Maija Tanninen-Mattila – Every piece of art has once been contemporary

The dictionary defines a curator as the keeper of cultural heritage in a museum, library or gallery. Curating, it says, involves interpretation of content.  Instead, I like to think of a curator as a storyteller, someone who opens up a new perspective for others to peer into. It could be something we never saw before or alternatively something we thought we knew intimately, but somehow, with new light shed we see it afresh. I know one such storyteller, Maija Tanninen-Mattila, Museum Director of Helsinki City Art Museum. Previously, she headed Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.

How does a new exhibition come to be? Do you start with an artist, a concept, a period in history?

Every exhibition is different. I have never done two the same. There could be, for instance, a Jubilee year for an artist, which we know well ahead of time. For instance, in 2014 we will do a Tove Jansson exhibition to celebrate the 100 years since her birth. There could be a specific period of time we want to look at – say Golden Age of Finnish painting – or a style, or a more conceptual point of view like symbolism. Our curatorial team each have their own interests and backgrounds and we have lively discussions about what exhibitions to have. For me, it is important that the curator is adamant about a proposal. This is absolutely critical.

Sometimes a proposal can start with a concept. Say, someone could propose to do an exhibition about works of art in black and white. When we get to discuss it further we may end up with a wish instead to study color and within it to take a closer look at black and white art, to make the point. We have a meeting every week when we discuss these things but even the coffee table is a great place to generate ideas!

When do you start to weave a story for an exhibition?

Every exhibition has to have a point of view. We could tell many stories about any exhibition. My job is to help the team understand what the story is we want to tell. I ask a lot of questions and we go through a process that takes us there. For the Carl Larsson exhibition we decided the point of view was to go into Carl Larsson’s vision of what a good life is. There was even a section for the kids that visit our museum to experience that good life through the work of Alexander Reichstein and his hands-on installation.

Each exhibition has to have meaning to our public. We go through this process even when we are curating an exhibition that has been exhibited elsewhere.  For instance, we curated an exhibition that had previously been shown in the Van Gogh Museum in Holland under the title Dreams of Nature. We felt that nature has been explored amply in Finnish museography, whereas we felt we could approach instead the symbolist landscapes of the exhibition as a mirror of the soul. We therefore renamed it 52 souls and edited the museography.

The same is true for our exhibitions when they travel. Helene Schjerfbeck will be exhibited in five cities in Japan. The Japanese curators have their own point of view. For instance, in the Finnish exhibition we left out the paintings that Helene Schjerfbeck did on commission, copying major international art works in Museums in Berlin, St. Petersburg and Dresden. These were works that were used for educational purposes and which today would not be relevant to Finnish audiences. But these works are of interest in Japan where people are fascinated by the history of European art, and are eager to learn through copies.

A diverse public attends every exhibition. We really have to make an effort to ensure we get our point of view across to different kinds of people.

I heard that 400,000 people visited the Ateneum last year. This is a city of 600,000. How is this possible?

During 2012, we had very exciting exhibitions – Carl Larsson, Helene Schjerfbeck and 52 Souls. During the summer, we were excited to see that we had surpassed the 2011 record. We did not know what to expect as a final visitor count for the year but in the fall we experienced a real peak when we made the discovery of a missing Sjerfbeck work. The discovery was quite sensational.

For the Sjerfbeck exhibition we had over 300 loaned works of which more than half were from private collections. Upon examining one of the privately loaned works, the Raseborg Landscape, our conservators found that it had a loose frame. They were preparing to attach the frame more tightly when they realized there was some kind of package behind. The landscape was in fact sewn onto another work. We were under very tight schedules to open the exhibition so we exhibited the work along with the others at the opening in June.  In the meantime, we asked the owners’ permission to do further investigations, which they agreed to.

In September, we unveiled the new work at a press conference in the Conservation Lab. We had a moment of panic before the press conference opened. We had no idea what the quality of the work would be. As it turned out, the work behind the landscape was far superior! There was a portrait of a woman with a little baby. Imagine what this like for the art world – suddenly the owner had two Sjerfbecks and there is a whole new work nobody knew about. The owners have agreed to deposit the work in the Ateneum, so everyone can now enjoy it.

What have been the most enjoyable exhibitions you have curated and why?

I loved doing the Picasso exhibition with the Musée National Picasso in Paris and its director Anne BaldassariEero Aarnio‘s exhibit was also great fun because he is a fantastic individual. I curated a lot in Taidehalli but I have less time for that now as a Director of the Ateneum. We did a Maaria Wirkkala show with a merry-go-round in Taidehalli and finding the right merry-go-round was very hard! Working closely with artists like Kari Cavén was fun, opening new perspectives on ordinary things. Frida Kahlo at the Helsinki City art Museum was, of course, very special, and a wonderful opportunity to work with you, Blanca!

Does building an exhibition feel like setting a stage production for a play?

Yes, that is a good analogy! Another analogy would be the computer world. I feel a bit like we are the user interface between a visitor and an artist.

What is most memorable from seeing exhibitions abroad?

At the museum we all try to travel as much as possible and we get inspired by exhibitions from the places we visit. It is really interesting to see how things are done, how art is presented and what resonates abroad. You can learn a lot from observing. Sometimes you can see a really lousy exhibition with amazing works of art. Other times you can see an amazing exhibit with almost unknown works of art.

It’s a bit like being a theater director who goes to see the staging of Chekhov plays around the world. It can be the same play but it is different every time!

What is the funniest behind-the-scene story of an exhibition you have?

There are a lot! Most of them are funny afterwards! Like with the story of the missing Sjerfbeck. Fifteen minutes before the press conference, our head of press, Marja Istala-Kumpunen whispered in my ear; what if there is just a funny face behind the landscape? Of course we were secretly wishing for some lost love letters and a portrait of the English guy who cut off his engagement with Helene Sjerfbeck!

When we had the Yoko Ono exhibition at City Art Museum there was a big installation with ropes hanging from the ceiling. Everything was set up painstakingly for days. But on the opening day very early in the morning we noticed all the ropes had come down! We set them back up very fast before the press conference.

During an exhibition of Kaarina Kaikkonen‘s installations, I once organized, there was a fantastic piece in the wall with old coats. One Sunday, my colleague from the ticket sales called me: “Maija, we have a problem”. A pigeon was flying around the exhibition floor! My whole family came over to catch the pigeon, but we did not see it anywhere. We wondered if it was hiding inside a coat! We never did find it, so I suspect it flew out by itself!

How do you introduce other senses than the visual into the perception of art?

We will be doing an exhibition of Jean Sibelius, which will of course take us to the world of music. He had synesthesia, which means he could see notes as colors. With Tove Jansson there will be a lot of references to literature. It’s important to look at visual arts in the context of other arts. Audio guides are also important. I have an artist friend Robert Lucander, who downloads audio guides from museum websites onto his iPad and then he listens to these on the tram on the way to his studio imagining the works of art!

How do you make art relevant today?

One of the motto’s at the Ateneum is that all art has been contemporary when it was made – even Egyptian art! This helps us with perspective. We try to find the relevance of art in its time when we exhibit it today.

If you had not been a curator you would be…

I would have been a florist! It’s hard work but I may have liked that! I would have also enjoyed being an editor of a magazine or a film director.

Your idea of perfect happiness is….

Soaking in an onsen hot bath in Japan watching the sunrise behind Mount Fuji!

What is on your reading table?

I just read Smart Trust by Stephen Covey junior. It’s all about trusting people in business. I am reading The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman, a fictional book about the world of syndicate press. I am also reading Ali Smith’s Artful. It is art theory in a fictional story. Really good.

Three words that define Ateneum…

Surprising. Reliable. Dynamic dinosaur!

Three words that define you…

Curious. Optimistic. Team player.

Qualities most important in a friend…

Sense of humor

What is your life motto?

Think outside the box!


Image: Osma Harvilahti

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