Modern Art – Or Just a Beach Day?


The Modern Art Center at Hovikodden in Oslo was founded in 1968 by World and Olympic champion figure skater Sonja Henie (1912-1969) and her husband, shipping magnate and art collector Niels Onstad (1909-1978). The couple’s private collection of contemporary art consisted of about 110 images.

Sonja Henie
Sonja Henie

In 1936, Henie signed a tour contract with the American manager Arthur M. Wirtz. In the early fall of that year, Henie and her family traveled to the United States where she gave a series of figure skating performances on the ice. Her family thereafter moved to Hollywood, where following tough negotiations with director Darryl Zanuck, Sonja Henie signed a 5 year contract with the film company 20th Century Fox.

By 1940, she was one of Hollywood’s best paid actors, on par with Clark Gable and the childhood star Shirley Temple.

Niels Onstad
Niels Onstad

Niels Onstad was an active football player, peaking during the Norwegian Championship in 1928 during which he played for the Lyn football club. However, he is best known for his prowess as ship owner and art collector. His interest in art was influenced by his mother, who was a painter, and he maintained several contacts in the Norwegian art community.

Henie Onsrad Museum of Modern Art
Henie Onstad Museum of Modern Art

Together with his brother, Haakon Onstad, he established the shipping company Niels Onstad Tankrederi A/S in 1935. In 1940, Onstad moved to the U.S. where he worked for Nortraship. During WWII, this company managed the large Norwegian merchant fleet outside of the German-controlled waterways and contributed decisively to the Allied efforts during the war.

Jon Eikvar, Nile Onstad, Ole Henrik Moe and Svein-Erik Engebretsen in 1967
Jon Eikvar, Niels Onstad, Ole Henrik Moe and Svein-Erik Engebretsen in 1967

Sonja Hernie met Niels Onstad in 1955. The couple married a year later and developed their art collection.

Responding to a request from Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in 1959, the couple  decided it was time to make the collection accessible to the public, sending it on an expansive exhibition tour for two years throughout many countries in Europe. As their collection only kept growing, the Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad trusts were formed in 1961 as two separate gifts, with its most important goal being the founding of a modern art museum; becoming the largest private art donation in the history of Norway.

From the art installation High Tadee
From the art installation High Tadee

An Architectural competition was held in 1962, the winners would be awarded the opportunity to design the art center for the famous couple. The center was eventually designed by the two young Norwegian architects Jon Eikvar and Sven Erik Engebretsen. Sonja Henie died of leukemia one year after the inauguration of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. She was then 59 years old. All of her awards, photographs, films and private documentation were donated to the HOK. Having accumulated almost 600 items, the HOK provided its own award exhibition room.

Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad
Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad

In 1994, the building was extended, and a two-story wing with exhibition spaces and technical rooms was added. This project was designed by the same architects—the new wing abuts the main body of the building as an organic extension. In 2003, another extension was made, this time in the form of an annex that extends into the outdoor park, connected to the main building by a passage leading from the lower level. In addition to six exhibition halls, the Centre also has an auditorium and smaller meeting rooms. Today, the total building area is approximately 9,500 square meters, of which 3,500 are occupied by exhibition spaces.

The HOK, placed organically within the landscape at the beach of Hovikodden has become one of Norway’s most iconic cultural buildings. It’s unique and sensitive architecture has given it its own distinctive character, using only Norwegian suppliers and materials, the selection rose a lot of attention. The combination of natural stone, concrete and copper with large glass panels created an architectural volume that just beautifully engaged the surrounding terrain.

Henie Onstad Kunstsenter organizes exhibitions and performances. The art center is visited by around 100,000 people each year. The center celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 with exhibitions, seminars, book, concert and movie titled Høvikodden LIVE.

After being identified in an exhibition catalogue in 2012 by the family of noted French-Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg it was demanded that the HOK return Profil bleu devant la cheminée (Woman in Blue in Front of Fireplace) (1937), a Matisse painting that was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941. Museum Director Tone Hansen said the museum did not know the painting was stolen by the Nazis, until it was notified by the Rosenberg family. The painting was returned to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg in March 2014

One art editor once said, “As we learned more about the collection, one thought kept coming back: This amazing material should be shared with the world, not only made available at the museum.”
Modern Art – Or Just a Beach Day?, edited by Tor Kjolberg
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