Museum Unveils Invisible Masterpieces and Artist Is Forced to Pay the Price

by Claudia Fennell '24 on November 12, 2023
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

A Danish artist has been court-ordered to repay a modern art museum after receiving a commission and delivering the museum empty canvases. 58-year-old artist, Jens Haaning, was given 532,549 Danish krone, equivalent to about $84,000 USD, as reported by NPR, to recreate two of his previous works from years ago. Instead, Haaning pocketed the money, and sent the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark blank canvases.

In 2021, Haaning was given funds from the museum to recreate his past works for them to display during their exhibition on job conditions and wages, titled Work It Out. Haaning is known for art that comments on modern society, specifically for creating pieces that speak on wage inequality and lackluster conditions of employment. The pieces that the museum wanted recreated were some of his most famous, which are centered around the ideas of capitalism and wages. Haaning is known for creating a work in which he pasted real, cold, hard cash onto a canvas, with enough cash on one side to show the average annual income of a Dane, and cash on the other half of the canvas showing the average annual income of an Austrian. The work is meant to highlight the sizable difference between the average incomes in each country, showcasing wage differences within the European Union. The money that Haaning was given by the museum was supposed to be used to obtain the cash needed to create the work, but instead Haaning kept the money for himself and decided to use the opportunity as a chance to create his own new work, in which he chose to highlight wage issues for artists specifically.

In an interview with Aljazeera, the artist shared his thought process behind his choice to not fulfill the contract that he originally agreed to with the museum. Wearing a smile as he spoke with the reporter, Haaning shared his thought process, saying  “You do something about an average Danish income, why don’t you do something about your own situation, is all, so, so, then I thought, no, no, I am going to do a fantastic piece for the show.”

The empty canvases that were sent to the museum were cleverly titled Take the Money and Run, and were actually displayed by the museum during the exhibition. News about the blank canvases spread widely and many came to view the piece. Some viewers said that they thought the piece should not be shown because there is nothing on the canvas, while others loved the piece and revered the artist for speaking up on these issues.

Despite some support for the artist from the public, the museum sued Haaning and demanded the funds be returned to them. Haaning’s defense, as reported in the New York Post, was that, “It’s not theft, it is a breach of contract, and the breach of contract is part of the work.” This defense did not sway the judge, however, as last week, Haaning was ordered to repay approximately $70,600 of the $76,400 back to the museum. A small amount was deducted from the total by the courts to compensate the artist for the pieces being shown at the exhibition. While the museum curators appeared to understand the meaning behind Take the Money and Run, they reported that they were in a difficult position as they are a small museum and need to use their funds wisely, as in they need to obtain artwork in exchange for their payment. However, Haaning is now in a tough position as well, as he says no longer has the funds to repay the museum.