Katarina Swanström

"it pays to talk the language of art as well the language of business."

Katarina Swanström, Head of Development at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Katarina Swanström on her journey to developing one of the foremost collections of modern art in Europe

Katarina Swanström is Head of Development at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. She recently worked on the Gilbert and George exhibition, which opened in February 2019. British Council Sweden spoke to her about her role and fundraising for the arts. 

Tell us about your time at the Moderna Museet?

I started work at the museum in the summer of 2004. I cannot believe that time has passed so quickly. But as things go, time flies by when you’re having fun. I wanted to work for the museum because it has one of the foremost collections of modern and contemporary art in Europe. The museums’ brand is also very strong, and it has an interesting history. Over the years, it has been run by world-classs directors, such as Lars Nittve and Daniel Birnbaum. I have been fortunate to work with them both.

Did you study the arts or humanities at university, or was it fundraising that you studied?

My academic background has really helped me in my career. After studying Art History at Stockholm University and Christian Albrechts Universitat zu Kiel in Germany, I went on to study Business and Communications at Stockholm University and at Berghs School of Communication. My hope was that the combination of skills could lead the way to interesting opportunities in the art world. But overall, I would say that to be able to do this job one needs to think strategically, to be creative and well read. You also need to be social, diplomatic and not afraid of hard work!

How did you then get into this role at the museum?

After working at art galleries and auction houses in Stockholm during the early 90s, I was offered a position at the Stockholm Art Fair, the leading art fair in the Nordic region at the time. I started out as an assistant and later became the exhibition manager. Parallel to performing my duties within the sales and marketing area, I built up a network of contacts from across the European art scene. This made it possible for me to introduce special exhibitions and arrange scholarships for students at the Swedish Royal Colleges of Art (there are five) with help from corporate partnerships. I learned how to think, develop and deliver art projects with the support from the business sector - and this was absolutely crucial for my developing career. After seven years at the Art Fair, I worked as a freelance curator and writer, before learning that Moderna Museet was looking for someone to work in-house with the corporate sponsorship team. They wanted a person who was well connected in the art world, who could work strategically and who was goal-oriented in finding support for major exhibitions. I also remember former Director Lars Nittve talking to me about the advantage of being bilingual in the sense that it pays to talk the language of art as well the language of business. 

How would you describe your job to someone who doesn’t know the development side of the museum world?

In short, I find financial support for major exhibitions, create fundraising activities that help raise funds for acquisitions to the collection and facilitate donations of important works of art from individuals and foundations. The work involves long-term strategies for receiving support for exhibitions as well as more targeted partnerships for other projects within the scope of the museum. For example, I was involved in the foundation of The American Friends of the Moderna Museet, an American foundation supporting the museum which was started in 2007. I have been working closely with the President and Board of Directors with the foundation's fundraising activities ever since. The foundation has donated numerous important works of art to the collection and has even initiated benefit auctions to support the museum’s acquisition budget. I am also responsible for the Swedish and Nordic network of Patrons of the Moderna Museet.

What’s been your involvement with the Gilbert and George exhibition? 

One of the most important parts I played early on was signing the corporate sponsor for the show, Blasieholmen Investment Group. But in addition to this, I have handled the contracts with Gilbert & George’s main galleries, White Cube and Thaddeus Ropac, who also support the show in Stockholm. Furthermore, I managed to acquire a new wine partner for the opening week’s festivities, and I was in charge of charge of the exclusive preview for the patrons of the museum and other opening activities

Have you enjoyed working on the exhibition?

I was at the opening of the Gilbert and George show at Magasin 3 in Stockholm in 1997 and remember being incredibly impressed with the two artists. To be able to work with and meet this really iconic art duo today, more than twenty years later has been wonderful. I just love how they proclaim “art for all” and the fact that they have kept their style and are still as extravagant, conservative, fun and generous five decades later.

What has been your greatest challenge whilst working at the museum?

It is always really hard to attract new corporate partners when the exhibition program includes lesser known artists rather than Picasso or Dali. The challenge is to establish trust and the belief that whatever we have selected to have on show is relevant to the international art scene today, is of the highest possible quality while being accessible and appreciated by the public. 

Have there been any times that you’ve felt a real sense of achievement?

There are always moments when one feels very pleased. From working on exhibitions such as Andy Warhol (2008), Turner, Monet, Twombly (2011) to Hilma af Klint (2013) and Marina Abramovic (2017). Seeing the Hilma af Klint show go on tour in Europe for many years and finally cross the Atlantic to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018 was fantastic. I’m pleased that fundraising projects, such as the Second Museum of our Wishes and A Larger World, and benefit auctions in Stockholm and New York over the past few years have raised substantial funds for acquisitions to the museum collection. I am also proud of the Young Americans Project, a fundraising project initiated by the American Friends to help identify and acquire works by promising young American artists, works that then are donated to the museum.

Do you look to other museums or countries, such as those in the UK, for ideas about how to fundraise for the museum or exhibitions, or is your work in Sweden unique?

Tate Modern is a wonderful museum that we are often inspired by. I am part of a development alumni network in Europe who regularly exchange thoughts and ideas within our field. I feel that we have a lot in common with the museums in the UK and the US, even with development alumni networks around all of Europe who regularly exchange thoughts and ideas about our field. But I hasten to say that at the Moderna Museet it is almost only me doing the fundraising whilst at Tate there are a few more members of staff!

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