Brothers in Arts

They inherited their joy of sharing art publicly from their grandfather and father. But Olav and Frederik Selvaag have taken the Selvaag Art Collection in a more international and contemporary direction.

It’s one of those quiet late mornings at Tjuvholmen, in Oslo. A cold wind sends ripples across the fjord. Two men stand on the terrace outside the Vingen bar at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, watching three tourists take pictures of “Spalt”, a brightly colored, three-piece sculpture by Franz West. The tourists don’t notice the two men watching them; don’t know that they are Olav and Frederik Selvaag, who donated the sculpture park as a gift to the city of Oslo.

“We always keep a secret eye on people out here and watch the way they move among the artworks. It’s wonderful to see how popular the sculpture park has become. Not just because of the art: people come for the beach and to lie on the grass. That way, lots of people build a relationship to contemporary art.”

Over the past 20 years, Olav Hindahl Selvaag (48) and Gunnar Frederik Selvaag (42) have built up a considerable collection of contemporary art. When they were asked to exhibit parts of the collection in the “I Still Believe in Miracles” exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, it was easy to say yes.

“Linking the sculptures we have here at the sculpture park at Tjuvholmen with the art we’ve spread about in many other places was a cool thing to do,” says Frederik Selvaag.

In a central position at Tjuvholmen stands the man Olav and Frederik call Grandad. Olav Selvaag, founder of the family-run construction and real estate company, died in 2002 at the age of 89. Now he stands, cast in bronze, wearing a loose suit jacket, left hand thrust deep in his trouser pocket, facing the city and the people who come to Tjuvholmen.

“Grandad was athletic and energetic by nature. You can see it in the sculpture, that he was a man of energy,” says Frederik.

“I think he looks so friendly, standing there looking down along the road and welcoming people. I definitely recognise aspects of Grandad in that statue.”

“When I come here with my seven- and ten-year-old children, they ask and probe and want me to tell them all about him because they never got to meet him. We are very proud of Grandad and everything he stood for,” says Frederik.

Selvaag is a name that became seriously familiar to Norwegians in the post-war period when there was a need for housing and a shortage of materials. Olav Selvaag, a young engineer from Lista in southern Norway, set himself a social task: building good, cheap housing for people with limited incomes. Seventy years ago, he built the first Selvaag house: a little wooden house in Oslo’s Ekeberg district. He built it to show how useless he thought the building regulations were in those days and to demonstrate that it was perfectly possible to build a good house for one third of the price of what equivalent housing then cost.

In the book “Folkets boligbygger”, he is described as a man of action who helped a hard-pressed people. And a man of conflict, condemned by his opponents for destroying standards and quality. Olav Selvaag didn’t just want to build homes for people; he wanted something more. He also wanted to give them some- thing to smile about every day, in the form of art. The first sculptures arrived in 1958, when he surprised everybody by installing 23 sculptures overnight for the opening of the new shopping centre at Veitvedt.

“We grew up with the idea that it’s good to share art in public spaces. This is what distinguishes us from many other collectors. When we exhibit parts of our private collection, including art we have at home, it doesn’t feel odd – we have always lent out work from our collection,” Olav says.

«We grew up with the idea that it’s good to share art in public spaces. This is what distinguishes us from many other collectors. When we exhibit parts of our private collection, including art we have at home, it doesn’t feel odd – we have always lent out work from our collection».

Olav Selvaag

Over three generations the Selvaag company has placed more than 600 sculptures and artworks in its housing developments. Several hundred thousand people have lived in Selvaag homes and grown up with a bronze sculpture in their neighbourhood. Many therefore associate Selvaag with figurative art.

“The artistic expression, preferences and interest in modern art have developed along with us, so the fact that we can now show a greater breadth is incredibly exciting,” says Olav.

“What we have in common with Dad and Grandad’s collection is our enthusiasm for sculpture,” says Frederik.

At Tjuvholmen, the sky is high and the fjord wide, giving full play to the light on both the greyest and bluest days.

“The thing that is so special about sculptures is the way they change in different light; they don’t look the same over the course of a day or a season,” says Olav.

When the Oslo Port Authority announced a competition for the development of the new city district at Tjuvholmen in 2012, one of the specifications was that the area must contain a public attraction, preferably an architectonic landmark, which should be a gift to the City of Oslo.

“We saw this project as an opportunity to combine Selvaag’s decades-long tradition of art with our own interest in contemporary art.”

They brought in their art consultant, Peder Lund, who in turn got the director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Poul Erik Tøjner, on board. To- gether they managed to persuade Italy’s star architect Renzo Piano to design both the Astrup Fearnley Museum and the sculpture park outside it.

“It was an enlightening process. We travelled around with Renzo Piano and met all the artists and spoke about how the sculptures should be placed. We talked about how people would move, where the sun would fall and where the wind would blow. We got to tag along and meet people who are masters in their respective fields. It was incredibly exciting to see how they worked to ensure that we could make the very best possible use of the art and the architecture,” says Olav.

“It is interesting to talk to artists about the stories behind the different works and to understand the people who have produced the art,” says Frederik.

Frederik og Olav fotografert ved skulpturen Spalt
Frederik (l.) and Olav by the Franz West sculpture, “Spalt” at Tjuvholmen.

Renzo Piano wanted to make the harbour area at Tjuvholmen more hilly. So the Louise Bourgeois piece “Eyes” was placed on a small elevation on the lawn.

“That was a good move on Renzo’s part because it was absolutely flat here. Now the sculpture is stronger and easier to experience,” says Olav of the two bronze spheres that tower on top of the hill, framing the view of the fjord, the city and the Akershus Fortress.

“They are eyes, although people they as something else. Even though my 10-year-old son is convinced they’re boobs,” laughs Frederik.

“There’s a duality in it, at any rate, and that’s good,” says Olav.

“It’s great for art to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s more exciting if it arouses feelings, if the observer thinks it’s fun, or thinks ‘Why on earth?’” Frederik says.

“But provocation isn’t an end in itself,” Olav says.

“It’s a bit too soon to call them icons, but these two sculptures, ‘Spalt’ and ‘Eyes’ have become very popular and a lot of people use them as an image of Oslo. Perhaps these sculptures will be just as important to the new Oslo as ‘The Little Mermaid’ is to Copenhagen.”

It is six years since the park opened and sixteen years since planning started. And – the way it often happens when you’re planning to give something to a person you love – the gift to Oslo ended up being much bigger than stipulated in the prospectus.

“We are incredibly fond of Oslo, it’s our home town and this is where most of our business is. It means a lot to us to be involved in developing and embellishing Oslo,” says Frederik.

Selvaag’s head office on Silurveien, in the Ullern district of Oslo, isn’t just a workplace, but also a gallery, where world-class contemporary artists are represented. Everywhere, by the staircases, above seating areas, in the offices, are artworks large and small: paintings, photographic art and sculptures. In the canteen, one large wall is covered with Bjarne Melgaard’s sketches for his art project “A House to Die in”, to be built in the neighborhood of the artists’ colony of Ekely where Munch had his home and studio. The Selvaag Group owns the land and has assigned the Snøhetta architect firm to design the project based on Melgaard’s sketches.

Outside the lift is “Durango”, a piece by Robert Irwin, a row of vertically mounted, brightly colored fluorescent tubes that cover the whole wall.

The brothers show the way through the different floors and offices, pointing and explaining: A butterfly picture by Damien Hirst. Cowboy pictures by Richard Prince, photographs by Jeff Burton, Spalt Model – a smaller version of the Franz West work, Spalt, at Tjuvholmen. A Per Maning photograph of a seal called Back to Black.

And slightly hidden away, a piece by Nobuyoshi Araki.

“This used to be on display in the Tatler Center, where it provoked strong reactions by the costumers because of the erotic motifs. We had similar reactions here, so we moved it. Actually, we like people to react, because that means they’re not indifferent to the art. Contemporary art arouses a broader spectrum of feelings than a beautiful landscape.”

Frederik’s office is next door to Olav’s: the desk standing in roughly the same place. But the art is different. Here there is a large photograph from Thomas Ruff’s Nudes series.

“This is a piece I think you can explain, Frederik,” says Olav.

“I think it’s self-explanatory myself. Some would probably say it’s banal. I think it’s beautiful,” he says.

“The series says something about the development from the days when pornography was virgin territory to the time when everything became open and accessible. Ruff wanted to show how the whole of society was changed by the internet,” he explains.

Olav og Frederik som barn fotografert sammen med bestefar Olav rundt stuebordet
Frederik (l.) and Olav (r.), at home with Grandad Olav.

Art is a passion. The brothers aren’t following a five-year plan and haven’t developed any strategy for their investments in contemporary art.

“But when we were working on the sculpture park, we may have got a bit carried away. So we’ve taken a bit of a break from buying big international works since then. Well, sort of,” Olav smiles.

“One of the brothers’ absolute favourites is an Ellsworth Kelly piece called “Untitled”, which hangs in the atrium outside the head offices.

“It was love at first sight, no question” Olav says.

“It is simply and uniquely beautiful,” says Frederik.

The brothers walk back and forth, observing how the flat light causes the sculpture to change.

“I admire it every time I walk past,” Olav adds.

The first time the brothers saw the piece, it was hanging in the artist’s studio in Upstate New York. They were visiting Kelly’s studio with Renzo Piano and their consultant, Peder Lund, to discuss the sculpture park at Tjuvholmen. The big graphic sculpture loomed over them on a big white wall. The sun fell in such a way that it threw large shadows across the wall. The brothers said instantly: “We want it!”

“But it actually wasn’t for sale. Ellsworth Kelly had the artwork in his studio because he liked it himself,” Olav says.

The artist let himself to be persuaded. Two years after Kelly died, his artwork lives on, here in Ullern, marvellously juxtaposed with Marina Abramović’s eleven- metre high artwork, “Chair for Man and his Spirit”: a huge, rigid sculpture with an inaccessible chair on top, and a chair at sitting height with a large piece of quartz on its back. During a trip to Oslo last summer, Marina Abramović paid a visit to Selvaag, and got to try out her own chair.

“She really liked the way the chair was placed together with Kelly’s work. They both lived and worked in Upstate New York and knew each other well.”

«It’s great for art to be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s more exciting if it arouses feelings, if the observer thinks it’s fun, or thinks “Why on earth?”»

Frederik Selvaag

It is ten years since Olav and Frederik took over the management of Selvaag, in the midst of the financial crisis.

“It’s safe to say it was pretty tough,” says Olav.

They think it helped that there were two of them and that they managed to pull in the same direction.

“We had to make a lot of tough strategic decisions and came through it stronger, but it was a baptism by fire,” says Frederik.

During those years, their art purchases came to an abrupt halt. They also sold some pieces. Some sales still irritate them.

“We sold… for some reason or another we sold the Richard Prince picture… the swimming pool picture,” Olav says, turning to Frederik.

“… that’s irritated me now and again.”

“And the Marino Marini sculpture… that was much worse. That was an absolute catastrophe,” says Frederik.

“Yes, we sold a Marino Marini sculpture that Grandad bought at the Venice Biennale in 1957. He’d really hit the bull’s-eye: it became extremely valuable. What’s more, it had a nostalgic value for us. We shouldn’t have sold it.”

Better times came and, with them, the opportunity to start buying art again.

“That, and the fact that some things came drifting past that we just couldn’t resist,” Olav says.

“Of course it’s not always rational. We often spend more than we intended to,” Frederik says.

Frederik og Olav fotografert på Tjuvholmen
– Art is successful if seeing it gives somebody an experience, Olav Selvaag says.

The 70s. Children teem between the new blocks on Ullerntoppen. Olav and Frederik grew up just down the road, where their grandfather had built a villa just after the war. But up here was where all their friends lived. This was where they cycled around, ran in the forest and spied on those who lived in makeshift cabins in Merradalen.

“We just called the area ‘the field’,” Olav smiles.

“It was an El Dorado for us kids. No cars, nice and safe,” says Frederik.

This was their little world.

“But it was so much bigger then,” says Frederik.

The brothers wander around on the asphalt path between the blocks. They talk about the flower boxes – or pig troughs, as they were known – that were Selvaag’s signature. Some things have changed: the buildings have been renovated, there are new climbing frames and the school has become a kindergarten, but the forest is the same. And like a piece in a memory-training puzzle: a bronze sculpture by the car park in front of the school and the blocks.

“We saw this so many times every day. An English Setter: just the right size so you can sit on its back.” Frederik says.

“I can’t really say this sculpture was what aroused my interest in art, but it is part of my childhood memories.” Olav laughs.

“I see it’s called ‘Fuglehund’ – Gundog”, Frederik says.

“Yes, and in fact that totally explains the sculpture,” Olav laughs.

When they were younger, art was something their parents had on the walls at home, and the sculptures which were installed at all the housing projects Selvaag built.

“Our mother was interested in art. She liked to paint and made art out of glass and stone, although she didn’t sell what she made.”

It was in their student days that Olav and Frederik became seriously inter- ested in art.

“That’s when I bought my first modern piece,” Olav says.

“Which one was it?” Frederik asks.

“No, no, it isn’t something I…. You’ll get it some day. I remember that my interest in art was aroused; I understood that there was a lot more to art than what we had grown up with. There are a lot of dimensions to modern art that play on different emotional aspects than figurative and traditional art,” Olav says.

Frederik realised what art could be when he took an art class at summer school as a student.

“I was supposed to write an interpretation of a work or two. I don’t remember who I wrote about, whether it was Monet or someone like that. I think it dealt with the use of light in the picture. That’s when I realised that this was fun,” he says.

Since their student days, the brothers have been to the Venice Biennale and have taken regular study trips to New York and London to visit museums, galleries and exhibitions.

The first time they demonstrated that the third generation of the Selvaag family was taking its interest in art in a different direction was in 2001, when they opened the Tatler Center at No. 11 Bogstadveien.

Olav and Frederik Selvaag wanted to do something totally different, and combined the shopping experience with daring contemporary art.

“On the escalators, we had a wall covered in photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki, with flowers and geishas. It provoked a fair amount of reactions. I remember I got an e-mail from a woman who had been to the shopping centre with her teenage daughter, and she was never going to set foot in Tatlerhuset again,” Olav smiles.

“It’s perfectly fine that not everybody likes our art: that’s the way art is. The most important thing is for it to spark and arouse feeling – it doesn’t matter whether it’s disdain or pleasure,” Frederik says.

“Art is successful if seeing it gives somebody an experience,” Olav says.

Twenty years on from the time when their interest in art was first aroused, they can’t imagine what life would have been like without art.

“It would have been more one-dimensional. Art adds something different to life: something creative. It makes life richer,” Frederik says.

“Life would be more boring without art,” Olav adds.