The story of the Finnish National Gallery began with the founding of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki in 1846. In 1939, the exhibition and collection activities were transferred to the Finnish Art Academy Foundation, which operated until 1990, the year that the Finnish National Gallery was founded as a State institution operating under the Ministry of Education. In 2014, the Finnish National Gallery was reorganised into an independent public foundation.

Throughout its history, the Finnish National Gallery has worked to nurture cultural heritage, strengthen the national art collection, and make art accessible to the general public.

Early Years

The idea for a Finnish Art Society was first put forward as early as 1834. Its official establishment took place on 27 January 1846. The society’s mission was to create a foundation for the Finnish art scene, as there were no art museums or indeed no formal art education in Finland at the time.

In the early years, the society focused on developing a knowledge of art among the public and using funds from its membership fees to create a framework for basic art studies. Its activities consisted mostly of selecting its members, organising art education, art raffles and exhibitions. Later it began building its own art collection, which soon led to the founding of the first art museum in Finland. In 1849, it was decided that the collection would be developed to create a model collection for the society’s Drawing School.

Teaching of drawing plaster casts at the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School in Ateneum. Photographer Daniel Nyblin, Helsinki, about 1898. Photo: Finnish National Gallery.

Teaching of drawing plaster casts at the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School in Ateneum. Photographer Daniel Nyblin, Helsinki, about 1898. Photo: Finnish National Gallery.

Exhibitions and Art Education

The organisation of the society’s first art exhibition in Helsinki in spring 1847 marked the beginning of its exhibition activities. Art raffles held for the society’s members in connection with exhibitions acquired an important role right from the start. After the first show, exhibitions were held annually. They were open not only to members of the Society but to the general public as well.

Art education was fostered by the Art Society by running drawing schools. The Helsinki Drawing School was founded in 1848, and in 1852 the society took over the administration of the Turku Drawing School. The society also supported Finnish artists by way of grants.

Birth of the Collection

Private art collectors supported the formation of the collection from the very beginning, since the days of the Finnish Art Society. The first donations in the 19th century were by persons close to the society: board members and artist organisations. For instance, part of the art collection of Baron Otto Klinckowström, a board member of the society, was donated to the society in 1851, and the estate of artist Karl Emanuel Jansson from Åland was bequeathed to the society in 1874. Development of the collection was added to the society’s rules in 1868.

Collection research was initiated towards the end of the 19th century, when systematic collection of art-related materials was begun. These materials eventually formed the foundation of the current Archive Collections.

The first major donation was the assets and art collection bequeathed to the society by Viktor Hoving in 1876. Another important donation was made by Herman Frithiof Antell as a bequest to the Finnish people in 1893. The art collection in the bequest was deposited with the Finnish Art Society and other material with the organisation that later developed into the National Museum of Finland.

Ateneum – A Place for Art

The Finnish Art Society operated from various leased premises across Helsinki before its move to the Ateneum. Designed by architect Theodor Höijer (1843–1910), the Ateneum building was completed in spring 1887, and was inaugurated on 18 November 1887. Apart from the Art Society and its collections, the building also housed the society’s Drawing School (today the Academy of Fine Arts), the Finnish Association of Applied Arts (today the Design Museum) and its collections, as well as the School of Applied Arts (today the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture).

The Art Society’s collection consolidated its position in the new building, but it was not until 1958 that the collections in the Ateneum came to be called the Ateneum Art Museum.

Paul Sinebrychoff in his room in the 1910s. Photographer Signe Brander, Helsinki. Photo: Kansallisgalleria.

Paul Sinebrychoff in his room in the 1910s. Photographer Signe Brander, Helsinki. Photo: Kansallisgalleria.

The Sinebrychoff Art Collection and Building Metamorphoses into a Museum

The Sinebrychoff Art Museum, which specialises in old European art, is formed around the Sinebrychoff art collection. Commercial counsellor Paul Sinebrychoff and his wife Fanny began collecting art in the 1890s. In 1921, at their joint wish, Fanny Sinebrychoff donated their collection of some 900 works of art to the Finnish State.

The collection was opened to the public the same year in a three-room apartment leased from the Sinebrychoff’s manorial building. Four of the building’s rooms facing the street showcased period interiors, which were essentially in the same condition as Fanny Sinebrychoff had left them.

Finnish Art Academy: War, New Spaces, Diversification

The Finnish Art Society maintained its art museum and provided art education for almost a century, up to 1939, when its museum and school activities were reorganised through the establishment of the Finnish Art Academy Foundation, which was appointed to promote, develop and support art in Finland.

Only two days after the establishment of the foundation, the Winter War broke out and the Ateneum collections were closed to the public, not to be reopened until March 1946. The Sinebrychoff Art Museum too had to be closed because of the war, and the collection deposited there was removed for safekeeping. The building was damaged in the bombings, and after the war it served as the chemistry lab of Helsinki Polytechnic. The museum was not reopened to the public until 22 January 1960.

The rooms that housed the art museum were renovated with funds from Oy Sinebrychoff Ab, and in 1975 the State bought the entire building. It was renovated and refurbished entirely for museum use, and in 1980 the Ateneum’s collection of old international art was moved there.

The Ateneum Art Museum received many donations after the war. Acquisitions were balanced between Finnish and international art. Exhibitions were also reintroduced, and exhibitions of art from abroad became ever more significant. Guided tours and audience presentations were also incorporated into its operation.

The greatest change brought about by the Finnish Art Academy was the establishment in 1956 of an Information Department (from 1973, Exhibition and Education Department), which was responsible for the organisation of touring exhibitions, and later for archiving specialised art materials and providing information services.

Plans for the basic renovation and extension of the Ateneum building, which had for a long time been considered too small, were begun in 1980. During the renovation, the Finnish Art Academy foundation was relocated to temporary facilities. In the final phase of the renovation, in 1990, the decision was made to establish the Finnish National Gallery as the central national art museum.

Finnish National Gallery 1990–2013

The Finnish National Gallery became operational in September 1990. The next year it moved to the renovated, refurbished Ateneum, which it had all to itself.

The decades that followed saw many purchases, and donations in particular. Donations made to the Ateneum Art Museum included the Wäinö Walli Collection (1995), almost the entire output of Aune Mikkonen (2001), the 505 works of art in the Ester and Jalo Sihtola Art Foundation (2001), a collection of 98 works by Beatrice Granberg (2002, State Treasury donation), a donation collection of 78 works by Yrjö and Nanny Kaunisto (2005) with unique paintings by Helene Schjerfbeck, and the collection of Rolando and Siv Pieraccini of 550 works of 20th century Italian art (2008).

Responsibility for the management and deposition of the collection was divided between the three museums – the Ateneum Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum – and the Central Art Archives, successor of the Exhibition and Education Department’s Documentation Archive.

One major improvement was the extensive renovation of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, completed in 2002, in which the spaces were restored for the Interior Museum. The founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art was also part of the new era.

Kiasma building’s construction site. Photo: Finnish National Gallery.

Kiasma building’s construction site. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen.

Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma

The Museum of Contemporary Art was established within the Finnish National Gallery in 1990. Initially it operated in the Ateneum building. The story of the Kiasma building began with an architectural design competition in 1992. The winning entry was Chiasma by the American architect Steven Holl, and the construction of the museum began in 1996. The name, which denotes a point of crossing, was changed to Kiasma, and was incorporated into the name of the museum itself. The opening of the new museum was celebrated in May 1998.

The first donation received by the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma was made by Porkkana ry, an association founded by artists and students of art history, a symbolically significant gesture. The collection comprised just over a hundred small works by international artists, such as Richard Long, Nancy Holt and Christo. The international aspect was strengthened by the Kiasma Collection (1998), formed around the collection of investor and art collector Pentti Kouri.

Artist estates are important not only from the perspective of art, but of research as well. These include the collection of works by Kalervo Palsa (1999), donated by Maj-Lis Pitkänen. The SKOP Bank Collection (2002) of some 700 works enhances Kiasma’s permanent collection of Finnish art.

Finnish National Gallery Foundation

On 1 January 2014, the Finnish National Gallery was reorganised into a public foundation. Its collection remains in the possession of the State as a Finnish national treasure. The Ateneum Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum continue to operate as the National Gallery’s museum units. Collections are now managed by the Collections Department together with the museums. The department is also responsible for the management of art historical archive collections.