Nicolai Tangen knows all about silo busting. The former hedge fund manager runs the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the largest of its kind in the world (Tangen is often referred to as “Norway’s trillion-dollar man”), and is well versed in breaking down barriers in organisations. But as my boat draws up to the dock in his hometown of Kristiansand, on Norway’s southern coast, I can see that here at least, Tangen is nurturing the joys of preservation.

Tangen has helped turn a prewar grain store on the isle of Odderøya — a military fortress turned park — into one of the most ambitious art museums in Scandinavia and filled it with the world’s largest private collection of Nordic modern art. Kunstsilo, a hotly debated £50mn, eight-year project that has combined public and private funds, will open its (vast) doors next month.

On arrival by boat in the milky northern light, Kunstsilo appears through the late-spring snowfall like a colossal piece of Lego. Designed by Arne Korsmo in 1935, the structure once held some 15,000 tonnes of grain. But, having served the local mills for three quarters of a century, it lay abandoned following its closure in 2008. “It was just a derelict problem,” says Tangen as he shows me around the site. “It was an eyesore. Now it’s beautiful.”

At 57, Tangen has the vigour, poise and confidence of a man accustomed to navigating the upper echelons of power. In normal life he might be dealing with the ministry of finance one day and skiing in the mountains the next. His easy smile and weekend attire (today a rather Jermyn Street blend of loafers, black jeans and checked blazer) belies a steeliness.

The newly opened Kunstsilo art space, beside the Kilden performing arts centre
The newly opened Kunstsilo art space, beside the Kilden performing arts centre © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

Tangen grew up in Kristiansand in the 1970s, just as Norway’s oil boom along the coast at Stavanger changed the nation’s fortunes. His father was a successful local businessman. But it was his art historian mother who stoked his interest in the visual arts. “We travelled around Europe, and saw these museums. Bored to death, right? And then suddenly, bang, it penetrates.”

Later, as his career in finance took off in London — he founded AKO Capital (the initials are those of his grown-up children), managing a fund now worth $23.1bn — a flirtation with collecting became “some kind of obsession”. But in 2003, he took a two-year sabbatical to study for a MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art. He first immersed himself in the art of Norway before widening his focus to the output of the other Nordic countries.

Looking up at the former wheat silos in the Silo Hall
Looking up at the former wheat silos in the Silo Hall © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo
Tangen in Kunstsilo
Tangen in Kunstsilo © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

Kunstsilo has been transformed by the Spanish-Norwegian practice Mestres Wåge Arquitectes, with BAX and Mendoza Partida. Its Norwegian-functionalist façade has been softened with cream shades. Inside, 30 silos have been cut off, like truncated tubular bells, leaving a dramatic central void that can be used for light and sound installations and concerts. Twenty-five galleries spread over three floors hold some 3,300 sq m of exhibition space. At the top of the building, 360-degree views are captured through prisms of glass. Below, the boardwalk will become another space for performances – and swimming – when the city changes pace in summer.

Staircases leading up through the Silo Hall
Staircases leading up through the Silo Hall © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

Tangen’s philanthropic organisation AKO Foundation contributed £15.5mn to the renovation, and he gave his personal collection of some 5,500 works — valued at around £40mn — to join the city’s cache of regional pieces. “It is a gift to a foundation, and the foundation is lending it to Kristiansand for eternity,” Tangen clarifies. “The art can never go back to me.”

Some locals balked at the project. With its strong tradition of social democracy, Norway embraces janteloven, a code of conduct that frowns on expansive shows of prosperity. “Norwegians are suspicious of wealth,” says Tangen. He’s undaunted by criticism, presumably hardened by the conflict of interest controversy that surrounded his appointment to head up the sovereign wealth fund in 2020. After demands from the Norwegian parliament’s finance committee, Tangen agreed to divest himself of his holdings in AKO Capital. While he is now Oslo-based, holidays are spent at his summerhouse in Norway’s south. “You want to be contrarian, as an investor and as an art collector,” he says of the current trend for major private donors to hook up with public institutions.

Inevitably, as with so many institutions, people argued Kunstsilo was a poor use of public funds. “So it’s either Kunstsilo or elderly peoples’ homes, either Kunstsilo or kindergartens. That’s how they portrayed it,” says Tangen. There have been, however, a lot of people in Kristiansand who “sacrificed a lot” to support the endeavour, he emphasises. “The mayor had to step down because the whole political situation changed.”

From left: A Song For Ho Chi Minh, in Heaven and his Ceiling, 1975, by Per Klieva, and Untitled, 1975, by Outi Ikkala
From left: A Song For Ho Chi Minh, in Heaven and his Ceiling, 1975, by Per Klieva, and Untitled, 1975, by Outi Ikkala © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo
Kunstsilo has 3,300sq m of exhibition space over three floors
Kunstsilo has 3,300sq m of exhibition space over three floors © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

The geographical span of the collection covers art from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, dating from the 1910s to 1990, and is intended to tell a story of engagement between Nordic artists and the outside world. One particularly striking exhibit on display is a 17th-century hay barn, first transported — log by log — by the installation artist Marianne Heske from a valley north of Oslo to the Pompidou Centre. Elsewhere, glazed organic forms made by mid-century Danish potter Axel Salto are paired with pieces by contemporary British ceramicist Edmund de Waal. Tangen believes visitors will be “surprised by the richness of this, the depth and the breadth”. It “stands out locally and globally”, says Karin Hindsbo, director of London’s Tate Modern. “You can tell from Nicolai’s collection that he is a scholar.”

Tangen explains that his approach to collecting was strategic from the start. “It’s not a collection made by some dude with random ideas. It’s a scientific collection.” The academic approach, informed by specialists from each of the Nordic countries, was akin to doing due diligence in business, he says. “It’s like reading up on a new company.” His intention was to form “a personal take on Nordic modernism. Slightly less figuration. And nobody has really collected and put together the art from the whole Nordic region in one place.”

Tangen walks in the Passions of the North exhibition
Tangen walks in the Passions of the North exhibition © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

His taste leans towards colour and abstraction. “Lifelike painting is not for me. Obvious is boring,” he says. As a result “some of the so-called specialists or professors would say that the postwar figurative language and art is under-represented”. He’s utterly unfazed. Norwegian figuration, he counters, is “generally sad … poor factory shipyards, loneliness and unhappiness. So I think it’s such a liberating hole to have in the collection.”

Nonetheless, the opening exhibition of 600 works, curated by art historian Åsmund Thorkildsen and titled Passions of the North — presented through themes such as home, nature, machines, faces and masks — ends with a hint of Nordic noir. “The very last room will tell English people, and people from the continent, what this Nordic experience is really about,” says Thorkildsen. “Very dark, very sombre. It’s about steep hills, deep valleys, it’s so dark it’s almost black in the forest. That’s where we come from.”

The 30 disused wheat silos of Kunstsilo
The 30 disused wheat silos of Kunstsilo © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo
A staircase in the Silo Hall
A staircase in the Silo Hall © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

Kristiansand, says Tangen, is “not Las Vegas. It’s peaceful and relatively religious. A small traditional town.” With a population today of 112,000, the city was founded by Christian IV in 1641 using a distinctive grid street system called Kvadraturen (The Quarters). At the downtown end of that lattice, the historic neighbourhood of Posebyen charms tourists with sleepy streets of 19th-century white clapboard buildings. There is a sense that all roads lead to the sea. In 2025, Kristiansand will host the Tall Ships Races. Boats can be chartered to explore the surrounding archipelago of cabin-dotted islands. And at Michelin-starred restaurant Under, diners eat beneath the waves.

Kristiansand’s old town
Kristiansand’s old town © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

The country’s southern coastline, known as Sørlandet, is often described as “Norway’s Riviera”. And, while temperatures peak around 21 degrees in July, visitor numbers to Kristiansand during high season can be in the millions. Families converge on the city’s zoo and amusement park, themed around the pirate Captain Sabertooth, a phenomenally popular Nordic Jack Sparrow. “We are the number one holiday destination for domestic tourism during summer,” Kristiansand’s mayor, Mathias Bernander, tells me.

The opening of Kunstsilo is part of a cultural transformation, a reboot that kicked up a notch in 2012 with the building of the Kilden concert hall next to Kunstsilo, its vast wooden façade reminiscent of a ship’s hull cutting through water. Bernander hopes Kunstsilo will help to attract visitors — both domestic and international — outside the summer season.

Boen Gård guesthouse beside the Tovdalselva river
Boen Gård guesthouse beside the Tovdalselva river © Sigrid Bjorbekkmo

It’s a sentiment Tangen shares. He says that giving his collection to Kristiansand has allowed him to give something back to the region, and compares the project to “David against Goliath”: the regional versus the capital. “I think there is enough stuff in Oslo,” he says. “I’m a great believer in revenge of the nerd. I love friction.”

Despite this, the donation was not an easy process. “I had some prints by Rolf Nesch, who I did my master’s dissertation on. When I took them down I cried. I had looked at them for 20 years, every day,” he recalls. “I learnt from my mother that you should give away the dearest thing you have. Otherwise, what’s the point?” The gallery, he hopes, promises to be “the kind of thing that I wish had existed when I was young. I would have been in there all the time. I would have adored it.”

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