Among my favorite cities in Europe and on my 2021 bucket travel list, Helsinki is a small gem protected by the Baltic Sea. A little bit Frozen Elsa’s kingdom, but much more rock’n’roll, Helsinki is a small capital with a very peculiar vibe. And despite its cold winters and chilly summers, its inhabitants are some of the warmest and more welcoming people I have ever met.
When it comes to contemporary art, Helsinki is still a growing reality. With most of its museums and galleries primarily working with Finnish artists, it is the perfect destinations to discover new artists and to dive deeper into the Finnish art scene. At the same time, though, Helsinki boasts some interesting international realities and it is about to host its first edition of a very promising biennial, placing the city among the top destinations in Europe for its thriving cultural scene.
A destination to revisit in 2021
I visited the Finnish capital a few years ago, for reasons completely different from contemporary art, and I fell in love with it. And this is why I added the city to my list of places I want to (re)visit in 2021. In recent years, in fact, Helsinki opened quite a few exciting new realities linked to contemporary art and artists and it is now even more appealing than ever. Finland is a very forward-thinking country when it comes to promoting its artists, with national calls and funds to promote and encourage them to exhibit abroad or to attract international curators and collectors to discover local artists. It comes as no surprise that Helsinki has some great opportunities and venues to discover the best the country has to offer.
So, without any further ado, here are the best museums and galleries in Helsinki. Visit them if you want to familiarize yourself with Finnish contemporary art and design, while also enjoying international exhibitions and artists.
With its name deriving from Greek “chiasma” (which literarily means “crossing”), Kiasma is the main institution for contemporary art in Helsinki and a real central point in the discovery of the city’s contemporary art scene. Kiasma is part of the Finnish National Gallery and it is entirely dedicated to the display of its contemporary art collection. With over 8000 artworks, the first nucleus of the collection was acquired in 1990, and in 1998 the museum opened its current location designed by the American architect Steven Holl.
The museum is very conveniently located right in the center of Helsinki. It offers temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection, with 100 new works added every year. The museum works primarily with artists from Finland and nearby regions such as Scandinavia, the Baltic region, and Russia, displaying all types of mediums. The museum hosts performances and events, in its own theater, as well as activities and workshops. Plus it has an interesting online platform to collect and exhibit New Media and digital works, the Kiasma Online Art Website. You can start your exploration from here, from the comfort of your own home, before visiting this incredible museum.
Mannerheiminaukio 2, 00100 Helsinki
Named after its founder, publisher, and arts patron Amos Anderson, Amos Rex is the other major contemporary art museum located in the center of Helsinki and just steps away from Kiasma. The museum was originally opened in 1965 as the Amos Anderson Art Museum, converting Anderson’s private residence and office to a museum space to host his collection. In 2013 the museum announced plans to move its galleries to the nearby Lasipalatsi and the adjacent Turku Barracks. Working with historical buildings proved more difficult than they expected, so the museum board finally decided to build a subterranean annex instead. Located under the Lasipalatsi plaza, what is now called Amos Rex was designed by JKMM Architects and opened its doors in 2018, quickly becoming one of the main contemporary art attractions of Helsinki.
The Amos Rex collection is among the largest private art collections in Finland, with over 7,000 artworks of mostly Finnish modern art from the 1900s. In addition to its collection and the temporary exhibitions displayed at the museums, Amos Rex also hosts a cinema, Bio Rex. Completed in 1936 and recently renovated, the cinema hall is the perfect location for festivals and screenings with its lovely, mid-century setting.
Mannerheimintie 22-24, 00100 Helsinki
Info, tickets and opening hours:
Helsingin Taidehalli, Finnish for Helsinki Kunsthalle, was founded in 1928 by a group of local artists and art associations as a non-profit space for exhibitions. Located in the center of Helsinki, in a beautiful building designed by Hilding Ekelund and Jarl Eklund, the Kunsthalle is a wonderful example of Nordic Classicism and one of the most fascinating venues for contemporary art in Helsinki.
As every kunsthalle, it does not have a permanent collection, but it organizes and hosts around 5 major exhibitions and events every year. In their rich program, you can find both Finnish and international artists, as well as exhibitions focusing on design and architecture, screenings, and other temporary events.
Nervanderinkatu 3, 00100 Helsinki
Info, tickets and opening hours:
Contemporary Art Galleries in Helsinki
Despite not being well-known for its art scene, Helsinki is a rather active city with a varied community of artists and art lovers. Just like its museums, galleries in the Finnish capital work both with international and Finnish artists, but they mainly focus on the latter. A gallery hopping day in Helsinki will introduce you to almost anything Finnish, from emerging talents to well-established masters, giving you a nice in-depth perspective on the local scene.
Conveniently located in the main commercial districts of the city, Kamppi and Kaartinkaupunki, the galleries are all fairly close to one another, and very easy to visit on foot. You can start your gallery-hopping tour at Helsinki Contemporary, before jumping to Galerie Forsblom, Galleria Heino, or Galerie Anhava. The area hosts many smaller and bigger galleries, so my advice is – as always – to plan a whole day of casually walking around to discover as many as you can.
Helsinki Biennial 2021
The latest addition to the Helsinki art scene, and definitely one of the events I look forward to the most for 2021, the biennial is set to debut on June 12th, 2021. Originally planned for 2020, the Helsinki Biennial was postponed due to the obvious Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with just a few months left and the anti-Covid vaccine ready, let’s all cross our fingers and hope to be able to visit it next summer.
The event will take place between June 12 and September 26, 2021, and it’ll be hosted on Vallisaari Island, a small island in the Helsinki archipelago located only a 15-minute ferry ride from the city center. The theme for this first edition will be The Same Sea, a reflection on the concept of interdependence, to address the ongoing public debate around the evolving relationship between humanity and nature. The biennial will be presented by Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) and aims at “creating a platform to communicate the diverse and dynamic nature of the contemporary Finnish art scene”.
As the state in the press release: “The biennial looks to establish links and collaborations with the wider global artistic landscape. Free to the public, each edition will primarily comprise of major new, site-specific commissions by leading international artists. Fostering a sustainable approach to exhibition-making, the biennial embodies Helsinki’s ambitious, cultural vision. The civic approach to culture and architecture sets Helsinki apart. The city recognizes the value of a vivid and forward-looking art scene that champions local contemporary art and its relationship with the global community. The biennial will illustrate the unique characteristic of Helsinki and the surrounding archipelago. It also highlights our commitment to art, architecture, design and urban culture in all its forms. The biennial will open up new worlds to anyone who visits Helsinki”.
And with 40 international artists confirmed for its debut in June, the Helsinki Biennial is the ultimate reason to visit the Finnish capital. See you there in Summer 2021!