THE FINNISH ART SOCIETY – HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS
In the late 18th and early 19th century, changes were afoot in the cultural field in Europe. In addition to the upper classes that had enjoyed it before, art was now reaching other social layers, even workers. The underlying reason was that, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the art world was becoming organised, and deliberate efforts were being made to make fine arts available to larger audiences. This drive manifested itself in the formation of new types of art collections and museums, the opening up to the public of art collections, and the spread of the art society movement, particularly in German-speaking Europe.
The situation in Finland differed for a long time from that in Continental Europe or the UK, however. There were no public art collections, and all cultural endeavours relied on the interest of private individuals. According to the contemporary view of journalist and writer August Schauman, in the 1830s “it was not possible as it is today  to participate in all manner of societies, whose purposes are literary, musical, social, moral or charitable, one could never listen to travelling preachers, nor were there ice-skating clubs, or even small sewing or reading circles — but instead people engaged in so-called socialising and did so very extensively.” (Schauman 1967 [1892–1894], 61). The situation began to improve gradually when the Finnish Literature Society was founded in 1831 and the Finnish Art Society became operational in 1846.
ART SOCIETY MOVEMENT ORIGINATED IN GERMAN-SPEAKING EUROPE
Art societies were seen as patrons of the modern era, their function being to support contemporary art and artists, while wealthy collectors increasingly focused on old art. Art societies typically supported living domestic artists, thus supporting national art and strengthening domestic culture.
The traditional established view is that the beginning of the art society movement can be pinpointed to the founding in Karlsruhe of the Society of Art and Industry in 1818 on the initiative of artist and professor Karl Ludwig Frommel. In Scandinavia, the movement first arrived in Copenhagen, where a society was established in 1825. The first attempts in this direction had already been made in 1818, the same year as in Karlsruhe.
The art society movement reached Sweden, Norway and Finland in the 1830s, leading to the establishment of Stockholm’s Konstförening in 1832 and of the Kunstforeningen in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1836. It was typical of the movement that, after the founding of the parent organisation, several other societies were established in countries that were in mutual cooperation. This development went furthest in Norway, where the art society network that emerged was the densest per capita in Europe.
LAUNCHING OF THE FINNISH ART SOCIETY
The idea for a Finnish Art Society was first proposed publicly in 1834. The project was advocated by a group of university associates and intelligentsia who were also active in many other cultural projects. The idea did not receive enough support the first time around, however, and the project never matured into action.
The reason was obvious: art did not as yet hold sufficient significance for the Finnish intelligentsia. According to Johan Jakob Tikkanen, the purpose of art in Finland was not to satisfy the need for art (as was the case elsewhere in Europe), but to create it. People in Finland were accustomed to decorating their homes, ordering altarpieces for churches and commissioning portraits of family members, but their relationship with art was formal. It was not considered a pleasure in itself, but a means of decorating. Zachris Topelius even went so far as to claim that paintings could be found in Finland only on curtains and wallpapers!
The situation changed in the space of a decade, and the ground became more receptive for art. The Finnish Art Society was founded in 1846, and its Committee was crammed with top experts from administration and economy and representatives of science and art. Under its rules, the mission of the Society was to develop popular knowledge of art and to use the funds from membership fees to create a framework for the study of the basics of art.
BECOMING THE NUMBER ONE PLAYER IN ART
The Society channelled its activities into educating its membership, organising art lotteries, providing art education, and later also into creating an art collection of its own. In this, the Finnish Art Society differed from other similar societies: no other art society in Europe had as wide a field of activities determined by local needs. Usually the societies just organised raffles and exhibitions, because the collections and institutions required for art education were already in place.
As the Society engaged in a wide field of activities, power devolved into its hands. The Finnish Art Society created the fundamental structures of the art field very rapidly, eventually dominating the entire field from the training of artists to the amassing of collections. It purchased art for its lotteries, and later also for its collection, it organised exhibitions, selected art students, awarded prizes, made decisions on artist grants, selected printed images of artworks that were distributed throughout the country, and also featured regularly in the public press. In the words of Zachris Topelius, the Society “succeeded in establishing art in Finland from almost nothing” (Topelius 1998 , 130). Having a contact network on all levels meant that the Art Society had in practice an opportunity to advance the “correct” idea of art to the whole country.
From time to time, the Society dreamed of an “art museum” or a “painting gallery” in which signature works of European art would spread the message of art. Nils Abraham Gyldén, lecturer in Greek and Roman literature, described how his “…mind rested on an art gallery growing year by year and on the sweet fragrance that the most beautiful flowers of the South would spread in our faraway North”. He dreamt of the best works by Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Guido Reni, Murillo and other great masters. Being a realist, however, he thought that we would have to make do with good copies (Gyldén 1868, 55).
The idea of the Society’s own collection divided opinion, and the debate for and against continued for a couple of decades. Meanwhile, the Art Society acquired art for the model collection of its Drawing School, and had students of the school paint copies of masterpieces of Western art. The acquisition of an art collection of its own was adopted into the programme of the Art Society in 1868. The collection gradually acquired the status of a museum collection, after it moved to the Ateneum building, which was opened in 1888.
The move to the Ateneum was a major turning point for the Finnish Art Society. Its operations were now highly visible both nationally and internationally. At the same time, however, the Society’s position on top of the art field had begun to waver. Artists had begun increasingly to criticise the line of the Society, which they perceived to be conservative. The administration of the Society was firmly in the hands of trusted figures such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
In autumn 1933 the situation came to a head, and a group of Finnish-speaking artists and art enthusiasts accused the Society’s administration of being a stronghold of Swedish art, a sphere from which Finnish artists had systematically been excluded. In their declaration they claimed that “to say the truth, a Finnish artist cannot go anywhere without encountering — and falling over — a Swede.” (Ajan Suunta, 23 October 1933). In the struggle, led by sculptor Felix Nylund, the Art Society was also accused of trampling on the rights of its members. According to the protest, members were entitled to “pay their membership fee and trust in their luck in the lottery.” (Minutes of the AGM of the Society 10 March 1936). That was all membership in the Society was good for.
The situation ended with a change of rules and a decision to relinquish the art collection and the Drawing School to the Finnish Art Academy Foundation, which was established to manage them. The Foundation managed the collection from 1939 up to its adoption by the State in 1990.
Relinquishing the collection and the school freed the Society to focus its direct support on art and artists in a manner familiar from Continental Europe. The key areas of operation were now the art lottery, artist awards, and exhibitions, as, under the new rules, “the Society seeks in the first instance to fulfil its mission by: purchasing artworks, primarily from Finnish artists; organising art exhibitions and presentations; awarding prizes, grants and stipends; promoting the publication of literature on art; and by organising an annual art lottery. The Society seeks also with other permissible means to support and promote art in Finland.” (Minutes of the spring AGM of the Society 25 May 1938).