.

My private art purchases weren’t investments either. I’ve been fascinated by art that is remarkable or exciting or for
the unbelievably skilful craftsmanship. Sometimes I just bought art because I couldn’t quite understand the work.

Today, more people are doubting the visionary power and contemporary relevance of politics. Could your faith in the power of art inject energy into the political domain?

I don’t know. I could never be a politician, since I don’t have the patience it requires. I’ve always found it hard to accept contexts where the process is allowed to determine the results. The advantage of working in industry is that we do what we want.

The problem is that art has turned into something we can acquire in life, but not something we grow up with, something that is allowed to grow naturally into us. Art is not something you go and look at. We should have art in our lives. It doesn’t need to be grand art, but it should be art that gives pleasure in creating and studying. There ought to be residential artists whom kids can watch as they work, for instance a studio at school, because the presence of art in the local community is extremely important. In cultural policy terms, it’s called “promoting” the arts. To me, “promoting” means enhancing and developing art in society and getting the citizens and the media to focus on the importance and purpose of art.

For four years, you chaired what used to be the most important public body in the Danish culture life, the Danish Arts Council. You ended by delivering scathing criticism to the politicians.

Among other things, you wrote:
“Art fills an extremely important purpose in democratic societies such as Denmark. Art is mankind’s and society’s self-reflection. Art creates understanding. Art crosses borders. Art opens spaces and provokes new perspectives on the problems we discuss every day. But this, apparently, is not particularly relevant to politicians or the media.”

Yes, politicians often say they want to support art, but they have no clear sense of why. Politicians used the Arts Council as a lobby organisation, instead of seeing us as a vital and knowledgeable advisor. Instead of respecting the expertise our organisation
had, funding was earmarked for special political priorities. I would say that this interferes with the principle of arm’s length between politics and art. Today, when politics is in urgent need of reinventing itself, we would need more respect and genuine arm’s length.

For more than 50 years, the “arm’s length” principle has been the main guideline for Danish cultural policy. Arts funding should be based on a political vision, but not subject to political control. Instead, the money should be distributed on professional and factual grounds. And still, most of the Art Council’s funding is tied to politically-determined priorities. This limits the potential for art that doesn’t have the politicians’ approval but may be just as crucial to the development of art and social debate:
Good art often disturbs our habitual ways of thinking. Art flourishes the best when it is not sorted into special categories with
earmarked funding. Art should remain free. Naturally, a government agency such as the Danish Arts Council should confer with politicians, but the artists – they should be free. The key issue is: Is art there to make you react in a certain way, or to make you think for yourself?

That was one main aspect of my critique. The other was that politicians wanted funding to be available to Danish artists only. In my opinion, the Arts Council should be at liberty to support all artists who produce good quality art in Denmark. I believe that the Danish arts scene would benefit from that approach, which, after all, is the whole point of arts funding, I would assume. I don’t believe for one second in all that talk about art contributing to the “national” spirit. Art should not be used to divide people.

»If a country wants an industry that generates growth and jobs, we need a new kind of winner culture that includes both mind and heart. A culture where values and standpoints weigh as heavily as financial targets.«

It’s unusual for a chairman of public body to challenge leading politicians. You were also one of the few board members who didn’t have an artist background. How did the arts scene react to your system criticism?

I really wanted to provoke debate, but there was only a tepid interest. There were some negative reactions to what I said, and to my conviction that art must be allowed to provoke debate. But I never said that provocation is an end in itself, it’s there to prompt us to think new things.

You became the chairman of the prestigious the Royal Danish Theatre in 2000. A theatre is organised according to traditional principles. What was your reaction the first time you looked into the heart of this complex institution?

Some said, “It’s good to have Mads as the chairman. He comes from a research-intensive industry. Researchers are divas, just
like actors. So he knows how to handle that kind of problem.” But I soon realised that theatre artists are not divas at all, but people who put themselves on the line night after night after night. That enormous commitment to art touched me. My time there was certainly rewarding.

When I came to the Royal Danish Theatre, I saw that the entire organisation was moulded to be efficient. There wasn’t even any artist representation on the board. In my opinion, having artistic competence on the board is as crucial as it is to have research competence. My challenge was to radically change the theatre and get the artistic directors to work in a collective culture that would permeate the entire organisation. I discovered, for instance, that some staff at the Royal Danish Theatre, such as stage technicians, never ever saw a performance from an audience seat.

As the chairman, I also wanted to encourage experiment. Working on the frontline entails great risks of making mistakes, but the experiment itself might have undeniable virtues.

I was also keen for the Royal Danish Theatre to listen to its audience and what they thought was important. I was challenged by those who thought I wanted to let the audience decide, but that was never in question. It was about being interested in the audience’s opinions about how the theatre worked, to find out how the theatre connects to the society it operates in.

How should arts institutions position themselves in a more resilient context? Repertoire theatres, for instance, are based on a sort of “consumption” of experiences, where the artists have to constantly produce new stuff. Does the climate crisis put a responsibility on the arts to change?

I don’t think theatre as such is particularly in focus here, because the performing arts are driven by very different demands. In architecture, fine arts, design… we see clearer indications. When I look at what’s happening with the doctoral scholarships I introduced in art history and practice-based research, I feel hopeful. We have students with incredibly exciting projects touching on the topics we have discussed here.

We are living in challenging times that open up new possibilities for the arts, opportunities to regenerate. I don’t think my grandchildren will want to consume entertainment just to be entertained. They will demand commitment and relevance. For the arts to be relevant in the future, they need to address issues that we can’t even imagine today.

How would you describe the relationship between society and business?

Every corporation has a responsibility to operate in a way that contributes to improving society. Sustainability and CSR are the same thing, in some ways. Both you as an individual and the company you work for have made it to where you are because someone had faith in you, gave you a chance. It’s your duty to pay back. That principle has always guided my work.

Most influential Danish companies are already applying the principle of striving for both financial, social and environmental results. For most businesses, it is natural to take responsibility together with government agencies and civil society to solve problems and take on assignments in areas where businesses have special expertise.

Are Nordic companies at the cutting edge when it comes to CSR?

Some individual companies have been pearheading this, but it’s not the case across the whole !eld. The idea, however, that a corporation is dependent on its surroundings, is more established in the Nordic countries than the rest of the world. Nordic leadership culture is actually characterised by consensus, and we are used to sitting down around the same table to discuss things. Relations with the company’s stakeholders, that is, those who are affected by the company’s success or failure, are crucial. If a country wants an industry that generates growth and jobs, we need a new kind of winner culture that includes both mind and heart. A culture where values and standpoints weigh as heavily as financial targets.

That is contrary to the fundamental capitalist principle that productivity must constantly increase.

I believe we will need to modernise capitalism, to make it more functional in the complexity that our modern societies are based on today.

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