Dr. Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén‘s appointment as Director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. inspired an article by the journalist Kaisa Viljanen in Finland’s most influential newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. Titled “Art Museum’s director roulette started”, with the ambitious subtitle ANALYSIS, the writer offers some naive opinions and an emphasis (and indirect approval) of some populist views.
Viljanen claims that Sirén will be remembered -in good and bad- mostly for, what she calls the embarrassment of the failed attempt to launch the Guggenheim museum’s branch in Helsinki. She repeats (“truth” is created by public repetition) opinions of Sirén as too self-assured, too American in his manners to fit in Helsinki. The writer also tries to associate a causal link between Sirén and the mildew problems of the Helsinki art museum’s Meilahti gallery, as if the closing of it for health reasons and the subsequent drop in total attendance numbers would be Sirén’s personal failure.
For me the appointment of Siren in 2007 as the director of Helsinki art museum was a welcome breath of fresh air, and his tenure is a great symbol of that! That appointment was against major odds. A seemingly unbreakable status quo existed between the leading visual arts critic Marja-Terttu Kivirinta of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, her choice of approved Finnish artists, in close collaboration with her choice of art museum directors and gallery owners. Kivirinta opposed Sirén’s selection fiercely behind the scenes and in published articles, and openly campaigned for “her” candidate. Sirén’s appointment to the position was a first major crumble in Kivirinta’s absolute power in the Helsinki (Finnish) art scene and politics, a first sign of long overdue perestroika. Incidentally, Helsingin Sanomat was, for a reason, nick-named “Pravda” in its use of power as the overwhelmingly largest Finnish newspaper, making and breaking careers. (Only the emergence of internet, facebook and the ease with which diverse opinions now circulate and can be published has softened Helsingin Sanomat’s influence.)
In her “analysis”, Viljanen writes that judging by the first reactions, “the Americans seem to be in heat for Sirén. And if he does well, even other (foreign) museums may start to look into Finnish arts professionals“.
I have read some 20+ articles or blogs about Sirén’s new appointment, and they are friendly, interested, welcoming, but hardly in heat!
What is most curious, though, is the writer’s understanding of Sirén’s possible impact. I know Sirén as a higly intelligent, optimistic, ambitious professional with natural and polished social skills, quick mind; superbly fluent in English. He’s an excellent listener and communicator, a smart delegator. He has great capacity to engourage, to make you feel important as a team member. His networking skills are truly unusual for a Finn. His perspective is wide and open, he’s curious for possibilities and options, even the option of a Guggenheim success in Finland.
These are not qualities that Finnish art professionals are known for. I know of many career arts professionals and museum directors in Finland who cannot utter a sensible sentence in any foreign language (perhaps not even in Finnish), and who have attended seminars in silence in foreign countries without ever engaging in them. Possibilities for international dialogue?
Would Sirén’s success suddenly improve Finnish arts professionals’ language and social skills, leadership, communicative and networking skills, intellectual and professional capacity? Would Sirén’s presence, body language, friendly facial expressions, visible sparkle of the mind open up other Finnish arts professionals from thoughts of morose jealousy, visible angst, lame resignation?
I don’t think so. Sirén’s qualities are personal, certainly not national. Congratulations to Albright-Knox Art Gallery!