New award: Else Kai Sass was passionate about collaboration

She was internationally oriented and committed to bringing art history out into society. She was also the first female professor at AU. Professor Else Kai Sass was ahead of her time in many ways, and now her name is being given to a new award that celebrates research communication, collaboration and innovation.

It is said that Else Kai Sass once recommended Italian literature to a student who was writing an essay on Renaissance art. “But I can’t read Italian”, said the student. “You really need to learn that”, replied Else Kai Sass. Else Kai Sass was a respected but demanding teacher, who also introduced students to international visiting scholars in her classes. Photo: Per Willmann

When the Copenhagen-based museum curator Else Kai Sass was awarded a professorship at Aarhus University in 1954, the university arranged for her to view potential rental properties in the city. When knocking at one apartment, she was told by the landlord that she couldn’t come in, because it was due to be viewed by “a professor from Copenhagen”. He then proceeded to slam the door. A professor – that must be a man.


The Else Kai Sass Award ...

  • is given to a graduate who brings knowledge from AU out into society, and who has made a particularly positive contribution to research communication, collaboration and/or innovation.
  • is worth DKK 60,000 and is funded by the Aarhus University Anniversary Foundation
  • replaces the former AU Research Communication Award
  • will be conferred for the first time at AU’s Annual Celebration in 2023

[Translate to English:] Professor Else Kai Sass (1912-1987)

1939­­­–1942: Reviewer at the Danish daily newspaper Nationaltidende

1944: Master’s degree in art history from the University of Copenhagen

1945–1954: Curator at the Thorvaldsen Museum

From 1954:  Position in the Danish section of the international committee for art history

1954–1967: Professor of art history at Aarhus University – the first female professor at AU and the first female professor of art history in Denmark

1955–1961: Director of Aarhus Art Museum, the precursor to ARoS. Else Kai Sass initiated the construction of a new museum building in Vennelyst Park.

1961–1982: Member of the board of the New Carlsberg Foundation

1967–1978: Professor of art history at the University of Copenhagen

1970: Founder of the journal Hafnia. Copenhagen papers in the history of art

1975–1987: Member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters

1979: Honorary member of the International Committee for Art History

Else Kai Sass was married to the painter Kai Sass, with whom she had three children.

After that, Else Kai Sass went on to open several doors. She built up two art history study environments and departments in Aarhus and Copenhagen, she forged ties between Danish and international research environments, and she was committed to bringing knowledge generated at universities out into society, which included laying the foundations for the Aarhus Art Museum, the precursor to ARoS.

This is why her name is now being given to a new award at Aarhus University – the Else Kai Sass Award – which celebrates the fruitful and important collaboration that takes place between universities and the world around them.

“Through research and teaching, the university can help to solve some of society’s major challenges. We don’t do this alone but by collaborating with others – from private companies to public institutions and civil society. With the new Else Kai Sass award, we celebrate the researchers who are passionate about collaborating with others to bring their research and expert knowledge into play in society. Else Kai Sass is an excellent role model. In addition to having a decisive impact on the development of Danish art history, she was an example in the academic world of how universities can open up to the society around them – and she had the persistence that is often required to push new ideas through and get support for them”, says Rector Brian Bech Nielsen.

Else Kai Sass started the conversation
In her efforts to make art accessible to the public by building a new art museum, Else Kai Sass reached out to business and industry and managed to get the largest local employer of the time, the Aarhus oil factory, to co-finance the project.

Like others of her generation, Else Kai Sass would probably not have used the word “innovative” to describe her work, but she was nevertheless innovative in the true sense of the word: She developed new ideas and realised them in practice. Else Kai Sass was a pioneer who started the conversation between art and the people – a conversation that continued throughout Aarhus Art Museum’s history and that now lives on at ARoS, one of the largest art museums in northern Europe.

Director of AU’s Enterprise and Innovation Lone Ryg Olsen is pleased that the Else Kai Sass Award is raising awareness of the university’s outreach collaboration:

Else Kai Sass used her expertise to create something new, and many researchers follow in her footsteps every day at AU: They communicate, they collaborate, and they find answers to current problems. This is an important part of the university’s contribution to society, but it is not always recognised and acknowledged on an equal footing with traditional research. With this award, I hope that we can highlight the major and important role that researchers play when they bring their knowledge into play in society”, says Lone Ryg Olsen.