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A celebration of many arts

By Johanna Huhtanen, September 2008

Photo: Sakari Viika
The Huvila Tent forms the Helsinki Festival's main venue and landmark.

The Helsinki Festival, held annually from late August to early September, is Finland's biggest cultural festival. The programme includes music, theatre, dance, visual arts and cinema, as well as city events. It features Finnish and foreign artists of international repute.

Every year in late August and early September, Helsinki becomes a lively festival city. Whether you love classical music or circus acts, the Helsinki Festival has something for everyone, including children.

The festival's motto, "Art belongs to everyone", is reflective of the Helsinki Festival's success: since it was founded in 1968 it has become a staple part of the Finnish autumn, winding up the summer festival season and welcoming people back to the city after their summer holidays.

Art for all

Photo: Riitta Sourander
Click to enlarge the picture
Films are shown at the open-air cinema Kinopiha.

The Helsinki Festival originally developed out of Sibelius Week, a yearly concert series focusing on the music of the Finnish national composer. Introduced in 1951, Sibelius Week had experienced declining visitor numbers for years, and by the mid-1960s it had become clear that the classical music event had to be reformed. In 1965, the Helsinki City Board appointed a committee to discuss the future of the annual event, and two years later the Helsinki Festival Foundation was set up to provide a framework.

A large part of the initial reforms put into effect were cosmetic, and the nature of the festival stayed almost unchanged. The main problem with the reform process appeared to be the conflicting interests and desires between the older and newer generations in the field of culture. Many felt that the organisers were blind to the spirit of the times. The elitism of the festival was widely discussed in the press, and young intellectuals condemned the event as upper-class entertainment.

In 1969, the student union of the Institute of Applied Arts held a demonstration at the festival opening, demanding that the city expand the festival to include cinema, circus, street theatre, jazz, pop and folk music. In deep crisis, the festival appointed a new director, Seppo Nummi. He made radical reforms, refocusing the festival programme on younger audiences. Free events, jazz and pop music, film, and the local underground movement were brought in to modernise and democraticise the festival.

The transfer of power itself was celebrated with a performance of the underground opera Kuoleman puutarha (The Garden of Death) named after a famous 1869 aquarelle by Finnish artist Hugo Simberg. The opera portrayed a figure wrapped in a white shroud lying in a coffin, symbolising the death of old art. In celebration of the birth of new life and new art, the audience were handed fresh vegetables.

Although the underground element of the festival proved temporary, the facelift had succeeded. Audiences grew year by year: from 42,000 in 1969 to 167,000 in 1970. In 2008, the figure reached 260,000. Art has truly succeeded in making itself a visible part of the day-to-day urban life in Helsinki, as evidenced by the presence of sculptures and works of environmental art around Helsinki and the popularity of the free events.

Autumnal success

Photo: Helsinki Festival
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Australian troupe Strange Fruit performed "The Field" at the Night of the Arts during the 2007 festival.

The public has learnt to count on the quality of the Helsinki Festival, which showcases both top international names as well as fresher talents. Many art institutions, including private galleries, have adjusted to the festival by displaying the best works then, while for the Helsinki audiences, the festival opens the autumn season. From the beginning, the Helsinki Festival has strongly supported contemporary Finnish composers, such as Joonas Kokkonen, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Erik Bergman and many others. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Helsinki Festival Foundation became distinguished for its support for the Helsinki Biennale, now Musica Nova Helsinki, and the UMO, the New Music Orchestra.

An absolute highlight of the festival during the last decade or so has been 'The Night of the Arts'. The idea for this lighthearted autumn carnival, first arranged in 1989, came from a young art historian Helka Ketonen. The vision of a night when several art institutions could stay open late into the night and diverse art events would take place all over the city gained immediate support. 

Source: Kaija & Markku Valkonen, Festival Fever: Finland Festivals (Otava 1994)

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