In Helsinki, an Underrated Arts Scene Gets Its Own Biennial

Set to debut on June 2020, the large-scale exhibition is geared to give Finnish contemporary art the push it needs.

Set to debut on June 2020, the large-scale exhibition is geared to give Finnish contemporary art the push it needs.

Nowadays, international art fairs are a dime a dozen. That, however, isn’t stopping Maija Tanninen-Mattila, director of the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), from helping initiate one in her home city. In early 2019, the leadership of Finland’s capital announced that the city would host its inaugural fine art biennial in the summer of 2020, joining a schedule packed with similar events in other—perhaps more distinguished—metropolises, including Venice, London, and Paris. Over 100 biennials exist already, which doesn’t include the annual exhibitions in MiamiBasel, Hong Kong, and several in New York City, or all those triennials, quadrennials, and so on.

This proliferation of such large-scale showcases, both for- and non-profit, over the last two decades has been about far more than just spotlighting the artistic sensibilities of certain regions. The “-ennials”—which, on the surface, are not intended to be selling platforms—are, in most cases, marketing strategies enacted by local governments to increase awareness of their art centers, the reputations of their working artists, and to attract tourists and the money that comes with them. But the creation of a viable, world-class exhibition comes with a check list: the approval of its residents, the funds to emcee these costly art events, solid infrastructure, and the support of local institutions. According to Tanninen-Mattila, Helsinki is has all of that and more.

Not only do city officials support the Helsinki Biennial, nearly 80 museums and galleries are also on board. From HAM to the Espoo Museum of Modern Art to Amos Rex to the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma to the Ateneum Art Museum, these local art leaders are primed to bolster Helsinki’s growing reputation in the global community. The creative output, to be sure, is already there. The Finnish capital is esteemed for its industrial design, originating celebrated brands like Iittala, Artek, and Marimekko. But the art scene, though budding, is lacking in cultural cachet, at least when compared to other biennial-hosting cities.

Ateneum Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Ateneum Art Museum/Helsinki Marketing.

Yet, Helsinki has long strived to be an art hub. Along with having a great number of art centers, it is the first city in Europe to mandate that all new constructions allocate one percent of their valuations to public artworks. There has also been an increase in public and private grants and residencies given to working artists, encouraging them to create in their communities. Still, these centralized initiatives are mostly unknown worldwide, something that the upcoming Helsinki Biennial aims to change.

From June to September 2020, Tanninen-Mattila and two of HAM’s curators, Taru Tappola and Pirkko Siitari, will take over the archipelago island of Vallisaari, where they plan on populating the former military base with outdoor works from both Finnish and international artists. The choice of venue is part of the city’s maritime strategy, which encourages traffic to its plethora of oceanfront locations off the coast of the city center. It also  promotes Finland’s seafaring history and scenic nature views. Factor in the goal of mushrooming Helsinki’s niche art community, and the upcoming biennial offers something that other fairs don’t.

Here, Tanninen-Mattila elaborates further on what we can expect from the Helsinki Biennial and why it will stand out.

How would you describe the art scene in Helsinki today?
I would say that’s it fantastic. There is such a great cluster of museums in the center of the city: art museums, historical museums, natural history museums, and more. But the art museums are really thriving. In 2017 and 2018, there were seven million visits in both years to museums in Helsinki. This means that we really have an audience. We also do international programming, so it’s easy to see an exhibition of Kusama, Modigliani, Magritte.

We now have Paweł Althamer, whose big retrospective was last seen at the Neue Galerie in New York. It’s easy to walk around and see a lot of art. And then, of course, there is Finnish art, which is something that not many people know about. We all have high-level collections. For visitors coming here, they might see something new, or something that would be much harder to get into in London or New York. We don’t have the queue that you find there.

On the subject of Finnish artists, why don’t you think they have the same pedigree as, say, other artists in countries that host biennials?
Well, this is a small country, and the infrastructure is not as strong. When you talk about galleries and collectors, we’re not London, Paris, New York, or even Berlin. We do have well-trained artists. We have great universities for artists. But maybe we’ve been lacking in job opportunities.

This is one of the reasons why want to have a biennial with public funding, so as to provide artists with these opportunities. This is also part of our public art’s strategy. There is so much public art in Helsinki because we have a law, which [mandates] that one percent of the funds go to art. So there are opportunities, but not that many.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma/Helsinki Marketing.

How did the idea for having an art biennial first spring forward?
It was definitely a city initiative that started four years ago. But it was really in 2017 when we decided to host a biennial in the archipelago. It is connected to the city’s martine strategy. We have this strategy because we have 130 kilometers of coastline, and over 300 islands.

It’s a fantastic, beautiful archipelago, but most of [its islands] have been in military use for decades. And now that the army has moved away, there is a very strong will in the city to make these islands more accessible and get more boats; to get more cafes and restaurants.

And you think starting an art fair will accomplish all this?
I think it will. It will generate interest from locals and travelers, too. When you’re in Helsinki, it’s easy to get in touch with nature. Everything is practically a 15-minute boat ride away.

How would you respond to someone who says that the creative output of Helsinki is geared more toward industrial design, and less about the fine arts?
We have both established artists and also up-and-coming artists.

Marimekko store. Photo courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

So, who are the Finnish artists that are prolific right now?
If we’re talking on general terms, Eija-Liisa Ahtila is one. She’s a video artist who has shown throughout the world. She’s probably the best known, but there are more and more artists showing in other international biennials.

For example, IC-98 is a duo who participated in the Riga Biennial. Erkka Nissinen represented Finland in the last Venice Biennale, and has his works exhibited at the Neue Museum in New York. There is a good pool of people. I think that many artists are not recognized as Finnish artists. The nationality of an artist doesn’t really matter anymore.

Will there be international artists represented at the biennial? If so, what will be the ratio?
It’s split up 50-50 between international and Finnish artists. But in a sense, all the Finnish artists are international. They’re showing abroad, working abroad; some of them in Berlin, some of them New York. In fact, as an artist today, you need to be international. It’s because of the connectedness that is part of this world today.

Connectedness is great, but isn’t the point of having an art fair to promote works to sell?
Yes, but a biennial is different. It’s really an exhibition. Of course, we’re hoping that works will be seen by collectors and museums internationally. And that’s why we want visitors from all over the world to come see the biennial so that they’ll be more recognition for Finnish artists.

Amos Rex. Photo courtesy of Amos Rex/Helsinki Marketing.

So why would these collectors and museums go to Helsinki when Finish artists are international? How are you looking to put the city’s name alongside, say, the biennials in London or Venice, which are far more celebrated?
It’s going to be a long haul, probably. But the context in which the biennial is happening is something special, and that makes us different from other biennials. As such, I’m not really worried about the proliferation of biennials. It’s like Katerina Gregos, the curator of the Riga Biennial, said: if you’re worried about that, it’s like being worried too many football teams or concerts in the world. There is no proliferation of visual art, contemporary art. I think that everything we will do and show is pitching into the bigger picture.

I do think that Helsinki has so much going on in the art scene now. There are many local artists groups. There are galleries. We have artist residencies here in Helsinki. We want to provide a bigger platform for them to be noticed. I think it’s quite boring to think that there needs to be just one big scene. It’s better to have different players and different experiences.

Can elaborate further on the focus on public art?
Some of the works will be outside, yes. I think it comes down to a sustainability issue. In Helsinki, we have this public arts program that brings art to people’s everyday lives. For example, when you walk along a street, you see a piece of art that looks different in the morning than at night. It becomes a part of who you are, and where you are.

And you can experience it as part of your daily routine. We’re focusing on public art to give something to the city. Because when you have a museum, there’s an entrance fee, walls; you have upkeep. It’s not sustainable to have a museum open all the time. Public art, in a sense, is open 24/7 for everyone.

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress. Photo courtesy of Helsinki Marketing.

Is all this work going to be on Vallisaari?
All the works for the biennial are going to be on the island. There is one piece that might me shown on the mainland, but that’s still under negotiation. The ones in the core exhibition are going to be on the island. Later on, works will be moved to parts of the city as public art. So it’s sort of an introduction.

There is so much room in the city, why do it on an island at all?
We want people to go out on the island. There was an expectation of 300,000 visitors when the island initially opened, and only 150,000 have been going. We want to increase its popularity. It opened up in 2016 to the public. There is a really nice pathway to walk around. The works will be situated throughout.

What are your expectations?
I hope that it stays on, that Helsinki will always have a visual arts biennial. That’s my personal expectation. Because I do think that the actual art deserves a good, really visible platform. I hope that it will be an experience that visitors will not forget. That it will be something memorable and special.

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