Finnish museum director Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén has been selected as the new director of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, it was announced Monday.
Sirén, 42, will end his five-year tenure as director of the Helsinki Art Museum in Finland’s political and cultural capital to take charge of the 150-year-old institution on Elmwood Avenue in the spring or early summer. He will succeed former gallery director Louis Grachos, who left the Albright-Knox this month for a new job in Austin, Texas, after leading the museum through 10 years of growth. Sirén was elected unanimously by the Albright-Knox board of directors Sunday night, according to the gallery.
Leslie Zemsky, president of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the governing body of the Albright-Knox, said that the search for a new director drew “an outstanding pool of candidates.” But Sirén, who was educated in the United States and has held positions in universities and museums throughout Europe, quickly rose to the top of the list.
“He’s got the academic credentials,” Zemsky said when asked what made Sirén stand out from other candidates, whom the gallery declined to name. “But I think it’s that energy and leadership, and that ability to connect into the community and really understanding the role a museum plays in a community, in a place like Buffalo.”
Sirén, who spoke to The Buffalo News by telephone from New York City before flying to Buffalo over the weekend, said he was drawn to the opportunity not only because of the Albright-Knox’s envied collection of modern and contemporary art, but because of the cultural momentum that has been building in Buffalo for some time.
“From the moment I set foot in Buffalo, it was sort of love at first sight,” Sirén said. “I just felt that in Buffalo there’s this very positive aura about the next chapter in the city’s future, not only at the Albright-Knox, but more generally in Buffalo. Things are sort of happening, and you see in little bits and pieces around there, it’s sort of in the air. And that’s tremendously exciting.”
Sirén, the museum’s 11th professional director and the first director of a major American museum from the Nordic region, said he deliberated only briefly about the opportunity, taking a week or so to discuss the potential move to a new continent with his young family, which includes his wife, Sonja; a son, 5; and two daughters, 3 and 8. They will join Sirén when he begins his tenure. In the end, he said, the offer was too good to turn down.
“These opportunities are so rare, and institutions as brilliant and as fantastic as the Albright-Knox, which has been able to reinvent itself time and again over the past 150 years, they are so rare,” he said. “In terms of the Albright-Knox, I didn’t have to think long.”
It also didn’t hurt, Sirén said, that his children’s main concern, having grown up in the chilly Nordic climate of Helsinki, was whether Buffalo had any snow.
In his native Helsinki, Sirén served a dual role as director of the museum and as a key architect of the City of Helsinki’s cultural policy and its public art program, an experience he said he hopes to apply in Buffalo. An Albright-Knox release described him as “a passionate advocate for the active role of the museum, and the arts, in a vibrant civic life and the growth of a community.”
“One could even say that in addition to the role of museum director, I’m sort of a fine arts commissioner, even though that’s not a formal title. But in effect, that’s what my role has been,” Sirén said. “I’ve interfaced with so many different forums and professions, from engineers to city planners to people who work in the cultural tourism industry, to hotel managers, just a diversity of different pools of information, which then get connected at the art museum. And in a sense, we are the bridge to the global scene.”
Sirén’s track record in Helsinki lines up closely with the increasingly international direction in which the Albright-Knox has been headed since Grachos came to town in 2003. Along with the ambitious internationally focused programming at the museum, Sirén said his proudest accomplishments in Helsinki include his stewardship of the city’s growing public art program and its successful development of a cultural tourism industry, as well as his use of the museum as an educational tool to foster visual literacy across Finland.
He was also the primary author of a controversial plan to build an international outpost of the New York City-based Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki. The plan was narrowly rejected last May by the city’s council over concerns that the project was not fair to Finnish artists and existing institutions.
Zemsky said that board members did not view the city’s rejection of the Guggenheim proposal – which was already in its advanced stages when it was voted down – as a failure on Sirén’s part. On the contrary, she said, she was impressed with the work he poured into the project, the museum savvy he exhibited in the process and the major fundraising he was able to accomplish: “He’s very comfortable asking for money, basically,” she said.
On paper, Sirén seems the model of a savvy international museum director, with experience spanning several continents and subject areas. According to a release from the gallery, Sirén speaks five languages and has lived and worked in seven countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Austria and Israel, where he taught for four years as a visiting art professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Before his appointment to the Helsinki Museum’s directorship, Sirén directed the Tampere Art Museum, in southern Finland, from 2004 to 2007. No stranger to the United States – his Finnish colleagues consider him a quasi-American, he said – Sirén earned his master’s and Ph.D. in art history from New York University and his undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Sirén was born in Helsinki in 1970 and in 1983 moved with his family to Switzerland, where his father, a biochemist, was working. (His mother is an interior designer by training and a writer on arts and culture.) He studied at the American school in the southern Swiss city of Lugano, near Italy, and said he intended from a young age to pursue a career in the United States.
The Albright-Knox collection first came Sirén’s attention when he was studying at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Among his favorite works from the gallery, he counts Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence,” Gauguin’s “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” Picasso’s “La Toilette” and the entire collection of abstract expressionist masterpieces. He also praised Grachos’ transformation of the exterior campus of the gallery as well as works by Sol LeWitt and Mona Hatoum now on view as part of “Decade,” Grachos’ valedictory exhibition.
“It’s just really high-quality works, really intelligent collecting acumen and practices, and a solid foundation from which to build the future,” Sirén said, calling the collection “on a global scale, remarkable.”
The history of Sirén’s family has intersected indirectly with Buffalo in the past: His great-grandfather, he said, was an associate of the Finnish architect Eliel Saarninen who, with his son Eero, designed Kleinhans Music Hall.
For Zemsky and other members of the Albright-Knox board, Sirén embodies the ideal of the modern, multitasking museum director, with the right combination of skills to keep the gallery on the upward trajectory that began under Grachos nearly a decade ago.
“People really do think of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as a global art institution. Having international connections, I think it really is great in terms of our cultural tourism initiatives,” Zemsky said. Sirén, she added, brings “energy, enthusiasm and a fresh outlook. We’ve had that before, but it’s fresh. He’s coming in with new eyes.”
And Sirén, who said it was too early to talk about specific plans or initiatives he has for the museum, said he was drawn by the gallery’s collection and reputation as much as by the city it serves.
“A museum such as the Albright-Knox, it always exists in relation to its own context and its urban fabric,” Sirén said. “I’m coming there as much for Buffalo as I am to lead the Albright-Knox.”
Pronunciation: Ya-NAY Seer-EN
Native city: Helsinki, Finland
Wife, Sonja; two daughters, 3 and 8; one son, 5
Director, Helsinki Art Museum, 2007-2012; Tampere Art Museum, in southern Finland, 2004-2007; visiting assistant professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2000-2004
B.A. in art history from the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.; M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts
English, Finnish, Swedish, German, Italian
Hobbies: Running and skiing