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Finnish Art Strike! Do boycotts work?


The Finnish contemporary art scene is generally seen to be characterized by smooth functioning, fair and prompt pay, and little in the way of dissent. On Friday 12th December, however, a campaign launched on social media which raises questions about the social responsibility borne by large scale art institutions. It calls for a strike against Kiasma (Kiasma_strike), part of The Finnish National Gallery (based in Helsinki) dedicated to contemporary art, in response to its perceived artwashing of corporate contacts, in the form of the Zabludowicz family, long known in the art world for their collecting and exhibition activities, as well as for having made money through arms trading. This follows upon a longstanding campaign by the Boycott Divest Zabludowicz (BDZ) calling for a boycott of Zabludowicz’s art Foundations and for art workers to refuse to sell their labor with institutions in their network.

The adaptation of this call within the context of the Finnish art scene is important because Finland anyhow has ample state funding (despite cuts in recent years). As such, it ought to be able to resist the lure of private and tainted money. At the same time, however, the patronage of the Zabludowicz family is not an isolated case within the art world, and merely points to the hypocrisy of art institutions that could in any case benefit from a radical overhaul. While the call for Kiasma to operate a sustained ethical policy is welcome, we should not focus on individuals to the detriment of overall systemic issues emanating from the art world’s links to capitalist interests.

Ultimately, we need to rediscover in the boycott (and therefore in the freelancer ‘strike’) its roots not as an attempt to cancel individuals, but to address poor working conditions and economic inequality. The term ‘boycott’ derives from an Irish rent collector, Charles Boycott who was ostracized in 1880 by workers and businesses in his locality due to his harsh methods of rent collection and eviction. The tactic, which was proposed by the Irish National Land League — a political organization aimed at protecting farm tenants — was successful due to its direct link to the materialist realities of the time: namely, successive bad harvests leading to economic degradation and hunger. As such, rather than merely canceling Charles Boycott, a clear message was sent, signaling the centrality of worker solidarity to the movement for fairer working and rent conditions.

‘Kiasma_strike’ has the potential to do this. The campaign derivesfrom an open letter penned by Terike Haapoja and Eero Yli-Vakkuri and published in the online magazine Voima in October 2010. The letter which has now become the statement in a call for signatories and strike action by Kiasma_strike — expresses solidarity for Palestine, citing Amnesty International’s 2022 declaration of Israel as an apartheid state. It additionally calls upon Kiasma to revoke Chaim “Poju” Zabludowicz’s membership of the Kiasma Support Foundation, given his founding of the ‘Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre’ (BICOM), which seeks to challenge the notion that Israel operates apartheid conditions. Zabludowicz is from a wealthy family of collectors who in the past made money from arms trades between Finland and Israel via the Tamares group, founded by Chaim’s father. They have identified their Charles Boycott. What remains is to identify the special structures that lead so many people like Zabludowicz to positions of influence within public art institutions. As the late Michael Brooks argued, we need to be ‘kind to people, brutal to systems’. And this may mean showing museums the way forward, where they are otherwise uninclined to see their own glaring hypocrisies.

While the Kiasma_strike letter writers and signatories see something positive in the increasing attempts of institutions such as Kiasma to promote social justice, they argue that such a “safer-space policy cannot mean that the museum is excused from concern for human-rights violations or for apartheid, nor can it in any way support them.” The letter also points out that Zabludowicz has arranged donations and sales of works to Kiasma via foundations bearing the family name.

Kiasma responded promptly to the call for an art strike with a press release published on its website aimed at quarantining the museum against reputational harm. It states that the Kiasma Support Foundation, of which Chaim Zabludowicz is a board member, is merely a support entity that engages in acquisitions, and that The Finnish National Gallery is unable to boycott private individuals unless the government permits it to. The statement ends by saying that:

“Artists are important partners of Kiasma. We respect the views of the artists who have made the petition and we are naturally willing to continue working with the artists after they cease their work stoppage.”

This response misunderstands the nature of strikes and boycotts, which are not generally government sanctioned, but operate in spite of and against governments and other actors in authority.Aside from this, the notion that Kiasma will be happy to work with artists when they have ceased their stoppage ignores the aim of striking — namely to continue withdrawing labor until demands are met. And surely Kiasma does not intend to so callously state that it will work with artists only if they give up their call for greater ethical responsibility? Though that is the implication.

The arrogance of the press statement is likely to embolden the Kiasma_strike campaign. This would be a desirable outcome, given that there is so much work to do and that this type of initiative is needed on a wider scale within the art world. Why not cease private donations altogether, increase state funding and turn museums over to recreational use and the promotion of creative activity among all social classes? This, rather than the use of museums as receptacles of wealth, would be more suitable in light of Kiasma’s mission to make art ‘accessible to everyone’.

We clearly have a long way to go before any such demand can be met, though there is a precedent in the form of Rome’s MACRO museum, which under the stewardship of Giorgio De Finis operated an anything goes approach, enabling ordinary members of the public to exhibit alongside superstar artists from 2018 to 2019. The project met with varied feedback, with many artists being deeply defensive of traditional art world hierarchies. However, with accessibility written into the statements of so many museums we need to ask how it is that museums tend towards trendy big name shows while enriching collections through associations with bankers and arms dealers who back oppressive regimes. Kiasma_strike and other such initiatives are a good start, providing they are ready to go beyond calling out specific individuals and spread class consciousness by highlighting the elitist values that operate within state museums. After all, why do museums have bankers and arms traders on their boards, but no teachers and nurses? Though we might equally ask, who principally serves to benefit from the Kiasma collection, so long as it maintains an 18 euro entrance fee? I, for one, cannot afford to attend the museum without asking for a free press ticket. It’s time to clearly signal the impact of capitalism and class structures on museum practices, so as to make accessibility part of their practice, rather than a mere buzzword.