Debate: Does Helsinki need a Guggenheim Museum? 28.07.14

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The proposal to open a branch of the US institution in the Finnish capital is a chance to promote the city's culture, says the Guggenheim Foundation's deputy director. But a Finnish artist argues that it is part of an effort to package national cultures for profit

Earlier this year, the Helsinki city board approved plans for the Guggenheim Foundation to proceed with an architectural competition for a museum on a waterfront site in the Finnish capital.

The team behind the scheme, which follows previous similar projects in Bilbao and Venice, says that it will increase tourism to the city and provide a global platform for Nordic art. But the proposals have encountered vocal opposition, with critics, who oppose the public funding of an American gallery brand, arguing that the museum is part of an effort to homogenise and commodify Finland's national heritage.

Here, the Guggenheim Foundation's deputy director and a Finnish artist and researcher put forward their points of view.

Ari Wiseman, Guggenheim Foundation deputy director:

Anytime public resources are being used for a project, political parties take positions based on where they think the money would yield greater benefits. Some of the financial figures associated with the Guggenheim may appear high if you don't recognise the long-term returns on a project such as this. Hundreds of jobs would be created, significant tax revenue would be generated and there would be an increased number of visitors to the city. The coverage of the architectural competition for this scheme has already shone a brighter light on Helsinki.

There was opposition to the early suggestion that the local art museum would be subsumed into the Guggenheim, but this plan has now changed. There was also resistance to the initial site, because it was close to some historical buildings. We have now moved the project to a different location. Some have argued that the money would be better spent on homegrown museums. But Finland already has a high number of museums per citizen. Furthermore, as we saw in Bilbao, such a project can increase the attendance and profile of existing museums in a city.

Finland's art and architectural scene has an extraordinary reputation, but not necessarily a platform to share it with the wider world. The scheme would mean Finland could engage with the international structure of the Guggenheim. Exhibitions developed in Finland would travel around the world to its other museums – and vice versa. In return, Helsinki offers the Guggenheim an educated population, a regular flow of tourists, a legacy of art and design and a position on an axis between the east and west. This project is not about franchising – it is about rethinking what a museum could be.

Merja Puustinen, artist and researcher:

In today's globalised economy there's an idea that, for a city or country to be competitive, it needs to give up its local identity. Rather than having our own national arts collection, for example, the emphasis is now on investing in international, highly-acclaimed artworks – the implication is that a country as small as Finland should not invent anything itself, but rather learn from and copy foreign masters.

National branding and regeneration projects like these commodify historic urban centres and package national culture for financial profit. They are designed to look flashy in pictures and on social media. And behind them there is usually an economic elite who had taken control of politics through lobbying and advertising. As such, they are symbols of political strength and undermine the democratic process.

Since the Cold War, US foreign policy has become more diffused. Instead of establishing a military presence, countries like it use arts and culture to promote their interests and leverage free-trade agreements. The background to this project bears striking similarities to the oil and geopolitical motives behind the Guggenheim and Louvre museums in Abu Dhabi. International investors in the Gugggenheim Partners hedge fund – mainly from the US, China and Arab oil states – are primarily interested in using Finland as a stepping-stone to access Arctic oil and mineral reserves in Russia.

Helsinki is not a degrading urban area. A museum like the Guggenheim is a show of might and a temple to a globalised world view and it is something that the majority of Finnish people are not interested in.

 

Words

Debika Ray

 

Image: Helsinki Real Estate Department/Guggenheim

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The implication is that a country as small as Finland should not invent anything itself, but rather learn from and copy foreign masters.

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