Finland’s art scene toggles between the strictly local and the international. Straddled between the Slavic, Northern European, and Scandinavian worlds, Helsinki has been on the radar of several major arts institution: The Guggenheim has attempted to open a location on the waterfront but has been stymied by local efforts asking for an alternative that recognizes national artists. There’s no art fairs or biennials to speak of yet in Finland. People repeatedly insisted that the art scene in Helsinki is small: in a city of roughly half a million people, and a country of around five million, its hard to become a powerhouse. Still, the gallery scene, recent museum exhibitions, and opening of new institutions show a solid move to open up the famously reserved cultural scene when it comes to art.

The design district is the heart of the art scene. Galerie Forsblom, one of the city’s premier galleries, has shown international artists alongside Finnish talent since the 1980s, bringing in names such as Peter Halley, Chantal Joffe, and Donald Baechler in the last few, while representing Finnish artists like Jarmo Mäkilä. Currently the gallery is mounting a summer-long Ai Weiwei show, which takes up the whole gallery, featuring hallmarks from the artist’s career such as from his Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn series. Weiwei also created a work for the show spelling the word for refugee in Finnish (pakolainen) using canisters of tear gas, a commentary on the Finnish policy that refugees learn Finnish.

It’s not the only marquee showing of a blue-chip artist from Asia this summer: in June, the Helsinki Art Museum, which recently reopened after a renovation, will bring two temporary installations by Yayoi Kusama to the city’s popular public spaces: Esplanadi park and the Winter Garden. HAM too presents global artists while also highlighting Finnish artists such as Tove Jansson, whose work is being put on permanent display this summer. The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma currently has shows up by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa.

Other galleries such as Helsinki Contemporary and Galerie Anhava show the work of the country’s leading contemporary and up-and-coming artists, as well as Galeria Heino where R/H showed its fall collection during Helsinki New. During the events, the bleed between art and fashion was on particular display. At ONAR, the presentation was accompanied by an installation by Finnish-born illustrator and designer Jesse Auersalo. The Pre Helsinki presentation on Thursday took place in a woodland manor house, where new designers staged their collections as installations combined with performance art, such as Alisa Närvänen and Elina Peltonen’s Ensæmble, with clothing laid out surrounding by photographs and text-based art.

“It’s easier to get things organized and have these synergies,” explained Katja Räisänen
sales manager at Galerie Forsblom of the scene’s small size and the tendency for collaboration across disciples.

There is plenty of new energy to come, particularly given Finnish budgets for arts funding. Frame Contemporary Art Finland, which organizes the country’s Venice Biennale Pavilion and advocates for Finnish artists abroad, awarded more than 120,000 euros in grants this March. The Helsinki City Museum opened on May 12 as the first museum devoted to the city’s history; while not strictly art related, it will host art exhibitions that cast light on the particular history of the city. The current landscape is hardly insular, and, if anything, growing.