Letter From Helsinki: The Director of Finland’s Ateneum Art Museum on How Institutions Can Inspire the Public, Even While Closed

Marja Sakari hopes the museum can continue to inspire people from behind closed doors.

Marja Sakari. Photo by Jenni Nurminen.
Marja Sakari. Photo by Jenni Nurminen.

Unlike many European countries, Finland did not implement a full lockdown in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus. The country was recently dubbed by the New York Times as “the prepper nation of the Nordics” because it has been stockpiling food and medical supplies since the Cold War. While temporary travel restrictions were put in place in the hardest-hit capital region, they have now been eased. But institutions such as the Ateneum Art Museum must remain closed until May 13. The Ateneum’s director, Marja Sakari, tells us how it prepared for the crisis, and the importance of keeping culture alive—and people inspired—in difficult times.

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When the news about the virus came from China, it was a little worrying. At the end of February and the beginning of March, there was already some discussion about it turning into a pandemic. On March 16th, we had a meeting of the National Gallery (consisting of Ateneum, Kiasma, and Sinebrychoff Art Museum) where we discussed whether we should take the initiative to close the museums ourselves. Luckily, our government met on the same evening and decided that the museums would be shut down, which saved us from speculating on the pros and cons of staying open or closing.

As a country, Finland was quite well-prepared for this crisis. I think Finnish people in general are quite forward-thinking. We take into consideration all kinds of risks. We are a small country with a small population and we are between two big countries, Sweden and Russia. So in a way we are very cautious about many things. We did have some stocks of various medical equipment, but not everything we would need to cope should we all fall ill at the same time. 

In terms of Ateneum, for many years now we have had a detailed risk analysis, preparing us for all sorts of catastrophes. So we were prepared, but of course when the worst comes to be realized, it’s a shock for the whole community, and the museum is no different. 

We closed the museum to the public starting on the March 17, and everyone who could continue with their duties began working from home. It is a sad thing that we don’t have enough work for our front-of-house staff because of the lack of visitors. Thankfully, we have been able to continue to pay all staff up until mid-April. However, as our income is reliant upon visitors and ticket sales, we have been forced to make cuts that will amount to all staff taking approximately one unpaid week off a month.

Of course, it is of the highest priority to protect our staff and their incomes, but thankfully in Finland we have quite a robust social system. The loss of the one week’s salary will be partially compensated, by about 60 percent, by either social unions or trade unions. The Ministry of Education and Culture recently announced that it would compensate cultural institutions for the loss of income experienced at this time. For the moment, we don’t know exactly how much will come to the National Gallery, but of course we hope that it will ease the situation so that we can cancel some of these staffing furloughs.

Very soon after the closure, we started to think about how we could maintain our relationship with our public. We had been thinking about the possibilities that the digital world presents before the pandemic, but of course this digital leap only came to be realized under pressure. At the moment, we have a guided tour with the curator of our beautiful Natalia Goncharova exhibition, available on our website and social media. The Finnish broadcasting company YLE has also made some programs documenting our exhibition of our permanent collection, which is really important because it enables everyone to stay connected to the museum space virtually. 

Some of our staff cannot work from home, so the museum is not completely empty. We still have full-time security, and staff including technicians, conservators, and registrars are allowed to come to the museum from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Of course we have to think about the future as well. So now we are slowly dismantling the Gonchorova exhibition, which will not, unfortunately, reopen to the public.

After that we will begin installing the next exhibition, titled “Inspiration – Contemporary Art & Classics,” due to open on June 18. I think everybody needs a little bit of inspiration right now. We are being very cautious with all employees; the workers are advised to wear masks. But Finland is not such a populated country, and in Helsinki, we don’t have so many people in the streets, so I think it’s quite safe to come to work. 

The main thing I would advise other museums to do is to maintain their relationships with the public and try to do things online that bring the collection to life in a meaningful way. The public and museum visitors have quite a lot of imagination. There are so many people all over the world who are now engaging with artworks in their own homes in new and creative ways and it is something that really keeps the museum alive. 

I think during these tragic times when everybody is stuck inside, the meaning of culture becomes even more important than ever before. It is a question of connecting. When you are closed inside your home and you don’t have contact with your friends or relatives it is important that you can still have contact with art. Even though this is an awful situation, and nobody would have wanted it to happen, I think it creates a lot of solidarity. It creates empathy. It creates compassion. Art plays an important part in bringing humanistic ways of thinking to the fore. This is something we all need right now.

As told to Naomi Rea.


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