Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad

Sonja Henie: From the Ice to Hollywood

Through her successful life as a figure skater, Hollywood actress and business woman, Sonja Henie (1912-1969) was one of the great Norwegian icons of the 1900's.

Sonja Henie began ice skating in Oslo's Skate Club at the age of six, where she showed early promise. Her ambitious father encouraged her talent and took her out of school in the fourth grade so that she could focus entirely on figure skating.

In 1924, at the young age of twelve, Henie won the first of her five consecutive Norwegian Championships. Two years later, she won second place in the World Championships in Stockholm. During the years spanning 1927-1936, she was awarded three Olympic gold medals, six European Championships and ten straight World Championships.

In 1936, Henie signed a tour contract with the American manager Arthur M. Wirtz. In the early fall of that year, Henie and her family traveled to the United States where she gave a series of figure skating performances on the ice. Her family thereafter moved to Hollywood, where following tough negotiations with director Darryl Zanuck, Sonja Henie signed a 5 year contract with the film company 20th Century Fox.

According to her contract, Henie would star in one film each year, and was permitted to produce her own ice show when not working with the film studio. Sonja Henie's first film, One In A Million (1936) was a formidable success. By 1940, she was one of Hollywood's best paid actors, on par with Clark Gable and the childhood star Shirley Temple.

For each major film role, Henie was paid $125,000 dollars—the equivalent of about $ 4 million today. Together with her revenues from films and ice shows, she was one of the wealthiest women in America. She was known for her glamorous lifestyle and appearance; she frequently appeared wearing gold, diamonds, pearls and magnificent furs. In the years between 1936 to 1948, she starred in nine films.

In parallel with her Hollywood career, Sonja Henie achieved success at her lavish ice shows held in famous venues. During the 1940s, she began focusing full time on ice shows and won increasing acclaim in the USA and in Europe. In 1953, Sonja Henie visited her home country, where among other activities; she put on her own ice shows at the Jordal Amphitheater. Her performances were a triumph, both artistically and financially. 360,000 people throughout all of Norway attended her series of 33 shows.

In 1955, Sonja Henie met the shipping magnate and art collector Niels Onstad. They were married the following year, and in the coming years, began to focus on developing their art collection together. In the meanwhile, Henie retired from her career as figure skater and big screen actress.

Sonja Henie died of leukemia one year after the inauguration of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. She was 59 years old. She donated all of her awards and private documentation archive with accompanying photographs and films to HOK. This extensive, premium collection, which consists of nearly 600 individual items, has been provided its own exhibition room at HOK.

Niels Onstad

Niels Onstad (1909-1978) was an active football player, peaking during the Norwegian Championship in 1928 during which he played for the Lyn football club. However, he is best known for his prowess as ship owner and art collector. His interest in art was influenced by his mother, who was a painter, and he maintained several contacts in the Norwegian art community.

Together with his brother, Haakon Onstad, he established the shipping company Niels Onstad Tankrederi A/S in 1935. In 1940, Onstad moved to the U.S. where he worked for Nortraship. During WWII, this company managed the large Norwegian merchant fleet outside of the German-controlled waterways and contributed decisively to the Allied efforts during the war.

Niels Onstad and Sonja Henie met one another in the U.S.A. in 1955. His frequently quoted comment, "I prefer tomorrow's art," was indicative of the focus of their mutual art collection.

Towards a Shared Vision

Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad

Responding to a request from Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo in 1959, the couple decided to make their collection available to the public. Over the course of the following two years, the collection was taken on a broad exhibition tour to 17 key institutions throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, England, France, Austria and Switzerland. The tour enjoyed enormous success, and provided both Henie and Onstad with first hand knowledge of contemporary art institutions worldwide.

The collection continued to increase during this period, and in 1961 the Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad Trusts were created as two separate gifts with the establishment of a modern art museum as the primary aim. These gifts generated the largest private art donation in Norwegian history.

The decision on the location for the art center fell to Bærum community, where a 140 acre public lot was placed at the disposal of the municipality. After a board of directors for the foundations and other bodies were established, and with Ole Henrik Moe appointed as director, preparations began for the museum pilot project.

In October 1962, an architectural competition to design the new art museum was held. The prize was awarded to the young Norwegian architects Jon Eikvar and Svein Erik Engebretsen. After two years of preparation, the building was erected between 1966 and 1968.

The two founders followed the entire process watchfully, both as forerunners and promoters. Their wish was for the Kunstsenter to become a central arena for national and international artistic expressions. Among the preamble statutes, the founders clearly stated their intention to create an art centre which encouraged interaction between art, artist and the public.

The opening of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 1968 signaled a new type of institution, one which not only housed the extensive art collection of Henie and Onstad, but which also served as a vibrant centre for interdisciplinary activities. At the opening, Arne Nordheim premiered his commissioned work Solitaire in front of a star-studded auditorium, which was attended by the royal family as well as 650 invited guests from Norway and abroad.