This website previously was the CENTER FOR ICELANDIC ART (CIA.IS), but they have moved to icelandicartcenter.is.
Iceland, long known for spectacular natural scenery, has in recent years grown into a vibrant cultural destination with several international art festivals and events taking place throughout the year.
The contemporary art scene is exponentially growing, even surpassing those of other European countries.
However, I have found that although international artists are creating business ties in Iceland, Icelandic visual artists are having a difficult time gaining international recognition.
A Brief History
The history of visual arts in Iceland is rather short as many contemporary advances in art and culture were slow to travel over the Atlantic.
However, before the rise of visual and fine art in Iceland, literature was the main cultural focus.
The first surge of foreign artists trickled in at the turn of the Twentieth Century. By the 1970’s, the Icelandic art scene was on par with countries such as France, England, and Germany.
Now, Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is an international hub for contemporary artists and creatives alike. Hosting a slew of art fairs, alternative exhibition spaces, residency programs, and galleries, Iceland has permanently secured its reputation as a must-see art destination.
Museums and Attractions in Reykjavik
A few years ago I made the flight from the USA to Iceland. Jetlagged yet determined to get my full share of culture, I started my journey at the Reykjavik Art Museum – the largest art museum in Iceland. This museum, housed in three buildings (Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn), has hosted some of Iceland’s most renowned artists, as well as many famous international artists. Clearly, I had underbudgeted for time – on my first day I was only able to see Kjarvalsstaðir! If you are going to visit this museum be sure to leave at least three days available to fully explore each exhibition.
My next destination was the Sigurjon Olafsson Museum, also located in Reykjavik; the museum itself, situated by the shore in one of the most beautiful areas of town, is a work of art. Yet, funny enough, the entire museum took less than thirty minutes to see!
Another attraction I highly recommend checking out is the “Solfar,” or Sun Voyager, Sculpture, also in Reykjavik. The walk to Solfar is absolutely stunning and only takes a few minutes from the city center.
My last stop in Reykjavik was the Arbaer Open Air Museum: I signed up for a midday guided tour, which lasted about two hours in total. Much like the rest of Reykjavik, this site is exquisitely preserved and maintained. Although more of a historical destination than a contemporary art destination, I urge you to check out this window into Icelandic history.
Why else would I visit Iceland?
For me, the trip by myself, to just travel around in a new country, by myself, not speaking the local language, was an adventure and challenge to myself. I felt I deserved a special trip, after what I had been through. Starting 2 years ago, I went through a weight loss bariatric surgical procedure, a vertical sleeve thing in my stomach. I ended up with a wound infection and my sutures opened up. So my recovery in hospital was longer than usual, and I ended up with an ugly scar on my tummy. But I did lose weight. Quite a lot, which made me happy, but it didn’t last.
Next, came an abnormal mammogram, then a biopsy showing cancer. Even though I was freaked out and angry at this unlucky situation, the treatment was actually much easier than I imagined. The lumpectomy went well, and the result of DCIS, meant I was going to be OK. But it was a rough time. I wanted to get away and completely change my environment. So I picked a very unusual place to visit for my adventure, Iceland. I’m glad I did.
Must-See Contemporary Galleries in Reykjavik
For a contemporary art enthusiast, merely seeing the museums is not enough when traveling to an international art hub such as Iceland. A key part of my trip was visiting both established and up-and-coming galleries in Reykjavik.
One of the Reykjavik’s most recent additions, Týsgallerí first opened in 2013 in the capital’s beautiful Old Town: Þingholt. This gallery focuses on promoting local Icelandic artists as a means of augmenting the contemporary art scene. Týsgallerí is on the front lines of the surrounding art scene and is a destination where visitors can see authentic Icelandic contemporary art.
I then visited Gallery i8: With its excellent international reputation gained from regular participation in art fairs, mainly Switzerland’s Art Basel, and loyal following in Iceland, Gallery i8 is one of the city’s most famous art venues. Founded in 1995, the gallery represents a diverse body of both Icelandic and international contemporary artists: a perfect microcosm of the Icelandic art scene as a whole.
Next I went to Iceland’s iconic Nordic House. Designed by Alvar Aalto, the Nordic House opened in 1968 at a time when Iceland and the Nordic countries first began to interact. The Hosting the Reykjavik International Film Festival as home to an exhibition space, the Nordic House regularly presents shows cementing the Nordic-Icelandic bond.
Near Reykjavik, the vibrant cities of Keflavik, Hafnarfjörður and Hveragerði also house international galleries, exhibition spaces, and museums. Even further off of the beaten path, particularly around Akureyri in the North and in Seyðisfjörður in the East, I have found an abundance of local art communities. Visiting international artists have also installed permanent pieces all over the island in the forms of sculptures and intervention art.