PRINT May 1995


Timo Valjakka

WHEN ARS 95—the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever held in the Nordic countries—opened at the Ateneum building of the Finnish National Gallery, in Helsinki, I spent part of the night in the cellar. An enthusiastic public blocked the main doors; those of us invitees who had been left outside were allowed in by a side door, only to find ourselves lining an underground passageway. I ran into a colleague of mine and we were at least able to rejoice about one thing: contemporary art can still get people moving, even with late-’80s euphoria now turned into ’90s economic (and, for some, mental) recession. I heard later that the jostling crowd had run to around 5,000 people, near the monthly attendance figures for most successful exhibitions here. Since its opening, ARS 95 has continued to draw approximately 2,000 visitors a day.

ARS 95 is the fifth in a series of major exhibitions that have brought works by major figures in international contemporary art to the Scandinavian art public. On each occasion the exhibition venue has been the Ateneum, a late-19th-century Neoclassical palace that every decade or so is emptied of its traditional Finnish and international masterpieces and, remarkably, filled instead with contemporary art. The ARS exhibitions are made possible, and necessary, by an extended cohabitation of both new and old art—since Helsinki does not have a separate institution dedicated to contemporary art. The Nykytaiteen museo (Museum of Contemporary Art), founded in 1990, has operated as a division of the Finnish National Gallery, and has had to share the Ateneum building with the Suomen taiteen museo (Museum of Finnish Art). This fraught collaboration has nevertheless provided resources that neither museum could have had access to on its own, such as vast exhibition spaces and technical facilities—as well as abundant audiences.

ARS 95, however, may be the last in the series, ending a tradition that spans over thirty years. The new Nykytaiteen museo, to be built in the heart of Helsinki by the New York architect Steven Holl, is expected to open in the spring of 1998. If there is a need at all for surveys like the ARS exhibitions in the next millennium, their venue will be the new building. On the other hand, one of the tasks of the museum will be to make such vast shows superfluous by its own exhibition program.

The influence of the ARS exhibitions on Finnish art has shown itself in various forms. The first show, in 1961, sowed the seeds of the Informel—then in vogue in continental Europe—in Finnish soil, where they took quick root. Finnish contemporary art had previously been limited to various strains of Expressionism. ARS 83 emphasized arte povera, Minimalism, the new ’80s painting, and heroes like Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, and Richard Serra, not to mention top-ranked German painters from Georg Baselitz to Anselm Kiefer. That exhibition too left visible traces in the work of young artists, and of a generation of critics. By contrast, the 1969 and 1974 ARS exhibitions seem now to have been occasions of fond forgetting, and have become curiosities. Time has been particularly unkind to the 197 4 show, which focused on then-trendy Photorealism. Flipping through the exhibition catalogue, I can only wonder what the majority of artists who took part in it—with the exception of Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, and Chuck Close—are up to now.

ARS 95 is not expected to have quite the jolt of its 1983 predecessor, since most of the 90 artists (18 of them from Nordic and post-Communist countries) and many of their works are already familiar here. The director of the Nykytaiteen museo, Tuula Arkio, and Chief Curator Maaretta Jaukkuri consciously aimed their exhibition at the general public, that inquisitive band of people who rarely visit museums and for whom most contemporary works are new. Their utmost goal is to bring the public up-to-date on everything that has happened in art in recent years.

In a small country like Finland, not one of the world’s art capitals, this kind of approach is crucial, since in such circumstances the gulf between new art and its ostensible public can easily become unbridgeable. The disappearance of an expert public might soon lead to fewer exhibitions, gallerists would become frustrated, and artists would move abroad. With that in mind, a massive program of lectures and events has been set up in conjunction with ARS 95, examining the relationship between art and the reality that surrounds it, as well as the significance of art as a means of experiencing, interpreting, and communicating. By giving their exhibition the subtitle “ Private/Public, ” the organizers are stressing its social and political character, and the ways artists deal with issues of general concern, including privacy, communication, identity, gender, and refugeehood. What happens when an individual’s identity is defined from the outside? And what is the outcome when that externally created image and the individual’s inner self meet?

The show itself has challenged its curators to make new art accessible to viewers while preserving a high standard of presentation. Now that the exhibition has been open for a few weeks, a difficult situation has emerged: the artists’ notions of art contradict the public’s view of what art is and what it should look like. While the artists are seeking to bridge the divide between art and the everyday, to conduct a dialogue with the public, the public wants to preserve that gap. What they seek from art is sublime values, and what they want to see is work that is beautiful and elevating. They turn their backs on art, especially when it offers to engage their own experiences.

In artistic terms, a full-fledged exhibition assembled under such auspices—mindful of the pressure to be “educational”—could not have been problem-free. Still, it is unusual to view art in a setting that so reverently respects the individual works: almost every artist has at least half a room to him- or herself. With this quiet, cool esthetic, ARS provides a characteristically Scandinavian alternative to recent major exhibitions, which have often been highly constricted by their juxtapositions of different artists’ works. The meticulous presentation of the works is not simply an esthetic choice but an ethical one, linked to the idea of respecting the audience. Care and carelessness are rewarded or punished rapidly, while a display that is exact to the millimeter conveys a discriminating message.

And what exactly is in this well-presented show? Moving counterclockwise from the museum’s main gallery—from large-scale paintings by Richter, Brice Marden, Jonathan Lasker, and Philip Taaffe—the exhibition features Andres Serrano’s photographs, followed by works by Wim Delvoye, Marlene Dumas, Alfredo Jaar, Luc Tuymans, and Mona Hatoum. Going clockwise there are pieces by Ida Applebroog, Stephen Willats, Ulf Rollof, and Esko Miinnikko, one of the six Finns in the exhibition. Even this small, random slice gives a taste of the whole cake. The icing is the many other pieces outside the exhibition building, in squares, streets, and parks.

The funding and marketing of ARS 95 have sparked almost as much discussion as the exhibition itself. The exhibition is being held at a time when Finland is beginning to emerge from its worst economic crisis this century. The welfare system set up in the ’50s, a cornerstone of Scandinavian social democracy, is being run down. The state, burdened with almost 20 percent unemployment, is attempting to balance its budget by making cutbacks. As a result, the fat years’ open-ended support for culture is now “under a rock,” as we say. One direct consequence is that state and municipal institutions have had to seek funding from private purses.

In the ’80s, the funding model for art institutions was based on near-total public financing. The new, tripartite system is much like the matching-grant system used in Great Britain. Now, the state and municipality each provide a third of the institution’s running costs, and the museum, opera house, or theater has to raise the remainder itself. In practice this has often meant resorting to sponsorship. A similar fiscal equation was applied to ARS 95: the private sector provided about a quarter of the museum’s official budget of 7.5 million marks. Sponsors are also supplying merchandise and services whose total value is considerable.

Sponsorship of cultural and sporting events is not unusual in Finland; what is unusual is the cornucopia of reciprocal logo and sign placement that the museum has arranged for its backers. These advertisements target the segment of the public that usually avoids eye-to-eye contact with contemporary art. Alongside traditional T-shirts and lapel pins, an undergrowth of ARs products has sprung up, some of which is not visible at the actual exhibition. Casual visitors to Helsinki may find the barcode-like ARS logo on the key card for their hotel room, or they may see the names of the artists printed on a tablecloth.

One of the most difficult-to-reach groups consists of men over age 40 who actively follow ice hockey. ARS 95’s marketers came up with the idea of approaching this large but culturally passive group by unconventional means: sponsors helped buy the shirts of five members of Finland’s best ice-hockey team, the Jokers, as advertising space, for the whole of the spring championships. At the same time, an unusual cross-sponsorship deal was struck, in which the art museum supports ice hockey and ice hockey markets art.

Given the historically large share of financial support provided by the public, state, and municipalities, and the political connections that are unavoidably linked with this , it is clear that when a leading state art-institution skates under the banner of private funding, the repercussions will be far-reaching. Cuts in public backing mean a reduction in public control and impact, yet the director of the Nykytaiteen museo nevertheless stood proudly in front of the sponsors ’ flags and told the press that this exhibition had been produced by an independent museum exercising its own, independent judgment.

Timo Valjakka is the director of the Kunsthalle Helsinki. He is also curator of the Nordic Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale.

Translated from the Finnish by Michael Garner.