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On May 2, 2012, after years of discussion and debate, a group of city officials narrowly defeated an unpopular proposal to use public funding to build a massive building with huge name recognition on a prime piece of waterfront land.

Sound familiar?

But the project in question was not a Bass Pro store in Buffalo, N.Y.; it was a Guggenheim museum in Helsinki, Finland.

And much like some in the Buffalo development community view the end of the Bass Pro project here as a positive step, the end of Sirén’s involvement in the Guggenheim saga had a potentially positive outcome as far as the region’s art community is concerned: It brought to Buffalo Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, the former director of the Helsinki Art Museum who was the driving force behind the Guggenheim plan and recently began his tenure as the 11th director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Sirén’s experience with the Guggenheim project remains a controversial issue in Finland and one that generated significant news coverage in Scandinavia. But Siren and his supporters, both here and in Finland, portray the matter as a dispute among bureaucrats that should not be construed as anything more than that.

“I think most decision-makers thought he tried to push very hard with this Guggenheim Museum even though there was quite a large base who thought that this idea, this kind of proposal or deal, wasn’t good enough,” said Finland’s minister for culture and sport, Paavo Arhinmäki, a critic of the project and a member of the 85-member Helsinki City Council. For his part, Sirén praised the democratic nature of the process and attributed the failure of the project to the stalled European economy, to a natural clash between American and European operating cultures and to political changes in the Finnish government.

“When people ask me, ‘Are you upset about this?’ or whatnot, I say no. The civil servant serves democracy,” he said. “As a civil servant, and even as a museum director, you must really understand internally that these are big projects. They cost a lot of money, and some of them can be realized and will be realized, others will not. This is an exciting profession to be in, but if one thinks too determinedly about things, you have to be motivated and excited about what you do, but there are always forks in the road, and democracy has to always play its role.”

During his first major public speech in May, Sirén invoked the Guggenheim Bilbao as an example of how a city can be reinvigorated through its museum, though he later stated that replicating the success of that museum in Buffalo is not part of his plans for the Albright-Knox. Even so, Sirén’s history and association with the Guggenheim organization is likely to influence his role as Buffalo’s foremost cultural player.

Sirén said he has moved beyond his painful experience in Helsinki and is now focused on improving the fortunes of the Albright-Knox, but the project continues to cast a long shadow. In mid-May, Finland’s Parliamentary Ombudsman – a government watchdog similar in some ways to the United States’ Government Accountability Office – issued a 21-page report citing Sirén for his cozy relationship with a member of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s board.

Conflict of interest seen

The report, the result of a yearlong investigation initiated by a complaint from an anonymous Finnish citizen, details the relationships among Sirén, his wife and a member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s board.

According to the report, Sirén served on the advisory board of a small Finnish oil company called Ekoport Turku Oy, which was headed by Guggenheim board member Carl Gustaf Ehrnrooth. According to the report, which The Buffalo News obtained and partially translated, Sirén’s wife, Sonja, was also employed by the oil company, though the report did not specify how long she worked there.

“During the preparations for the museum project, Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, through his membership on the Ekoport board and his spouse’s employment relationship, developed specific and close-knit ties to a member of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s Finnish board, and thereby to the Foundation and to the project itself,” said the report, by Deputy-Ombudsman Maija Sakslin. “I consider Gallen-Kallala-Sirén’s actions in the matter reprehensible. As far as I can see, he should have understood the serious doubt about his impartiality arising from such ties.”

The report, though not legally binding and the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for Sirén and his employers in the Helsinki government, raised questions about his independence in the Guggenheim process. It tells the story of a government employee advocating for a plan to spend millions of public dollars on a project controlled by an organization with which he had professional and personal ties.

Sirén minimized the report’s conclusions and noted that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an independent investigation by the Helsinki City Board long before the report was released. He also stressed that he had received permission from Helsinki’s deputy mayor to serve on the Ekoport Turku board and was not involved in the process of recruiting the Guggenheim museum during the time he was on the board. What’s more, he said, Ehrnrooth recused himself from any decisions about the proposed Helsinki Guggenheim in meetings with the Guggenheim Foundation board.

“There’s nothing to it,” Sirén said of the ombudsman’s report. “It’s somebody saying that civil servants should be careful about the perception they give out. So I did not do anything wrong.”

The question the report considered, Sirén said, was whether there was “a conflict of interest between the fact that [Ehrnrooth] and I could be perceived as being friends? Well, theoretically, yes, if either one of us had something to gain from the process.”

In fact, the Guggenheim franchise – which has locations in New York, Bilbao, Venice and a planned museum in Abu Dhabi – had a great deal to gain from the process. If the project went ahead with the public funding that was proposed, according to a Guggenheim report, the Guggenheim Foundation would have received a $30 million licensing fee for nothing more than “the value of being entitled to the use of the Guggenheim name and being a part of the Guggenheim brand and network.”

In addition to that fee, the Guggenheim Foundation would also have received more than $2.5 million per year as “programming and management” fee. The Guggenheim Foundation already had received $2 million from the City of Helsinki to conduct a feasibility study, which was released in 2012. During the lead-up to the vote, the project was a constant presence in the Finnish media, stoking a citywide debate that has yet to completely die down. A March 2012 survey conducted by Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, showed that 75 percent of Helsinki residents were opposed to the project.

Opposition to the project ranged from concerns about a cost many saw as exorbitant in the midst of a deepening European economic crisis to a distrust of American institutions and fears on the part of many artists that resources would be diverted away from the Helsinki art scene and into an international tourist attraction, according to Finnish news reports. A group of artists opposed to the project organized their own cultural development plan called Checkpoint Helsinki.

Non-issue for Albright-Knox

Arhinmäki, Finland’s minister for culture and sport, said in a phone interview from his home in Helsinki that he disagreed with the philosophy of building this particular museum. He also said the New York City-based museum franchise has recently renewed attempts to convince Helsinki officials to reconsider the project.

“The question was, if we have such an amount of money, why should we do another contemporary art museum?” Arhinmäki said, echoing the concerns of many opponents of the project who believe Helsinki was capable of producing a more authentic museum. “Why don’t we put this money [toward] doing it even much better than the Guggenheim?”

As for the ombudsman’s report on Sirén’s relationship with Ehrnrooth, Arhinmäki called it “problematic” but minor. “You have to see that Finland is [such a] small country that it’s very difficult to even find people who are not connected with each other,” he said.

For Leslie Zemsky, chairwoman of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the 150-year-old organization that oversees the Albright-Knox, Sirén’s close connections to Ehrnrooth did not raise any questions about his qualifications for the top job at the gallery. On the contrary, she said, they helped.

“My take is, all the friends that he has, all the better, and that benefits the Albright-Knox and Buffalo,” she said. “I’m just laughing, because honestly, it’s so inconceivable that something like that would ever happen here.”

Looking forward, Sirén said he will use his past experience to help expand the Albright-Knox’s audience base and ensure that it’s thought of as “a place for public conversation.” The first case in point is Sirén’s first major exhibition, “Anselm Kiefer: Forget-Me-Not.” That show will celebrate the gallery’s recent purchase of a major painting by the German artist and include an entire room dedicated to audience feedback, which will then be used in the exhibition’s official catalogue.

“I think that there is a sort of very engaged potential audience base here, and I look to engage those conversations on multiple fronts. How, specifically, is perhaps a little bit premature to say,” he said. At the end of the interview, Sirén stressed that the ombudsman’s report and his web of relationships in Helsinki was not related in any way to his new job leading Buffalo’s cultural flagship. The report, he said, “has nothing to do with my current position here at the Albright-Knox and has no bearing on my professional duties or roles. There are no accusations. The book is closed.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com