The DNA of ARS

Anna Iltnere


ARS celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with an extensive exhibit and satellite exhibitions at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. Do you know what ARS is?

ARS is an art institution founded in Finland in 1961. During the fifty years of its existence, ARS has had eight huge exhibits, including ARS 11, which will be on view at the Kiasma Museum through November 27. The main goal of ARS has remained unchanging—to show the citizens of Finland what is new in international contemporary art.

Atomic Bombs, Astronauts, and ARS

The idea for ARS began to take shape in the creative minds of Finland back in the late 1950s, during the Cold War, out of fear of living in isolation and remaining in a cultural vacuum. The Finnish painter Erkki Koponen (1899-1996), who was a champion sprinter in his youth but later became an honorary professor, is considered the founder of ARS. Before then, Finnish society had minimal access to contemporary art.

During his opening speech at the first ARS exhibit, in 1961, the show’s curator, Sakari Saarikivi, an art historian from the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, succinctly captured the spirit of the time: “At a time when atomic bombs have become a threatening power, but astronauts are getting ready to travel to other planets, no artist today can be satisfied with merely painting bottles and rosy-cheeked apples. With his brush or its current replacements, he wants to blast into the universe.” The first ARS exhibit took place in the fall of 1961; the previous spring, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person to journey to outer space.

The theme of the first exhibit, ARS 61, was Spanish, French, Italian, and Finnish modern art. One hundred and seventeen artists took part in the show. The exhibit lasted only one month, but it was visited by 39,000 people. The goal had been achieved. The Finns had built a ventilation pane in the Iron Curtain.

Exhibits and Pearls

ARS exhibits have taken place at five- and twelve-year intervals: in 1961, 1969, 1974, 1983, 1995, 2001, 2006, and 2011. The curator, design, and theme of the exhibit is different every year, though the principle of a unified theme  remains the same. 

These have included ARS 95: Private and Public and, this year, ARS 11: Africa. In other years, exhibits have been intended as a fixed documentation of the international scene at that moment, for instance,ARS 83: International Contemporary Art in Europe and the United States

The proportion of participating Finnish artists and artists from other countries changes too. But the impressive list of participants always attracts huge crowds of visitors. ARS 69 featured Francis Bacon, ARS 83 offered works by Georg Baseltizs, and ARS 95 had art by Matthew Barney, though these are just a few examples—“drops in the sea,” so to speak—of the many names who have participated in the exhibits, about a hundred artists every year.

And Then There Was Kiasma

The first four ARS exhibits were held at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki. The last of these four exhibits, ARS 95, was the largest international contemporary art show to date in Scandinavia, featuring ninety artists from more than twenty countries. The exhibit became an important precedent, proving the possibility for successful collaborations between the worlds of business and art, as the exhibit earned widespread media support and income. The greatest achievement of ARS 95 was to convince decision makers in Finland that it was important for Helsinki to invest in the creation of a new contemporary art space. The publicity earned by ARS 95 had a positive effect, and construction was begun in 1996 on the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, which opened on May 29, 1998. 

ARS 11

After a five-year interval, Kiasma will feature the exhibit ARS 11: Africa. This show will feature a handful of satellite exhibitions, including a historical retrospective about the first fifty years of ARS, at the Ateneum Museum. The goal of ARS 11 is to introduce visitors to contemporary art in Africa. This seemingly exotic theme was struck upon by the previous director of Kiasma, Berndt Arell, latching on to the growing tendency in the world to examine the art scene and market in Africa, India, and Asia. In the catalogue for the anniversary exhibit, bound in hardcover and decorated in golden letters, the current director of Kiasma, Pirkko Siitari, wrote that “ARS exhibits are both an event and a phenomenon that everyone should experience. Including those who don’t ordinarily follow contemporary art.” 

We wish you all the best, ARS, on your half-century anniversary. Thanks to your contemporary content, you will never grown old.