The Renaissance Society's new executive director, Solveig Øvstebø (photo courtesy of The Renaissance Society).

Last fall, The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago announced the appointment of art historian and curator Solveig Øvstebø (‘Săl-vēg ōvst-‘ē-bō’) to the post of executive director, a significant move since Øvstebø’s predecessor, Susanne Ghez, held the post for the past 40 years. Ghez leaves behinds big shoes, to say the least, but shoes Øvstebø is poised to fill nicely. Since arriving this past June, she’s immersed herself in little outside of the Society and the daunting task of curating her first exhibition for the museum, an exhibition that will ostensibly put her thumbprint on the direction the museum will take as it moves toward its first century in 2015. With a robust background in avant garde contemporary art and a keen insight for discovering new visionary talent, Øvstebø just may represent a natural progression for a risk-taking art society that’s bold enough to focus not on amassing venerable collections of important art, but serving as a platform for the discovery of eminent contemporary artists with a thing or two to say. Øvstebø had a thing or two to say about that first exhibition and her short time here in the city. With her partner and small daughter in tow, she’s had her hands full this summer. She’ll expect more of the same as the museum gets set to celebrate its first 100 years next fall.

It must have been a busy summer for you, having taken over responsibilities just this past June and already presenting new curatorial focus for the Society. Have you even had an opportunity to get out and see the city? Yes, the past couple months have been very busy.  I have spent most of my time in Hyde Park and at the Renaissance Society, so I do not have a total overview of the city yet.  But…I really like what I have seen and experienced so far.  It is a very special city - beautiful, grand, and energetic.  And I love the lake.  We live quite close to it, so this summer I swam almost every morning before I went to work.
Is there a particular freedom you find in heading a contemporary art museum that does not maintain a growing collection of works? The Renaissance Society has a very distinct institutional model. It is independent and flexible and has the possibility of being a platform for both experimentation and research. The fact that it does not have to conserve and take care of a collection allows (for) an ability to focus on the exhibitions and artistic production.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Your first show as chief curator for the museum is based on a new work by Nora Shultz, an intriguing multi-media artist of unique vision and dimension. Tell me what you saw in Shultz as an artist that led you to curate an exhibition based on her work, an exhibition that will mark your first impression for Chicagoans at the Renaissance Society? I am very excited and honored to be able to work with Nora Schultz and to present her first institutional show in the States. I first saw Nora's work in a gallery in Berlin and I was struck by her ability to work from contrary positions...Her work poses complex questions about our reality, though not necessary with an obvious objective or solution. She works with various material, primarily with found objects that she transforms and reconstructs—though this exhibition will also include objects made in her studio in Berlin, which will be integrated in to a larger installation in our space.  She has an ability to make work that is spontaneous and process oriented but also controlled and unified with a beautiful formal finish. She is making a complete new body of work for her show at the Renaissance Society.
Is there anything in this selection that tells us about the direction you look to take the museum as it approaches its centennial celebration? I think it is important for the Society to place the work we show within a framework that allows for in-depth exploration and discussion of the issues a specific artist raises.  We want to engage in a dialogue with the artists, something that has always been crucial for the institution’s activity.  I would like to strengthen and further develop this dialogue by orienting the Society’s program to focus on the commissioning of new artwork.  I think it is very important that The Renaissance Society is a place where artists are given the opportunity to develop an idea or concept, to take a risk, to activate the space and our staff.
Both staff and space will be in focus as Nora Shultz’ first U.S. showing—Øvstebø’s first exhibition for the Society—launches this winter. The exhibit runs January 12 through February 23, 2014 at The Renaissance Society on the campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park.

LUMINARY: Interview with Solveig Øvstebø

New Renaissance Society executive director eyes her first exhibition at the University of Chicago museum as it heads into its 100th year.

By Adam McKinney