A blast of cold Nordic air is about to blow through Buffalo. And it can't come a moment too soon.
Monday, we learned that Finnish museum director Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén would leave his post as director of the Helsinki Art Museum later this year to take charge of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This news came on the heels of the gallery's announcement that it had selected the extraordinary Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta to solve its pressing space issues and to potentially lay the groundwork for an expansion.
These choices are more than coincidental. They represent a growing embrace, at least by those in charge Buffalo's leading cultural institution, of the Nordic approach to culture and its role in urban life. That approach, in which culture is linked inextricably to the civic, educational and even political structure of cities, is finally taking root on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
For Buffalo's antiquated political structure, which lags far behind cities like Denver and Pittsburgh in its embrace of culture as a positive force for change and economic development, this transfusion of Nordic energy and insight is badly needed. During the past two or three years, the cultural organizations of this region have amped up efforts to convince elected officials that they offer something more than a well-rehearsed sideshow to ostensibly more promising developments like the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
But the arrival of Sirén, who doubled as a museum director and cultural policymaker for the city, bodes well for Buffalo's continuation on that path. If Sirén can successfully spread the philosophy that has helped to turn his native city into a major tourist hub, Buffalo may be able to catch up with savvier and more politically progressive cities that have successfully marshaled their cultural resources to improve their own fates.
Sirén is not universally loved in Helsinki, largely because he backed a controversial plan to bring an outpost of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the city. (It's worth remembering that Louis Grachos, his imperfect but highly effective predecessor, was not universally loved in Buffalo because he backed a controversial plan to sell off some of the gallery's pre-modern art.)
Be that as it may, Sirén's appointment as Albright-Knox director and the successes he brings with him from his jobs in Finland should send signals to City Hall, the Erie County Executive's Office and Albany that a sea change is afoot. It's too early to judge what effect the affable and energetic young director will have in places that have been historically impervious to cultural arguments. (Though it's a positive sign that Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz sent out a tweet last week saying that he looked forward to working with him on “public art issues.”)
As for Snohetta, which is in the midst of redesigning Times Square and the entry pavilion for the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, the outlook is similarly bright. According to a recent article about the firm in the New Yorker, its leaders are big fans of “keyless” buildings that invite the public in at all hours.
The opera house the firm designed in its home city of Oslo has become a place for the entire city to convene, whether or not people consider themselves avid opera fans. And whatever form its plans for the Albright-Knox take, there is plenty of reason to think those plans will put the gallery in a far more central role in the lives of all Buffalonians.
Snohetta principal Craig Dykers explained the firm's very Nordic philosophy this way: “Open, direct, accessible, and egalitarian – strange value words until you see what they do.”
Let's see what they can do in Buffalo.