Artists Rally Against Kiasma

‘It is both unsustainable and unethical’. Strike spokesperson Jenna Jauhiainen talks about the Finnish museum’s links to the Israeli arms trade.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki. Photo: Petri Virtanen.

As of December 2022, more than two hundred artists and arts professionals have refused to work with Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The strike started because of the institution’s association with billionaire Chaim “Poju” Zabludowicz and his alleged ties to the Israeli government.

Zabludowicz sits on the board of Kiasma and his investment company Tamares has been linked to arms trade between Finland and Israel, although the company currently claims to work mainly in real estate. A petition issued in December by Kiasma Strike calls for Zabludowicz to be removed from the board and for Kiasma to stop accepting money or donations from his art fund, the Zabludowicz Art Trust.

Among the signatories are Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Outi Pieski, Pilvi Takala[, and Nina Roos, as well as Terike Haapoja and Eero Yli-Vakkuri, who first published an open letter calling for the museum to sever its ties with Zabludowicz back in October 2022. New signatures are still being added in opposition to Kiasma’s ties to arms trade and financial links to global conflict zones. The plea also calls for clearer ethical guidelines for support and cooperation with Finnish arts institutions.

I spoke with Jenna Jauhiainen, artist and spokesperson for Kiasma Strike, about the reasoning behind the strike and what the consequences have been so far. 

What was the main reason for the strike and how has the network been active so far? 

The main reason for the strike is the worsening human rights situation in Palestine reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem [The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories], among others. The investment connections of Zabludowicz Art Fund with Israel’s army and pro-Israel lobbying are widely considered problematic in the international art world. At the moment Chaim “Poju” Zabludowicz sits on the board of the Kiasma Support Foundation, which funds activities in Kiasma and occasionally donates works of art to the museum. It is unsustainable and unethical that a state-funded contemporary art museum is receiving financial support linked to arms trade and investments that support the Israeli state’s oppression of Palestine. As art workers, the signatories of Kiasma Strike state that they do not wish to have their work associated with these investments. 

Is this an issue having to do only with Kiasma and the Zabludowicz Art Trust?

The strike is not just about one funder, but about the institution’s lack of clear guidelines for receiving support in general that has led to this situation. A strike is a peaceful way of protesting and striving for change in our working conditions. And, in a short time, this is what we have already succeeded in doing. As we speak, several arts organisations and institutions in Finland are renewing their ethical guidelines in relation to receiving funding, including the Finnish National Gallery that the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma is a part of. This is very timely now in Finland, where publicly funded organisations are under increasing pressure to obtain private funding. We want to establish these ethical guidelines now, when it is still possible, and to also, through this visibility, pressure investors towards social responsibility. 

What is Kiasma Strike’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict?

The strike doesn’t take a position on the political solution pertaining to the Israel/Palestine situation, but critiques the state of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and its apartheid politics, and parties that support this. Kiasma Strike is committed to anti-racist values and condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms. We have gathered over two hundred signatures, and many artists and art workers are also supporting our cause also through participating in discussions in social media and more traditional media. 

How has Kiasma responded to your demand that the museum “refuse financial or other support from private parties involved in arms trading or manufacturing and financial investments in conflict zones”?

Kiasma has agreed to start a process through which they will clarify their ethical guidelines related to receiving private funding. If this process leads to viable guidelines, we should expect all the Finnish National Gallery institutions to then re-evaluate their collaboration with their supporters. This is, of course, a difficult and a complex process. We are very happy that in a short time our strike has managed to initiate this substantial effort.

Do you view this as part of a larger struggle linked to other conflicts or climate action, for example?

We hope that by attending to this single issue, we are able to push for a more general shift in how art organisations, especially state-funded ones, partner with private funders. This process is part of a wider development in society where ethical issues and power relations are brought to the forefront. Here in Finland, we are very much aware that for about two decades our decision makers and governments ignored the human rights situation in Russia and the political development there in order to benefit from trade. Now, after the invasion of Ukraine, we are backtracking on those decisions very rapidly, but that backpedaling does not take away the damage already done. 

Now we are doing the same with Israel – turning a blind eye on human rights violations and the apartheid-politics of Israel. As such, what we are engaged in with this strike is a decolonial critique where the existing power relations are challenged. At the same time, many organisations have started to employ environmental sustainability coordinators and pay more attention to environmentally sustainable funding guidelines. We are hoping that Kiasma Strike can serve as a benchmark for other causes such as climate action.

What is your own relationship to these issues, not least as an artist?

My personal involvement started almost a year ago when I began to plan a lecture performance around Zabludowicz Art Trust that was to be done at Kiasma. In the lecture performance, I was going to chain myself to Kiasma’s theatre stage until our national contemporary art institution was washed clean from blood money. I very much prefer the process we are involved in now to having to do that. 

In addition to working as an artist, I am also a PR professional and have carried out similar PR campaigns before. In 2018, I was involved in planning and executing a similar campaign called Last Call, where we collected over six hundred signatures from people working in various positions in the nightclub scene, demanding safer working conditions in the industry. This led to the establishment of safer space guidelines and practices in festivals, music venues, and nightclubs in Finland. 

What kind of response has Kiasma Strike received from artists and the media? 

We have received a lot of support from the field, both from individual artists and from arts organisations. For example, Raija Koli, the director of Frame Contemporary Art Finland, has supported the need for sustainable practices and ethical guidelines in the arts. And Marja Sakari, the director of the Ateneum Museum – also a part of the Finnish National Gallery – wrote on the museum’s blog about the contemporary demands on museums to be socially engaged, alert, and open for difficult discussions.

In addition to these positive responses from artists and arts organisations, there has also been pressure put on artists and their affiliated galleries, demanding that they distance themselves from the strike. This is unfortunate. But, at the same time, it shows that we have struck a nerve. Artwashing is about polishing one’s reputation, but all of this is also related to money laundering. The international art world runs on dirty money, so it’s not surprising that what is happening here in Finland is making many major players in the field nervous. 

Next, we are co-organising discussion events on the ethical guidelines of the Finnish National Gallery and the various aspects related to them. We are also planning sit-ins or other performances related to the strike. We also hope that business relations between Finland and Israel will become an issue in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections that will be held in Finland during the spring of 2023.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki. Photo: Steven Holl Architects.