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Gammel Dok Warehouse (right hand side in photo) had only two floors when it was built in 1882, following the designs of H.C. Scharling. The top floors were added in 1918.

An Art Nursery

Since the Danish Art Workshops opened its doors in 1986, the large, spacious warehouse in Strandgade has attracted artists, designers, weavers, ceramists, photographers, conservators and others who possess the professional requirements to access this wonderland of artistic creativity. One, mind you, that is included in the Finance Act.

Here they’ve found workshops equipped with the most modern and professional equipment within their respective fields. Here they’ve found studios the size of ballrooms. And here they’ve found meeting rooms and kitchenettes, should they feel the need to meet up with others. “Others” not only meaning the other resident artists, of which there is room for 25, but also the workshop supervisors and consultants, who act as a kind of midwifes and assist and help the residents. Last, but not least, is the workshop director, who can assist in solving any other problems. Such as anything that goes on between the many walls of these five floors.

Thus you could call the building on Gammel Dok an art nursery. Meant to service artists and craftspeople, who, for instance due to special spacial requirements of a specific project, are unable to “give birth” at home, and therefore need the larger facilities which a studio normally does not contain.

An artist’s atudio is like a greenhouse. It sets limits, as well as offer opportunities. When you improve an artist’s surroundings, you improve his working conditions and creative possibilities. This is how the Danish Art Workshops have led many an artist to simply think bigger.

For the Danish Art Workshops themselves were thought big. When they opened, the cultural critic from Politiken, Henrik Sten Møller, called the project “the largest cultural manifestation in many years” (Politiken, 10. March 1986). Those were grand words. Time has tested them. But the passing of the first twenty years has not belittled them.

Some Preconditions

It was not due to a sudden public urge to provide professional artists with specialized workshops, that this cultural manifestation came about. The Danish Art Workshops emerged because a large empty building suddenly became available, demanding to fill a need. Eventually they came up with something so obvious, that it made you wonder why nobody had thought of it before.

The building is situated on the docks of Christianshavn, which were originally established as a fortification by King Christian the 4th. In 1880 the area was taken over by A/S De forenede Oplagspladser og Værfter I København (The United Storage Yards and Shipyards in Copenhagen), and two years later the decision was made to build the 18-bay brick warehouse, which is the core of this story. In the beginning the warehouse had only two floors. It wasn’t until around 1920 that a third was added. At the same time the low slate roof was replaced by a high red tile roof, which in due time was converted into another two floors.

In 1972 Strandgade 21-27, among which the large building on the docks, went to Boligministeriet (the then Ministry of Housing). As the new building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was underway next door in Asiatiske Plads, the state wished to ensure the optimal use of the area and so they started a debate and idea competition. Since the financial means for the use of the area had already been granted, the competition was formulated as a reversed tender. The question was not what the space could be used for, and what that might cost. Instead it went as to what one could accommodate with the money already granted, in the given location. This put the focus on the warehouse at Gammel Dok. With an area of about 9,000 square meters, perhaps it did not call for just one solution, but for several.

As always when the public makes a large empty building available to the arts, the propositions, as well as those bringing them, will be lining up. Some wanted storage space. Others a center for cultural activities. Yet others proposed to establish a House of Artists and suggested leaving the midsection of the house untouched. This should be given to young artists to use as open studios in the summer season.Quite a lot wanted the warehouse premises to accommodate the exhibition of the purchases of the Danish Arts Foundation for an extended period, before they were distributed to schools and other institutions. Some thought of an experimental museum on one or two of the floors. This could create an overview of the works that might later go into a museum of contemporary art. Finally there were some who saw a definitive solution to the problem of the endangered plaster casts of the Royal Cast Collection, which had recently become homeless after the reopening of the National Gallery.

For the Living Arts

As an artist, Helge Bertram had no doubt that it was better to invest in the living arts rather than in plaster, which he detested. At that time he was a professor and head of the Schools of Visual Art at the Royal Academy of Art. Professor Bertram had a plan. Since the mid-nineties he and a circle of teachers had dreamt of turning the warehouse at Gammel Dok into open workshops for artists. In Sweden, a similar institution called CHP – Konstnärernas Kollektivverkstad, in Stockholm, had already provided some good experience. Several of Bertram’s colleagues from the Academy were behind it as well, among others the sculptor Robert Jacobsen. In time it was especially Bertram, Sten Bjarnhof and headmaster Ole Gjerløv-Knudsen who became the driving force behind the establishing of a public artists’ workshop, a Danish Art Workshop.

First all reservations must be aired in press, as is tradition in Denmark, when the subject falls on artistic projects. Some artists were skeptical. IN a post in the paper the sculptor Willy Ørskov listed eight reasons ahy the Gammel Dok warehouse was no good for the proposed purpose. Among other things he indicated that the building with its timber structure would be too flammable and that the windows were too small to provide the necessary light. Ørskov’s concluded that the facilities would hold no interest for professional artists. At best they could be used by hobbyists. Ørskov’s colleague, autodidact sculptor Erik Thommesen, was opposed as well, but for far more principal reasons. He did not like that the Cademy expanded into the urban space. He wrote a complaint in the paper Information, that money was spent on the “expansion of Bertram’s convoluted center for teachers of art misunderstanding and as workshops for the academy’s artistic contracting business”. (Transl. ed.)

But the points of critique were not so serious as to block idea the workshops politically. No doubt it played a role for the Ministry of Culture at the state that this new use of the building at Gammel Dok for workshops and studios would be improving the working conditions for those artists that could help profile Danish culture.

The establishment of the Danish Art Foundation in 1964 had been a financial handout to this segment of the art world. The strategy was to make good artists better by giving them more social security. However, government functions and set incomes were only part of the incentive. The tools and machine needed for bigger works are generally too space demanding and costly for any artist to acquire.

This was the reason why so many graduate graphic artists would still use the facilities at Grafisk Skole to print their work. Spending time with fellow creative people also played a role. All these needs could be met at the Danish Art Workshops.

Three public institutions ended up sharing the address. The Danish Art Workshops, Danish Architecture Center and the Construction Export Council. The two first remained in place.

The project costs were estimated at between 30 and 35 mio. Kr. The Ministry of Culture had promised 10 and the Ministry of Housing had to provide the rest. In the summer 1983 the rebuilding could begin. Three architects were on it: Jens Fredslund, Søren Larsen og Erik Møller, and in the following months the house was given ventialtion, heat, sprinklers and other modern installations.

The facade of the house was left untouched and in spite of the modernization its inners were fundamentally kept unchanged, nor was its division into five floors. Walking around looking at the whitewashed walls, the untreated pillars and the heavy beam structures, you still had the feeling of being in an old, if well preserved warehouse. This feeling is crucial for the usability of the house, because it tells us that these rooms have always been connected to work.

Jack of All Trades

In the fall 1985 the workmen had progressed so far, that the Ministry of Culture could begin the hiring process of the permanent staff. The Workshop Director, the manager of the workshops, was up first. From the job advertisement it was apparent that the day to day manager of the workshops must be a Jack of all trades. His primary task would be to manage the workshops according to the administrative guidelines set by the Workshop Advisory Board. He was also in charge of the establishment of the so-called “basic workshops” for wood and metal, which was the backbone of this place of business. In addition to this he had to develop and equip the specialized workshops and the studios from scratch. Finally, he was tasked with cooperation with the resident artists, i.e. painters, sculptors, weavers, ceramics, architects, designers, conservators and restorers. So It was for good reason that the job advertisement emphasized applicants “with a comprehensive theoretical and practical training and experience, such as a craftsperson / architect”.

Ulf Horak Rasmussen was the name of one of the 16 applicants, from the pool of about five times as many, who by the end of November 1985 was interviewed in the Ministry of Culture. At the table sat an appointment committee consisting of Head of Department Steen Bjarnhof from the School of Conservation, Professor Helge Bertram from the School of Visual Art, Professor Nils Fagerholt from the School of Architecture, Headmaster Ole Gjerløv-Knudsen from the School of Applied Arts and Head of Department Hans Vilstrup and the clerk Peter van Zaane, both from the Ministry.

The candidate Ulf Horak was neither craftsman nor architect by profession. He was educated at Blaagaard Seminarium (College of Education), where he later taught. Since 1965, he had been employed as a teacher at Lundevang Primary School, a school for kids with special needs and a training school for difficult children and adolescents in Gladsaxe. In 1970 he was promoted to the school’s deputy head, and in 1985 to general manager.

But a novice in the arts and crafts area, Ulf Horak was not. Before his socio-educational engagement took off, he had his first encounters with the artistic and architectural environment. His practical sense was as developed as his sense of design. Adding to this was the experience he had gained through many years of cooperation with bronze casters, weaving artists, craftspeople, technicians and other creative people in Gladsaxe. More than once he had helped on the sidelines of building an art exhibition. For example when Jens Birkemose in 1980 had the exhibition “Newton’s Night” at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. So he was not an unknown name in the art world, especially if you asked artists like Jørgen Haugen Sørensen, Jørn Larsen, Mattinen or the weaver Bodil Bødker-Næss. Several of them were even good friends. And last but not least, he was known as an effective problem solver, based on his experience from Lundevang.

Perhaps the committee did not exactly equate artists in general with the so called “difficult children and adolescents” at Lundevang. However there was no doubt in the minds of the committee as to the candidate’s qualifications. On November 28th, the day after the interview at the Ministry, the letter departed stating that Ulf Horak was appointed to the post, effectively from the 1st of February 1986.

By the begining of December 1985 the new director had gotten acquainted with his new job. So much so, that he could inform the Ministry of his concerns regarding the 21/2 staffing, which he would be looking forward to. This was far too few and would, he emphasized, be hazardous. The majority of the artists, who would apply to the workshops, would not be sufficiently acquainted with the complicated machinery in the workshops, and would not be able to use them, without professional assistance. Letting unqualified or inexperienced users fumble with the machines in the Metal or Wood workshops would not only be unthinkable, it would be irresponsible. Steen Bjarnhof agreed with his workshop manager and sent a letter to the Ministry, backing him up. It would be a shame “if such an exciting new institution would stumble at the start,” Bjarnhof stated diplomatically.

The institution did not stumble. The concerns were noted by the Ministry of Culture and in the course of 1986 the Ministry granted the extra staff.

Then came the practical planning. So far it was all very straightforward, judging by the minutes. On the 9th of April 1986 the Ministry of Culture sent out a meeting request to “the honorable members of the informally constituted committee”. The meeting took place two days later in the Head of Department Vilstrup’s offices at the Ministry. As is apparent from the following promise in the circulated invitations, the tone was not so formal: “There will be served a beer or water, if preferred, while the following exciting topics are discussed a cheerful manner.” The so called “exciting topics were, among other things, the budgets for 1985, 86 and 87 and a little about the current staff situation, which was falling into place.

Ulf Horak supplied the cooking for all the meetings of the Advisory Board, and the gstrinomic quality was the reason why the workshop director wrote, in the minutes from the first constituting meeting on Friday the 20th of June 1986 under section: 5. Working Lunch, that the food “was eaten with a good appetite and a nice chat rounded off this first important meeting”. To make the atmosphere of the place as good as possible, a feast for the residents and employees of that year is given every year in November. The workshop director is in charge if the buffet, in cooperation with the employees, and he must be gifted, for in the archives of the Danish Art Workshops can be found, among other things, the recognition set to rime from a pair of residents from the early days, Marilyn and Reese Palley: “Ulf’s kitchen is a maiden’s dream/ More desirable than any man/ And easier to keep clean.”

Excerpts from the book “Skaberrum” by Peter Michael Horning. (Transl. Ed)


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