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A Danish artist has been ordered to repay a museum after delivering blank canvases

A woman stands in front of an blank canvas hung up at the Kunsten Museum in Aalborg, Denmark, in 2021. Danish artist Jens Haaning sent the museum blank canvasses under the title <em>Take the Money and Run</em>.
Henning Bagger
Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima
A woman stands in front of an blank canvas hung up at the Kunsten Museum in Aalborg, Denmark, in 2021. Danish artist Jens Haaning sent the museum blank canvasses under the title Take the Money and Run.

In autumn 2021, a Danish museum opened two large crates to inspect two works it had commissioned from the artist Jens Haaning.

But when museum staff pulled out the canvases — a new work the artist had informed the museum was titled Take the Money and Run -- the canvases were completely blank.

The museum, the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, had given Haaning a loan of 532,549 Danish krone, the equivalent of about $76,400. The money was to be used to recreate two earlier works by Haaning that depicted — in actual cold, hard cash affixed to canvas in a frame — the average annual income of a Dane and an Austrian, and the sizable gap between them, reflecting wage differences within the European Union.

Now, Haaning has been ordered by a Copenhagen court to repay most of the money — approximately $70,600 — as well as the equivalent of an additional $11,000 in legal fees.

"I am shocked, but at the same time it is exactly what I have imagined," Haaning told Danish public broadcaster DR on Monday.

"We are not a wealthy museum," Lasse Andersson, the museum's director, told The Guardian in 2021, explaining that the money came from reserves earmarked for the building's upkeep. "We have to think carefully about how we spend our funds, and we don't spend more than we can afford."

The court's judgment deducted roughly $5,700 from the full loan amount to serve as Haaning's artist's fee and viewing fee, since the museum nonetheless exhibited the blank canvases in its "Work It Out" show.

The Kunsten Museum's curators appeared to fully understand Haaning's meaning.

"Haaning's new work Take the Money and Run is also a recognition that works of art, despite intentions to the contrary, are part of a capitalist system that values a work based on some arbitrary conditions," the museum says in its exhibition guide. "Even the missing money in the work has a monetary value when it is called art and thus shows how the value of money is an abstract quantity."

Haaning now appears to be in a bit of a pickle, as he says that he doesn't have the money to repay the museum.

"It has been good for my work, but it also puts me in an unmanageable situation where I don't really know what to do," the artist told DR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 18, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect currency when describing a loan provided by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art to artist Jens Haaning. The loan was provided in Danish krone.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.