A New Biennial for Public Art in Helsinki

Public art is on the rise in the Nordic art scene, as Helsinki follows Oslo in starting a new biennial.

Photo: City of Helsinki.

Last week Kunskritikk reported on a new biennial for public art in Oslo that is set to open in 2019. Now it is final that Helsinki will have a new biennial as well, opening in 2020. The biennial will focus on the city’s geographical proximity to the sea, and on art in the public realm. It was last week that the Helsinki arts council decided on the new initiative for the arts as part of the city’s strategy for making art and culture accessible to residents and visitors alike.

Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, has been assigned the production of the biennial, which is part of a larger project for developing boat routes, untilled shore areas, and islands within the city. The first edition will be installed mainly on the islands Kungsholmen and Vallisaari, both opened to the public in 2016 after having been in military use. The two connected islands have a history as fortresses in the sea-approach to the city.

Pirkko Siitari. Photo: Helsinki Art Museum.

A biennial for contemporary art in public spaces is consistent with HAM’s emphasis on built environments and urban space as places for encountering art, which has been part of the museum’s operation since it began. In their mission statement, HAM argues the importance of viewing the entire city as part of the museum, and its ambition to expose art’s positive impact as integral to living well.

There are no plans for any preparatory processes, such as Oslo Pilot, leading up to the biennial. Contrary to the Oslo biennial, the Helsinki version is completely integrated into the organisation and operation of the art museum. As director Maija Tanninen-Mattila told the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in an interview, she views the biennial as a possible laboratory for the museum’s regular work with public art.

Curator of HAM, Pirkko Siitari, previously director at the Kiasma museum of contemporary art, will be project manager of the biennial. There is a development budget of 250,000 euro for curating and draft proposals during 2018, and a larger collaboration with international biennials is being planned. The first edition of the biennial is estimated to include 30–60 works, and is set to take place during the summer season, May to September. The organizers are expecting over 300,000 people to attend the biennial.

The island Vallisaari in the Helsinki arkipelago. Photo: The Forest Agency.