OPINION PIECE | Guggenheim & The Internationalization of Helsinki’s Art Scene

Featured Image | View of Helsinki – Image courtesy of Visit Helsinki. Photo credits: Jussi Hellsten

The Helsinki City Council finally voted for a NO to Guggenheim, with a majority of 53 over 32 votes. After years of heated discussions that culminated in the last few months – not only in the media and among art organizations, but also in small groups and private talks – the Guggenheim project appears to be put to rest.

Aside from the result itself, which brought relief to those who have been against the project, the vote also finally brought some closure to the discussion. At least for now. And at least we know it will not be funded to this extent from public money. There might still be an option for the project to be completely funded by private investment, although it is an incredibly heavy one – but who knows? Time has shown that the project is somewhat of a Phoenix bird, it rises from its ashes over and over again.

Following the Guggenheim debate during the past few months, I found it challenging to fully align to a unilateral take on the project. I have heard both the pros and the cons and they each had well-grounded arguments to support their view.

The main issue at stake – aside from money – has been the internationalization of Helsinki’s art scene. The pro arguments sustained that the Guggenheim project, with its world-renowned brand, would have the potential to raise the profile of Helsinki as an art capital which would potentially bring more international and culture-oriented travelers to Helsinki. Still, the operative word here is “potential”. Nobody can foresee if this would really fly in reality. Investment vs. return for Guggenheim also looked good on paper, although impossible to say if it would have rolled out the way it was hoped for.

The other side of the table argued that Finland has top quality artists and Helsinki has already enough great art venues for a small place such as this. During the past years, museums have been able to attract world-acclaimed artist names and exhibitions. Ateneum alone brought in 2016 so many legendary art names like Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet in the robust exhibition of Japanomania, as well as Auguste Rodin, Alice Neel and now Amedeo Modigliani. The list continues with HAM’s Yayoi Kusama and Ai Weiwei, The National Museum with Renaissance masters Raphael and Titian – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. So much is happening at galleries and in other art venues that it is almost a blasphemy to think the city needs a Guggenheim to enhance the art scene here.

The problem is that – aside from large-scale museum exhibitions – all of this is too little known by the larger audience, which includes tourists but also Helsinki’s residents, whether they are Finnish or international. As the city’s population is becoming increasingly multicultural, it is also increasingly necessary to create contexts where both foreign and local audiences can access information about art in Helsinki. This is one of the many reasons we founded HKI Art Guide, along with our passion and commitment to help the art scene gain more visibility beyond the already established art audiences.

I can very well see how Guggenheim became relevant as a key player in shaping Helsinki to be an international art hub. Some voices even stated that Guggenheim is the only way for Helsinki to be in the spotlight among international art destination attractions. Even if it’s just a PR or marketing move, the fact that it is a brand that everyone knows worldwide makes for a sound reason to welcome and embrace the idea.

However, as a marketing and PR professional I believe that the future does not lay with the big brands. The time of multinational corporate names that outshine and take over consumers’ lives is over. The golden advertising Mad Men era is passé. And it will be increasingly passé in the years to come.

In tourism – and particularly in cultural tourism – what customers are looking for nowadays are unique, local and special experiences, in the detriment of generic or flashy overtakes brought by brands or services that one can virtually access anywhere else in the world.

So if branding was one of the biggest reasons for supporting Guggenheim, we can take a closer look at how brands are changing and adjusting to cope with increasingly challenging markets, where the customer is much more informed and aware of their choice than ever before. Wally Olins, the man who invented branding, argued in his last book Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come precisely the following – the new successful brand is one that is local, rather than international. It still has and should have international presence to attract new audiences, but its essence is deeply grounded in a specific cultural context.

If it is hard to believe this new process of branding in our super-capitalist era – just think of how the restaurant scene is constantly reinventing itself. Who wants to go for a nice dinner in a place with generic food from everywhere and nowhere in particular? We’d rather choose a smaller venue, with a specific cuisine, with food carefully prepared from locally-produced ingredients and so on.

My point is – the Big Brand Guggenheim is not necessarily the best way, nor the only way to raise the international profile of Helsinki as an art destination. Perhaps the project might still happen in the future, should other circumstances bring it on the agenda again.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about what there is on Helsinki’s art scene here and now. Guaranteed that’s not a thin conversation.