Stuart George

At the crossroads: Kiasma Helsinki

Helsinki enjoyed a mild winter in 2007/8, so from March onwards the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was marketing itself with a huge “I don’t quite get it…” banner on the side of the building – its response to those who don’t appreciate (or understand) modern art. Normally, it would be impossible to put up any such banner until May.

Kiasma exterior

Even if the weather is nice and Hietaniemi beach seems more tempting, Kiasma is well worth a visit. It offers a wide range of activities including performances at the Kiasma Theatre, as well as exhibitions, seminars, and lectures. In a city of just half a million people, it welcomed its millionth visitor in May 2001. Five years later, the milestone of two million visitors was reached. It has established itself as a local meeting place and is the most popular museum in Finland, with over 200,000 visitors each year, many of them from overseas.

Kiasma’s 9,000-piece collection largely comprises post-1960s art and is hugely varied, with all mediums, shapes and sizes represented. As the provocative banner suggests, Kiasma likes to challenge its visitors. “You need the avant garde and things that are not commercially viable to keep things interesting,” says Milla Unkila, Kiasma’s Communications Manager.

Located at the northern end of Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s main thoroughfare, Kiasma is part of The Finnish National Gallery, which also consists of the Ateneum Art Museum, the Sinebrychoff Art Museum and the Central Art Archives.

An architectural design competition for architects from the Nordic and Baltic countries to create a contemporary arts museum in Helsinki was held in 1992. Among the 516 entrants was the US architect Steven Holl, whose “Chiasma” concept won. “Kiasma” is Finnish for  “chiasma” (crossing), which alludes to the basic conceptual idea of Holl.

The selection of an American rather than Scandinavian architect raised some objections, as did the building’s location cheek by jowl with the equestrian statue of C. G. E. Mannerheim (a national hero in Finland). Objectors claimed that the museum would spoil the surroundings and background of the statue, and almost 20,000 signatures were collected in protest against the new building.

Despite this dissent, construction of the museum began in 1996 with a budget of FIM227 million (equivalent to over €38 million/£29.75 million). When completed, even the local curmudgeons had to admit that Holl had done a good job. During the opening weekend in May 1998, the museum attracted 30,000 visitors.

Holl’s main entrance leads the visitor into a high lobby beneath a glass ceiling. A curving ramp runs from the ground-floor lobby towards the heart of the museum. The building has five floors, with three or four major temporary exhibitions held on the fourth and fifth floors each year. The second and third floors house thematic exhibitions from the permanent collection and are changed annually, though some sections might be changed more quickly than others. The top floor overlooks Töölönlahti park and the Finlandia Concert Hall to the north. Total floor space is 12,000 square metres, of which 9,200 square metres are in museum use.

Kiasma interior

“The museum’s mission is to make experiencing art possible and effortless, thus making it easy for the viewer to create and open up to his or her own experience,” comments Milla. There are no steps, and entrances use automatic sliding doorways. Natural light is used throughout the museum so that different galleries have varying lighting conditions. Light is also controlled electronically to take into account seasonal and daily fluctuations. Holl scaled the museum to the dimensions of the human body, especially the viewing height of 165cm. The height and width of the doors, the square pattern on the sliding doors and the scaling of spaces are based on the golden ratio – a nod to the Renaissance in this most modern of art galleries.

Ten years ago, corporate sponsorship was a relatively new concept (in Finland, at any rate) but today Kiasma is the country’s third-largest recipient of corporate funds. This money is used only for marketing purposes, never to buy works. As a state funded gallery, Kiasma does not have to deaccession. “Europe’s demographics are changing,” Milla points out. “There are fewer taxpayers and more pensioners.” Wary of this, Kiasma now seeks funding from a variety of sources. The expenses of the March-April Julian Schnabel exhibition, for example, were shared with a local gallery.

Kiasma exterior at night

“We’re not part of the fringe art world, we’re the most powerful element in the mainstream,” says Kiasma’s Museum Director Berndt Arell. “We have to accept that we are a major actor in the field of contemporary art in Finland and shoulder the responsibility this brings with it.” If you didn’t quite get it before, you will after visiting Kiasma.

(February 2008)

  1. A well crafted article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every line, highly informative and does contain valuable information for a specialized and non specialized person. Many articles on this building, including those in large books focused on the architect do not go anywhere near this excellent writing.

    Many thanks for putting it on the net and making it accessible to the public. I have plenty of respect for the author whoever that may be.

  2. you just have to get used to modern art to appreciate the beauty of it “~

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