When Ars 95 - the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever held in the Nordic countries - opened at the Ateneum building of the Finnish National Gallery, in Helsinki, I spent part of the night in the cellar. An enthusiastic public blocked the main doors; those of us invitees who had been left outside were allowed in by a side door, only to find ourselves lining an underground passageway. I ran into a colleague of mine and we were at least able to rejoice about one thing: contemporary art can still get people moving, even with late-'80s euphoria now turned into 90s economic (and, for some, mental) recession. I heard later that the jostling crowd had run to around 5,000 people, near the monthly attendance figures for most successful exhibitions here. Since its opening, ARS 95 has continued to draw approximately 2,000 visitors a day.
ARS 95 is the fifth in a series of major exhibitions that have brought works by major figures in international contemporary art to the Scandinavian art public. On each occasion the exhibition venue has been the Ateneum, a late-19th-century Neoclassical palace that every decade or so is emptied of its traditional Finnish and international masterpieces and, remarkably, filled instead with contemporary art. The Ars exhibitions are made possible, and necessary, by an extended cohabitation of both new and old art - since Helsinki does not have a separate institution dedicated to contemporary art. The Nykytaiteen museo (Museum of Contemporary Art), founded in 1990, has operated as a division of the Finnish National Gallery, and has had to share the Ateneum building with the Suomen taiteen museo (Museum of Finnish Art). This fraught collaboration has nevertheless provided resources that neither museum could have had access to on its own, such as vast exhibition spaces and technical facilities - as well as abundant audiences.
Ars 95, however, may be the last in the series, ending a tradition that spans over thirty years. The new Nykytaiteen museo, to be built in the heart of Helsinki by the New York architect Steven Holl, is expected to open in the spring of 1998. If there is a need at all for surveys like the Ars exhibitions in the next millennium, their venue will be the new building. On the other hand, one of the tasks of the museum will be to make such vast shows superfluous by its own exhibition program.
The influence of the Ars exhibitions on Finnish art has shown itself in various forms. The first show, in 1961, sowed the seeds of the Informel - then in vogue in continental Europe - in Finnish soil, where they took quick root. Finnish contemporary art had previously been limited to various strains of Expressionism. ARS 83 emphasized arte povera, Minimalism, the new '80s painting, and heroes like Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, and Richard Serra, not to mention top-ranked German painters from Georg Baselitz to Anselm Kiefer. That exhibition too left visible traces in the work of young artists, and of a generation of critics. By contrast, the 1969 and 1974 Ars exhibitions seem now to have been occasions of fond forgetting, and have become curiosities. Time has been particularly unkind to the 1974 show, which focused on then-trendy Photorealism. Flipping through the exhibition catalogue, I can only wonder what the majority of artists who took part in it - with the exception of Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, and Chuck Close - are up to now.
Ars 95 is not expected to have quite the jolt of its 1983 predecessor, since most of the 90 artists (18 of them from Nordic and post-Communist countries) and many of their works are already familiar here. The director of the Nykytaiteen museo, Tuula Arkio, and Chief Curator Maaretta Jaukkuri consciously aimed their exhibition at the general public, that inquisitive band of people who rarely visit museums and for whom most contemporary works are new. Their utmost goal is to bring the public up-to-date on everything that has happened in art in recent years. …