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Helsinki has become the latest battleground in the conflict over how small cities and emerging countries should accommodate expansionist mega-museums.
Recently, two culturally attuned Finns, Anu Kantola and her boyfriend, Raoul Grünstein, had dinner and an argument in Helsinki. The dinner—melted Manchego over escargot—was not very Finnish, but the argument was, being rather subdued and punctuated by a number of long, contemplative silences. Its subject was a proposed satellite of the Guggenheim Museum. “I’m dubious as to whether it would be a secure public investment,” Kantola, who teaches political science at Helsinki University, said. “Why don’t they find private money?” Silence. “Because, if I may answer, the surplus of that investment is not ending up in the pockets of that enterprise,” Grünstein, a local cultural entrepreneur, replied. Long silence. “Because of the tourism.” They both giggled nervously, then lapsed again into silence. This continued at some length, into the still-bright evening hours of late April in the far north.
The Guggenheim’s four-year-long effort to secure government permission and financing for a satellite location in the Finnish capital was being debated here as the museum unveiled six finalists in a competition to determine the building’s architect. The Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, national media, and prominent Finnish politicians were all swirling around town, as were various of the designers behind the selected schemes—a circumstance that proved slightly awkward, since, in a peculiar move, the names of the six honorees were announced in December but their proposals remain anonymous.
This was the latest twist in the increasingly complex plot of the Guggenheim’s Helsinki venture. An initial study exploring the museum’s projected costs and funding was soundly rejected three years ago by the Helsinki City Board. Since then, the museum and their local supporters have been attempting to regroup, but the delay has given their opponents time to organize as well. […]