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For $84,000, An Artist Returned Two Blank Canvasses Titled 'Take The Money And Run'

The money was supposed to be used to create modern art. And it was — but not in the way a Danish museum expected when it gave an artist the equivalent of $84,000. In return, it received two empty canvases.

The artist, Jens Haaning, says the blank canvases make up a new work of art — titled "Take the Money and Run" — that he calls a commentary on poor wages. One thing it's not, he says, is a theft.

"It is a breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work," he said, according to Danish public broadcaster DR.

"The work is that I have taken their money," Haaning stated.

The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg isn't satisfied with that explanation, but that hasn't stopped it from displaying the two canvases as part of its exhibition called Work It Out, which explores people's relationship with work.

Artist's unexpected delivery provoked laughter and questions

Haaning took the money as part of an agreement with the Kunsten, which says it loaned Haaning more than half a million kroner so he could frame the cash in a reprise of an earlier artwork. The artist had previously used two canvases, one larger than the other, to illustrate the gap in average annual incomes in Denmark and Austria in concrete terms — or, more accurately, in paper.

Haaning sent two large crates to the museum, as it prepared to mount the work-themed show that opened last weekend. But when staff members opened the boxes, they were surprised to find two blank canvases.

"I actually laughed as I saw it," Kunsten CEO Lasse Andersson said in an email to NPR, adding that the museum first suspected things might not go as planned when Haaning told them he had created a new piece of art, with the title "Take the Money and Run."

The delivery quickly provoked a flurry of emails and messages at the museum. Andersson says that while Haaning's initial work converted money into art, "The new work reminds us that we work for money." It also adds a new twist to the debate over how an artist's work should be valued, he said.

Artist urges the public: Take the money and run

Haaning told P1 Morgen that he decided to keep the money after rejecting the idea of reproducing art that was more than a decade old. Instead, he said, he wanted to create a work that dealt immediately with his own work situation.

"I encourage other people who have just as miserable working conditions as me to do the same," he said, according to a translation from Artnet. "If they are sitting on some s*** job and not getting money and are actually being asked to give money to go to work," they should take the money and run, he told the radio program.

Haaning says he would have had to pay 25,000 kroner (around $2,900) to re-create his art work — an unfair burden, he told Danish radio. But Andersson says the museum's contract provides up to 6,000 euros, or nearly $7,000, for Haaning's work expenses. Under the agreement, the artist also receives a fee of 10,000 kroner, plus a "viewing fee" determined by the government.

The museum isn't taking legal action — yet

Haaning signed a contract with the Kunsten, promising to deliver the artwork and to return the $84,000. The artist now faces a deadline to give the museum its money back on Jan. 16, when the work exhibition closes. The museum says it's talking with him about that deadline; it also acknowledges that Haaning did produce a provocative piece of work.

"It wasn't what we had agreed on in the contract, but we got new and interesting art" from Haaning, Andersson said.

Haaning is a well-known artist in Denmark, where his attention-grabbing projects have included rendering the Dannebrog, Denmark's red and white national flag, in green, according to public broadcaster DR. He also "moved a car dealer and a massage clinic into exhibition buildings," the news agency says.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.