Taking Risks to Build Collections

Collections are vital to a museum: a museum is only as good as to its collections. The profile of every museum, what the museum looks and feels like, is built upon its collections. Some works are purchased, some donated to the museum, such as the works by Kalervo Palsa in Kiasma's collections. The collections are constantly growing. They are like an organic plant building upon earlier growth, adding to the whole.

Purchasing contemporary art differs radically from that of old art. There are no old masters in contemporary art. It is not a paradise for investors, because no one can predict the future with certainty. Trying to maintain a totally risk-free policy is a sure-fire guarantee of failure. The goal is to find works having the power and energy that allows them to retain their vitality so they can still be exhibited after half a century. No one can predict such things, but if you start thinking about it too much, you will certainly fail. It is a built-in paradox.

Another typical feature is that there is so much contemporary art. Contemporary art is just as broad, shifting and unpredictable as life itself. Moreover, the methods and media that are used to make and present contemporary art are practically limitless and changing all the time. Technical issues are another thing. If a work is made with a certain technology and is presented with a certain technology, how can we know 50 years from now that it can still be presented? These are big questions, which no one has yet been able to solve entirely.

Purchasing contemporary art calls for exceptionally broad expertise. A work may be only a paper in a safe, a permit to exhibit. There are conceptual works that are no longer conceptual when they are built. What you purchase is the right and the instructions for installation, not the work itself.

The boundaries of art are also changing. What is art, and what is visual art? A case in point is when we purchased a while ago several films by Eino Ruutsalo. They were not purchased earlier, because they were not considered visual art, but cinematic art. Yet now they are visual art, and part of the collections in the Ateneum Art Museum. Even the very concept of art has changed. There is now process art, earth art and so on. The line between art and popular art is constantly being negotiated.

Collections mirror their times

When you look at the collections decade by decade, you see that they reflect the decade when the works were purchased. They also reflect the kind of art made at the time. But collections also tell about the people who selected the works, and what they thought was important. That is the most difficult thing about art acquisition. No one can see everything that is happening. It is therefore fortunate that collections can be added to later.

Kiasma's collections are presented to the public in thematic shows. Since the collections start from the 1960s, their timeline is less than 50 years. That is a short time for making historical reviews. Moreover, people are not very familiar with contemporary art. The works do not tell familiar stories. It is therefore natural to make things easier for the public and compile the exhibitions around a theme. On the other hand, the world of contemporary art is very broad. A strictly thematic approach is not only called for, it also works well. Without a common theme, there would be nothing but good works. They would also comprise a good exhibition but it would be too heterogeneous for the audience.

Collection exhibitions are also a way of updating the collections. When I was curating the exhibition Popcorn and Politics, I noticed that we had next to no pop art from the 1960s and 1970s in our collections, and we actually bought several such works for the exhibition.
International risk business

Kiasma has a purchase committee, whose members include an artist and his/her deputy, a senior curator, a curator and the museum director. Purchase committees are fairly common in museums. I do not believe that anyone would want to shoulder the responsibility alone. Nor would it be wise, because one person's viewpoint can be too narrow. In the 1960s and 1970s there were even political departments, but political criteria for art acquisition is not good. What is needed is solid professionalism and vision. The meetings of the purchase committee in Kiasma are long and voluble, and the members get acquainted with the works before the meeting. Every year the committee also makes trips outside Helsinki.

The most problematic area is buying international art. First of all, it is so expensive that the allocations are simply not enough. Even more so, if the work is by anyone with a name in art circles. Information usually travels better when it is about artists who have already gained a name for themselves. When you have to buy affordable work by aspiring artists, you have to follow the international art scene very closely indeed. That is something you must do in any case for exhibitions and other activities. But the risk is greater. Biennials are a good showcase for international art, and knowledge of international art also helps one evaluate Finnish art.

The ARS exhibition series and our other international shows are good occasions to purchase art, and we have done so ever since the first ARS show in 1961. A new feature are works where the museum is a participant as producer. This may be the case in video or process art. One good example is the Helsinki Complaints Choirin ARS 06, where we were co-producers and of which we now have a copy in our collections. Works like this really feel like they are Kiasma's own.

Of the international works in ARS 06, purchase deals have been concluded at least for the work of the American artist Petah Coyne, some snow globes by the artist couple Walter Martin and Paloma Munos, and Sergio Vega's video workGenesis According to Parrots.

Lack of money gives a wrong idea about the collections. International art should be affordable with less risk. In that respect we can be glad that Finnish art is of such extraordinarily high quality. But it must be presented in the proper frame of reference, next to international art. There is quite a lot of Scandinavian art in Kiasma's collections, and in recent years we have purchased works from the East, from Russia and the Baltic countries. Yet neighbouring regions must not be the only source of works in the collections. After all, artists do not live inside borders or boundaries.

Tuula Karjalainen
Director of Kiasma