Just before the September 2021 opening of a show at Denmark’s Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, the institution received an email from conceptual artist Jens Haaning, alerting them that he had made some changes to his piece for the upcoming “Work It Out” exhibition. When the transport boxes with Haaning’s work arrived, museum staff opened them to find two framed blank canvases. The cheeky title of the commissioned artwork? Take the Money and Run.
Haaning was originally supposed to recreate two pieces from 2007 and 2010 that used real cash affixed to canvases to show the average annual income of Danes and Austrians, respectively. As part of the new commission, the Kunsten, located in Aalborg, Denmark, loaned the artist bills valued at approximately 532,000 Danish Kroner ($76,000) to use in the works.
But instead of replicating the concept, Haaning took the money and ran, ostensibly pivoting his labor commentary away from wage inequality and to the relationship between artists and museums. “The work is that I have taken their money,” he told Danish Broadcaster DR in 2021. “It’s not theft—it is a breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.”
The Kunsten didn’t see Haaning’s work the same way. Now, after lengthy legal proceedings, a Copenhagen court has ordered Haaning to repay most of the money. The judgement, published yesterday (September 18), deducted 40,000 Danish Kroner ($5,700) from the repayment amount, allowing Haaning to keep it as an artist and display fee since the museum did end up using Take the Money and Run in the exhibition.
The publicity drummed up by Haaning’s mischievous artwork led “many visitors” to the exhibition, according to the Kunsten’s website, which described his piece as having “kindled new thoughts and discussions among hundreds of millions of people all over the world,” while engaging with topics like artist working conditions, power and status.
“We now have a judgement that we at the Kunsten and artist Jens Haaning can consider,” said the museum’s director Lasse Andersson in a statement. “There is a four-week period for appeal, and as long as the case can still be appealed, we have no further comments.”
Meanwhile, Haaning told DR that he is not planning to appeal, as he doesn’t have the funds. While the Kunsten case “has been good for my work… it also puts me in an unmanageable situation where I don’t really know what to do,” he said.
Jens Haaning is no stranger to controversy
This is far from the first time Haaning has pushed legal boundaries in his artwork, which is often performative and conceptual in nature. A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, he has previously explored legality in pieces like the 1995 Weapon Production, in which he enlisted a group of young people to help create illegal street art over a two week period. “Here, the limit between what is lawful and what is ‘outside the law’ stops being a metaphor, art truly operates on the border between is allowed and what is not,” wrote art historian Vincent Pecoil in Haaning’s artist catalog.
Other notable projects by Haaning include the 1996 Middelburg Summer, which involved moving a textile factory’s operations and its dozen employees inside a temporary art exhibition, his creation of a flag production line in which workers created flags for a non-existent country and his transformation of an art gallery into a travel agency.
The importance of humor in Haaning’s work shouldn’t be underestimated, according to Pecoil, who described it as “one of the most obvious and immediate aspects of Haaning’s practice.” In addition to the often-absurd nature of his conceptual artwork, Haaning has directly engaged with humor in pieces like Turkish Mercedes and Turkish Jokes. Both installations included the broadcasting of Turkish jokes in Turkish-populated areas, with the latter piece acquired by the Kunsten for its collection in 2017. As Haaning himself once said, his works “always show it is the product of the humor and imagination of an individual, in order to avoid turning artistic practice into an essentially analytical and administrative model.”