House of cards

When Kieran Long became director at ArkDes two years ago, he inherited an institution in crisis. But is the situation any better? Leonidas Aretakis tells of a museum where daily rebukes and sudden dismissals have become part of life. Kieran Long’s explanation: “There was a lack of talent.”

Text: Leonidas Aretakis

Photo: Patrick Miller

ArkDes has long been the neglected dollhouse of Swedish architecture: no one plays with it, but when mum and dad want to put it away, everyone kicks and screams.

But in April 2017 we saw a glimmer of hope. As director of the chronically chided and ill-fated institution came Kieran Long, an eloquent star from London’s architectural world, who had headed prestigious industry magazines, a BBC design programme and an entire section at the Victoria & Albert.

If he couldn’t clean up the shambles on Skeppsholmen, who could?

Surely enough, ArkDes did lit up. In short time Long himself produced an ambitious exhibition program, and curated the exhibition “Public Luxury”, a critically acclaimed journey through the life of design of the public space. At the same time, he took the institution to the architecture biennial in Venice, the greatest arena of its kind, with an exhibition about the headstrong modernist Sigurd Lewerentz.

Kieran Long
Kieran Long, ArkDes Director  (photo: Andrea Björsell)

The question is at what price. While he has lit a spark at ArkDes, he may have burnt some bridges in the process. Some of the staff are upset over what they call a brutal reorganisation and harsh leadership, including regular scoldings and sudden dismissals.

When I meet Kieran Long in his office, after a brief tour of the new exhibition hall “Boxen”, he says that without profound change, the institution would have gone under.

– When I arrived there was a lack of ideas. And I would also say, if it’s not to be too brutal, there was a lack of talent here. A lot of the talented people had left, because they got fed up and could do things elsewhere. So we spent a lot of our time making this an attractive place to work, and we’re starting to feel now that we have a team nearly in shape.

The feelings seem mutual between director and staff. According to an employee survey from January, staff rated the level of “leadership”, “workload” and “flexibility and control” all 55 out of 100, which union chairwoman Madeléne Beckman calls “poor numbers that must be addressed”. Kieran Long disagrees.

– I’m sure that you as a journalist can spin this into negative numbers. You can also say that this is an unusually committed group of leaders who want to understand what their staff thinks.

The image of a harsh work environment, however, is confirmed when I speak confidentially with former and current employees.

Words mentioned by current staff are: “Idiotic”, “sociopathic control”, “horribly unprofessional”, “repressive” and “mean”. One employee says that a woman recently cried during a presentation, for fear of being told off, and that Kieran Long set the tone early on by firing the public director Karin Åberg Waern, who was given short notice after 16 years of service.

– It was a symbolic act to demonstrate that we are replaceable on the day, so we won’t dare to question anything, says one employee.

Another says:

– He’s angry, he shouts and screams if we don’t understand him. A conspiracy of silence that has spread out completely.

A former employee confirms the picture and says, “rub him the wrong way and you’re out.” Another former employee says that the union Saco claimed the cooperation agreement – that gives employees the right to raise concerns at an early stage of decision-making – was not adhered to, and thus cancelled it. Several sources say that Kieran Long despises the union, and anyone who involves them gets yelled at.

– It’s not a nice feeling when your colleagues get sniped at, and when you meet a colleague in the breakfast room who has been verbally abused. These are grown people, who are experts in their field, says a former employee.

However, Kieran Long believes that drastic changes are painful in every organisation, especially one as poorly managed as ArkDes.

– There’s no way to change as quickly as was necessary with the same staff, who have to take a degree of collective responsibility for some of the failure.

Some people have questioned your hiring of Daniel Golling, who is a close friend of yours.

– You need to be really careful about this. Are you trying to get me sacked?

No, I’m just wondering if it’s a problem?

– Do you think it’s a problem?

I guess it could be?

– The implication that Daniel is anything other than one of the primary, primary experts of contemporary architecture in Sweden is…

Will he stay on after his temporary contract is up?

– There’s likely to be another job in the curatorial team at some point, and he’ll be a strong candidate for that role.

One person who will not be staying is Monica Sand, who is leaving on her own request on 31 March as research manager at ArkDes, a post she has held since 2010. She believes the fundamental structure for research was dismantled in 2018. She has no other job waiting, but will face the consequences of her no longer being able to defend the planned research. She says:

– With collections essentially inaccessible to external researchers and with no contemporary research in-house, the exchange of knowledge that creates a relevant research environment in relation to our world and public service task is impeded.

Another employee, however, gives a different picture, and points out that visitor numbers to a research symposium at ArkDes in December were high, and that for the first time in a long time, the academy is showing interest in ArkDes. Kieran Long says there is basis for his interpretation in the research commission, and adds that The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London has a similar interpretation.

– It’s not just me who thinks that design is another way to do research, just not in universities. One of the explicit reasons the Culture Department gave us extra funds as a museum to do research, was because the academy was not producing research that was tangibly affecting the contemporary debates about Swedish cities.

It isn’t the first time in a short time that he gives his old hometown the finger.

On Instagram, he recently directed a “big fuck you” to his former employer V&A – who is also a partner in the coming exhibition “The Future Starts Here” – for not giving him more credit in connection with the exhibition “Video Games”. (The post was quickly removed; a source with insight into staff communication at the V&A, however, says it did not go down well.)

– I’m a very open and honest person, and I think that’s what social media is about. What that post also said was that this is the most important exhibition of its type ever in that field and I’m deeply proud of the team members who delivered it. But it is hard to let go of project which I was the inventor of, and see it delivered in a way that doesn’t acknowledge me.

However, he was recently himself accused of basking in the glory of others. Specifically by architect Petra Gipp and photo artist Mikael Olsson, whom ArkDes contracted to reinterpret Sigurd Lewerentz for the museum’s participation in the Central Pavilion at the summer biennial.

At the centre were three works: the Markuskyrkan and Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm, as well as the Östra Kyrkogården in Malmö. In addition to sketches from the archives, Petra Gipp contributed with a sculptural installation, and Mikael Olsson with a series of photographic works.

But despite them being, along with Lewerentz, the only authors of the exhibition, neither Gipp nor Olsson is mentioned in the printed catalogues. Instead, three ArkDes employees, and the institution itself, are listed as authors, that is: “Kieran Long, Johan Örn, James Taylor-Foster with ArkDes”.

– It feels sad. They say they have worked to get our names featured, but it turns out they deliberately chose not to acknowledge us as authors. I feel like I’ve been lied to right to my face, says Petra Gipp.

Both artists were rarely mentioned in international articles about the exhibition, except when they personally contacted the publications for correction, which they believe is due to the omission from the catalogue. The prestigious Italian architecture magazine Domus, for example, captions a photo of Petra Gipp’s sculptures and Mikael Olsson’s photographs and Mikael Olsson’s photographs with: “Kieran Long’s beautiful analysis on the work of Sigurd Lewerentz”.

– They’ve handled it terribly. We brought it up early on and they answered immediately, not very friendly, that only participants are mentioned in the catalogue, says Petra Gipp.

-It is an insult, to me, and to all creatives. Kieran Long has made his colleagues and himself authors of our work., subsequently, engaging in theft. He has disregarded the opportunity to include Petra in the architectural history. He is a fraud, I’m embarrassed for him, says Mikael Olsson.

In order to not stand alone, Mikael Olsson got his gallerists in Sweden involved, Claes Nodenhake and Ben Loveless at Galerie Nordenhake, who just bagged the top spot on Barneby’s list of the Swedish art world’s most powerful.

– I perceived his attitude as hostile towards artists, and unethical for to be coming from a governmental agency, says Ben Loveless. I asked for clarification on why the artist’s name had been omitted. In reply he became very aggressive and yelled over the phone at one of my colleagues at the gallery.  I was not looking for a shouting match, I just wanted to know his reasoning. Unfortunately, I never got an explanation.

Petra Gipp and Mikael Olsson are now independently investigating which legal actions can be taken.

But Kieran Long is convinced he is the true participant. He was officially invited to participate as head of the museum, but adds that he was actually invited long before.

– I would’ve liked if the artists had been more visible but the biennial has strict rules when it comes to credits. As far as the catalogue, there was a deadline before our negotiations with the biennial were finished. I used my networks and knowledge to give Swedish architecture the opportunity to exhibit on the biggest international stage. Everybody talked about the beauty of Mikael’s photos and Petra’s sculptures, and for Sweden and for ArkDes, it’s a turning point in the international visibility of the architectural discourse in this country. Nobody has been able to achieve that before. You know I’m going to praise myself about this because you’re only talking to people who criticise us.

However, in ArkDes’s communication with the biennial, which Form requested to see, there is no evidence that talks were held to include Gipp and Olsson as participants, even though they had been in touch at an early stage. Kieran Long instead made every effort to include museum employees Johan Örn and James Taylor-Foster.


Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum is often portrayed as someone who is keen to promote the arts, so I call him up to gain perspective on the conflict. He calls the biennial a “horrible mess, a bloody chaos of sponsors and national representatives”, and adds:

– Focus is usually on the main object, the exhibited artistry. That’s what everyone will remember. Here it seems like the museum has chosen to make itself visible rather than its content. And if there is anything I regard as beautiful, it is discovering and emphasising artistry, so for me this is incomprehensible. Lewerentz is perhaps one of Sweden’s most important architects, so my question is what status the others had, if there was reason to not mention them.

For Gipp, it is also the question of equality. She says that Kieran called her up and was friendly, and said he had worked hard to get them featured. She had answered: “You must understand it’s really embarrassing for you, as a male representative of ArkDes, to ensure that I as a female architect not be featured.”

– His job is to promote Swedish architecture, and he could have had such a feather in his cap, but his own ego or something killed it.

Toward the end of our interview, Kieran Long points out the negative role the press has played on Swedish exhibitors.

– Swedish museums tend to be extremely conservative, and they’re scared of journalists like you. You don’t come in to get to know me, because you feel somehow you’ll be compromised. And this strange culture you have that because we’re a transparent government agency, you try to find where the problem is. So you’re more interested in how we do things than what we do.

I tell him he has received positive press for his exhibitions, but that I can’t answer for the public response in any case. He replies that it is because I am a “tool” – in the literal and metaphorical sense.

After the interview, he does not want to be photographed by Form’s photographer Patrick Miller, nor does he visit the ArkDes exhibition “Ung Svensk Form” – a co-organised event with this magazine’s owner Svensk Form – which, since 1998, has promoted young designers.

Svensk Form CEO Mats Widbom regarded it as an “impulsive reaction” from a “very emotional person” – but is very pleased with the collaboration, which he believes is beneficial to both parties.

It’s no secret that ArkDes was in a poor state when Kieran Long arrived. Many will agree that the current exhibitions hold a significantly higher quality, that the symposium with architectural researchers in December was well attended, and that the museum previously had a low status among both architects and academics.

According to Kieran Long, the temporary director Kerstin Brunnberg – whom Form spoke with in “House of Cards” (5/2014) – cleaned up a bit, especially with regard to the budget. But there was much left to do, he says, especially organisationally. And what he has accomplished, he adds, is to “rescue ArkDes as an independent museum”.

– I inherited a museum where literally every system was broken, from the travel and representation policies, to the collection storage, to our public programme through our audiences to our public perception. Yes, I am in a hurry to fix that. I am not going to sit here for years while people complain. I’m here to lead. What would you expect me to say?





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