On first impression, the remote Arctic islands of Svalbard do not scream “happening art destination.” Passing through security at the airport in Longyearbyen—the entry point to Spitsbergen, the main island—lacks the grandeur of arriving at Santa Lucia station for the Venice Biennale. And the climate is less of a draw than, say, Art Basel in Miami Beach. You expect midwinter in the Arctic Circle to be cold, but at 10 degrees below zero, the polar wind feels unfair. If you do dare unglove for a hurried iPhone snap, you’ll find the light conditions pretty unforgiving, too: for about three months of the year, an interminable midnight paints everything a spectral blue. Driving off down the airport road, all I could really discern were the outlines of distant mountains, a few pieces of rusting industrial machinery, and a pervasive sense of my own insignificance.
Considering I was only here for an exhibition opening, it all felt bracingly intrepid. I was one of a small party of critics, gallerists, and art administrators who had come for the opening of a show called “Glacier” by Joan Jonas, the veteran video artist. The exhibition was at the Kunsthall Svalbard, a new outpost of the Northern Norway Art Museum, which lies 600 miles to the south in the city of Tromsø, on the mainland.
Many things in Svalbard are the northernmost examples of themselves (the church, the ATM, the Thai restaurant), and as of 2015 the Kunsthall Svalbard has claimed the title of the world’s northernmost exhibition space. Its director, Knut Ljøgodt, hopes that the handsome, wood-lined gallery will capitalize on Svalbard’s bleak beauty and transform it into a new frontier for art lovers—while simultaneously cementing Norway’s cultural dominance of the archipelago.
Ljøgodt, a mischievous Anglophile with unruly red hair, said he got the idea from London’s Tate gallery, which has opened branches in Liverpool and Cornwall. “I thought it would be interesting to enlarge the museum in other geographical locations,” he told me.
At the exhibition opening, Queen Sonja of Norway removed her snow boots in the entrance along with the great and good of Svalbard society. There was speechifying about the “New Arctic” from the assembled dignitaries, then Her Majesty snipped the ribbon while a man in traditional Sami dress sang a folk song and Jonas’s glaciers melted in the background.
Svalbard has held a mystical allure ever since it was discovered by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents in 1596, as he searched for the then-mythical Northeast Passage. Early attempts to establish permanent bases fared poorly, however. According to a 19th-century naval officer named Frederick William Beechey, the British once offered convicts their freedom if they would spend the winter establishing a whale-blubber-processing facility in Svalbard. When the ships landed, the prisoners were “so struck with horror at the desolate appearance of their intended abode,” they begged to be taken back to prison. Many subsequent missions succumbed to scurvy, squabbling, exposure, or polar bears.
It was only with the advent of commercial coal mining at the end of the 19th century that Svalbard developed permanent settlements. In 1925, the Svalbard Treaty—which was ratified by 42 nations including Norway, Russia, Britain, France, and the United States—made Svalbard a Norwegian territory, but with the unusual caveat that all signatories would have equal fishing, hunting, and mineral rights. A Norwegian state mining company, Store Norske, has operated out of Longyearbyen since 1916, and in 1931, a Soviet state mining company called Arktikugol established mines elsewhere on the islands.
By the 1960s, the Soviet population outnumbered the Norwegian population, and throughout the Cold War, relations remained, well, frosty. The Soviet miners were banned from mingling with their Norwegian counterparts, and to this day the communities are completely isolated. The Russian mines, with their eerie Soviet sculptures extolling the glories of coal, are now in terminal decline. But as the ice melts and new resource opportunities arise, it seems Vladimir Putin is reluctant to withdraw from the region.
The Norwegians, on the other hand, have diversified their interests with some success. Svalbard has been repositioned as “the gateway to the Arctic,” and daily scheduled flights have made it a destination for mountaineers, ecotourists, and climate-change-sensitive policitians (British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have both made trips). Longyearbyen is now a pretty happening place, dotted with parking lots for snowmobiles, cozy cafés, and children’s playgrounds. There’s a population of around 2,000, drawn from more than 40 nationalities, mostly young, adventurous, and entrepreneurial.
Since 1993, the town has also been home to UNIS, one of the leading Arctic biology research centers in the world. Not too far away is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a library of plant species designed so that if mankind really screws up, survivors can dig out the seeds and have another go. The handsome mid-century Store Norske leisure complex is now home to Huset, an excellent restaurant where you can wash down dishes of foraged berries, reindeer, and Arctic marine life with wines from what one patriotic local described as “the finest cellar outside of France.” The fact that there’s no tax on alcohol keeps spirits high at the various nightclubs, with parties spilling outside as soon as someone checks his aurora borealis app and realizes the northern lights are overhead.
And now there’s culture, too, to complete the gentrification process. While the Kunstmuseum is the first national art institution with a presence here, Svalbard already had a private exhibition space, Galleri Svalbard, as well as the Svalbard Museum, the Kulturhus arts venue, the Polarjazz Festival, and well-established artist-exchange programs. The conceptual artist David Buckland has set up numerous cultural expeditions through his Cape Farewell project, which launched in 2001, attracting artists including Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.
Ljøgodt admits that the gallery is not solely there to entertain the locals. The NOAA forecasts that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer by 2050, a development that will make some people very rich. Cargo ships are now a more frequent sight along the Northeast Passage—the shortcut to China that Barents dreamed of—and the new port in Longyearbyen is designed as a gateway to that route. An even greater bounty could lie in the coal, oil, and gas reserves under the melting ice throughout the Arctic Ocean. Russia and Norway have staked claims to parts of the continental shelf that lie below Svalbard, while the U.S., Canada, and Denmark are also vying for position in the region. Despite its distance from the Arctic, China, too, is muscling in, with a Chinese billionaire recently attempting to buy one of the last parts of Svalbard still in private hands. Norway needs to put its mark on this part of the world,” Ljøgodt said. “That’s why the politicians are so keen to support the gallery.”
Amid all of this, the Svalbard authorities hope that encouraging reflection and response among the yawning icescapes and rusting infrastructure will help to preserve what makes the archipelago so special. Ljøgodt also realizes Svalbard’s potential to provide the art world with an edgier sort of glamour. “Look at all the people who go to Venice or other festivals each year,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they go to the very top of the world to see exciting contemporary art?”
Finnair, SAS, and Norwegian Air fly to the Longyearbyen airport via a stopover in Oslo, Tromsø, or Helsinki.
Red Savannah: A six-day tour of the main island includes snowmobile rides, polar bear sightings, and accommodations in an abandoned radio station. From $5,991 per person.
Huset: An old mining complex was transformed in 1977 to create this excellent restaurant serving reindeer, seal, and other seasonal fare. Longyearbyen; prix fixe $86.
Museums & Galleries
Galleri Svalbard: A space that shows works by Norwegian artists like Kåre Tveter as well as maps and lithographs used in an 1838 expedition. Longyearbyen.
Kulturhus: This Longyearbyen cultural center hosts various concerts, lectures, and festivals throughout the year.
Kunsthall Svalbard: The world’s northernmost art museum shows contemporary works like Joan Jonas’s Glacier, which was inspired by the Arctic landscape. Longyearbyen.
Svalbard Museum: Opened in 1979, this space features exhibits on whaling, mining, and the region’s eclectic history. Longyearbyen.