Danish Artist Learns Limits of Conceptual Art the Hard Way

Turned out Jens Haaning couldn't quite take the money and run

Empty frame
People stand in front of an empty frame hung up at the Kunsten Museum in lieu of work by artist Jens Haaning in 2021.
HENNING BAGGER/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of “art” as we understand it has become much more broad and inclusive. By and large, that’s a good thing — fine art can and should include all sorts of things, from landscape paintings to durational performances to high-concept happenings. As one artist recently learned, however, there’s one thing that still doesn’t quite make the cut as art: making off with a museum’s money.

In 2021, Hyperallergic’s Hakim Bishara recounted the story of one Jens Haaning, an artist whose work includes a series of pieces consisting of money arranged and framed. The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art asked Haaning to re-create some of his older works, which featured the average annual salary of a resident of a given country in that country’s currency. The museum lent him the equivalent of $84,000 for this purpose.

Haaning instead sent the museum two framed canvases, both blank, accompanied by the title Take the Money and Run.

The artist offered a novel explanation for his actions. “The work is that I have taken their money. It’s not theft,” he said in a radio interview. “It is a breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.”

While that may come off as a bit callous, Haaning did make a more understandable argument in a 2021 interview with Nordic Art Review, arguing that he had to go out of pocket for some of his expenses — which prompted him to rethink the entire project.

Unfortunately for Haaning, the legal system took the museum’s side in the dispute. As The Guardian reported, the artist has been ordered to repay the museum the money that they sent him.

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In the aforementioned Nordic Art Review interview, Haaning struck a defiant tone as the conversation drew to a close. “I’ve got lawyers coming out of my ears,” he said at the time. “My Australian gallerist is one of the leading international art lawyers in the world. So I have free legal representation from here and to the gates of hell. Let them come.”

Well, they’ve come. But it wouldn’t be shocking if Haaning wasn’t able to get another conceptual work out of the whole experience.

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