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AKUREYRI, Iceland — If you set out from Reykjavík northbound on Route 1, the road that rings around most of Iceland, you will, after give or take five hours, find yourself in Akureyri. In addition to being Iceland’s second-largest city, Akureyri is a creative one — it’s known for its art museum (the first one opened outside of Reykjavík), art school, a downtown stretch dubbed “artists’ alley,” galleries, and studios. All of this is well worth a visit. If you keep going, however, following Route 1 past downtown, in and out of Akureyri proper, over a spit of land that doubles as a bridge, you’ll find your car climbing a hill and driving through a lush green landscape — until it’s interrupted by a towering sculpture of an amiable metal man in a blue suit.
The man watches over Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum, which is technically located in Akureyri but both geographically and spiritually feels like a place all its own. The museum was founded in 1995 by artist Níels Hafstein and his wife, Magnhildur Sigurðardóttir, and although the two white buildings that house it make it appear inviting to the point of seeming quaint, the institution boasts a collection of nearly 5,000 works. Most are by outsider and folk artists, with a small portion representing contemporary work by mainstream-educated, aka “insider,” artists. Rotating through 12–15 exhibitions a year, Safnasafnið prides itself on “present[ing] its collection of folk and outsider art together with progressive modern art without discrimination — quality and sincerity being the only guidelines.”
When I visited, that was certainly the case — perhaps to a fault, but mostly to genuine enjoyment. In the middle of July, here is some of what Safnasafnið had on display: a collection of fantastic, folk tale–inspired sculptures by little-known artist Ragnar Bjarnason (formerly displayed on his lawn in Reykjavík); the photocollages and mystical Roses of Wisdom drawings of Bjarni Þórarinsson; derivative but decent paintings and drawings by famous Icelandic writer Thor Vilhjálmsson; the trappings — mannequin, thread, samples, dozens of wood display drawers — of an Icelandic embroidery shop; a stunning collection of beaded jewelry made by artists from Greenland; possessed and playful tupilak creatures made from whale bones, animal teeth, and other materials, also by artists from Greenland; a mass-produced, anonymously created figurine of a man in an armchair, in order to illustrate “the question what is art and what is kitsch” (as per the wall text); a few overthought, one-off installations by people with art degrees; and hundreds of dolls from around the world, grouped by country, arranged row after row in display cases lining the walls of a single room, with a doll house from 1938 in the center.
It is, in other words, an eclectic place, and calling the displays “exhibitions” mostly feels like a stretch. But that hodgepodge quality connects Safnasafnið to its country’s culture — folk museums around Iceland show assorted quotidian artifacts with widely varying degrees of interest and organization (I visited one that had everything from old waffle irons to not-so-old cash registers splayed in an attic). It’s also built into Safnasafnið’s structure — one of the two charming white buildings that comprises the museum was actually transported to the site and connected to the other by way of a metal addition. This gives the space a labyrinthine quality; you move from room to room and up and down stairs without knowing what’s coming next. The feeling is part adventure, part museum, and part grandmother’s house — a place filled with all manner of objects waiting to be discovered.
Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum, is located at Svalbarðsströnd (Akureyri, Iceland) and open daily, from 10am to 5pm, through August 31.