Arts for Equ(al)ity: Cheerleading Change in the Helsinki Art Institutions

Helsinki Art Institutions for Equality (AFE) is an initiative, originally launched in 2017 and facilitated by artist Terike Haapoja in collaboration with artist Tellervo Kalleinen, choreographer Sonya Lindfors and curator Taru Elfving. I became familiar with the initiative in 2018 as we used to have these regular “ethics” meetings with the rest of the staff at HIAP, where I interned at the time.  The goal was to write HIAP’s strategy for equality, to be published alongside strategies coming from other institutions on AFE’s website – strategies regarding where the institution stands when it comes to ethics, equity, equality, diversity, sustainability, and all the other nice words.

Earlier this year, I was asked to write a reflection on the initiative. By making an introductory glance into the first years of the still evolving AFE initiative, this article observes the general idea of independent art workers attempting to instigate institutional change from the outside-in, in a system so reluctant to it.

I remember being quite annoyed and frustrated during those meetings at HIAP; there was a lot to talk about and we didn’t seem to be able to even touch the surface of things. We went through the strategies composed by the other institutions—and quite big institutions I might add—and they were very well written, telling you what you want to hear from them for the most part: key values; promises of commitments to improvements being made; acknowledgements of the power being held by the institutions and the responsibilities that come with that; referrals to projects done in the past in order to promote equality—some of them, one might dare call token projects. A rare example that caught my eye was Kiasma’s strategy. Apart from listing the museum’s principles and strengths, they had also admitted to some of their challenges, specifically the lack of diverse recruiting in Kiasma. They had attempted to provide a reason [1] for this challenge, which I wholeheartedly disagreed with and found extremely condescending. But nevertheless, those few lines alone could open a crucial discussion around this topic, as obviously Kiasma is not the only institution suffering from the lack of diverse recruitment in Finland. I say this because I think it is important to talk about the issues brought up by this initiative openly, in order to address the needs for confrontational zones of interest within the art scene in Helsinki.

What sparked the idea of Art for Equality? What phases has it been through ever since? And what lies in the future? To find an answer for some of these enquiries, I had a conversation with Terike Haapoja and Ki Nurmenniemi, who has been coordinating the initiative since January 2020.

For Terike, the idea for the initiative rose from the collapse of the Guggenheim Helsinki proposal at the Helsinki City council in 2016, a proposal which brought forward polarising conversations about what to do with the art scene in Helsinki at the time. As it is often the case in these conflicts, there was a clash of two ideas about the art world, one being a capitalist and elite support of the proposal, based on the principles of commodity fetishism and market-oriented rules, and on the opposing side, the many people who were pro the welfare state model where art is for all, and has the potential to change the cultural, social, and political context, and within it, contains artists who are intellectual beings (rather than creators oriented towards the production of aesthetic, marketable objects).

Being on that latter side, Terike used her social media platform to, as she puts it: “call for a need to figure out how to defend the art world, and how to think of our values in a way where we can start to build and sustain an art world that has an ethical grounding? Being on the board of the Kone Foundation at the time gave me the muscle and the wide networks needed to instigate a challenge to the institutions. They have to start thinking about these things, and come up with a strategy.”

But is having access to the networks of who’s who of the Helsinki art scene enough of a prerequisite to put one in a position to initiate and lead a challenge such as this? In other words, what are the prerequisites one needs for bringing up these issues to the art institutions and expect to be taken seriously by them?

“Initially, I thought that my only expertise in doing this is just that I’m an artist, I am invested in this because this whole structure is reliant on my labour and input, and that is why I have stakes in this whole setup”, Terike says. “I don’t have organising skills or any special awareness of equity or equality strategies within institutions. I was just interested in getting everyone together, and getting them committed to publishing strategies that would give us a handle on their practice.”

The idea of asking for strategies was preliminarily centred around these wishes: to animate the Helsinki art institutions to unite around the core principles of equity, equality, etc; to learn about how they choose to define themselves when it comes to these principles. It was hoped these would later become binding touchstones created by them, which they could be measured against, and be held accountable for.

As Ki informs me: “the strategies were the reasons that brought everyone in the same room, those who acknowledged that there was a problem and realised the urgency of something to be done. It helped keep questions like equity and equality on their agenda. This was phase one of the project, which started in 2017, and it has lasted for two years. Earlier this year, Frame Contemporary Art Finland and Goethe Institut Finnland expressed an interest in supporting the initiative. In addition to the strategy work, it was decided that we need to focus more on sharing challenges, developing concrete tools, and sharing good practices.”

This decision led to the Art for Equality meeting which took place on 29 January, 2020 at Kiasma, marking the beginning of AFE’s phase two. The session hosted representatives coming from institutions such as Kiasma, Frame Contemporary Art Finland, IHME Helsinki, HIAP, EMMA, Goethe Institut Finnland, Kone Foundation, Baltic Circle, Zodiak, Saastamoinen Foundation, HAM, Design Museum, and many more. “People started having more concrete and relevant questions, they expressed frustrations at not being able to work fast enough and efficiently enough,” Ki says. “They want to see the change happening, so they expressed interest in wanting more gatherings and more tools from us, and that is not sustainable.”

To facilitate and coordinate an initiative with these goals and of this magnitude is to commit to spending a great deal of time and energy. It needs contributions from a wide group of art workers/educators with a variety of expertise which the institutions can learn from. But how would it work in terms of the compensation of the labour of each person contributing? The lack of funding and resources was a great point of tension for AFE in the beginning, “When I started the project, I was enthusiastic and I had a grant from Taike for a personal project, so I just invited people that I knew to give some feedback and reflections. Only afterwards, they said that they came because I asked, and that we are friends, but that later they felt they are contributing for free and without compensation to these institutions that had full-time salaries. They felt that their precarious position is always used in this way, and that their expertise is taken for granted. I completely take the blame for not thinking it through, I wouldn’t do it again. However, I should mention that people were compensated afterwards and have been compensated ever since.”

So whose experience and expertise can the Helsinki institutions rely on when it comes to learning about equity and equality? There are a few associations/institutions already existing working in the field of advocacy, such as Globe Art Point, Culture for All, Kettuki and the newly established Feminist Culture House.  In the next phase of the initiative, some of these advocacy organisations are taking over the task of coordinating AFE as an equity alliance. How does this process of moving towards equity continue in the participating institutions? This is something that depends on the level of investment and the activity of the many institutions that originally agreed to be a part of this, so as Terike says: “The ball is in their court. What we can provide is some kind of facilitation for something that they need to do. Still, they must do the work themselves.”

Andrea Fraser’s “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” [2] acknowledges the important ways in which the institutional critique coming from artists has been successful in shaking and eroding the foundations of the museum, and bringing about significant transformations in the institutions of art. But she concludes that even artists whose work is informed by institutional critique should acknowledge that they are “trapped” in the field of art, that they themselves constitute the institution, and they should take responsibility for its disposition and mode of operation: “It’s not a question of being against the institution. . . It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to. Because the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, of ourselves.”

I go back to the January meeting, which revolved around the question of how ecological crises are entangled with social inequalities, and can only be addressed in an intersectional manner. Ki was kind enough to share the meeting notes with me. The topics discussed and the questions asked are urgent. There are also acknowledgements of the lack of inclusivity and diversity: “Why is everyone in this room white? Why, still, the invisibility of people of colour within the Finnish art institutions?”

This was my first thought when I read the names of people present in the meeting. I don’t think that at this point it is right to hold a closed meeting as such, knowing everyone in the room is going to be white. You simply cannot produce representation by reproducing the conditions that allow the lack of it. The whole thing reminds me of Sara Ahmed saying, “The word diversity is used more because it does less, it is a sign of the difficulty of getting through.” I want to remind again that your acknowledgements don’t mean anything, they don’t fix or cover anything up, they don’t make you seem more aware or enlightened, they might make you feel better though. In actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been—in the arts as in many other areas—are oppressive, and discouraging to all those who did not have the good fortune to be born white and preferably middle or upper class. “The fault lies not in our stars . . . but in our institutions and our education.” [3]

This frustration forces me to ask why AFE’s work moves at such a slow pace. Apart from the lack of funding, what else is there? It does seem to me that the people holding power in the institutions are not willing enough to change. They see that the times are changing, and to remain relevant and maintain legitimacy internationally, they need to modify their ways, but they don’t seem to know how. They want to learn, and they want tools, as if they are the first institutions in the world to ever think of equality.

What stage is AFE at the moment? Do they see enough will to change, beyond using the language of equality?

Ki: “I think this coming together and discussions have led to some level of trust, so people don’t feel as scared as they were in the beginning. In the latest session, people were different, they were ready to move forward, I sensed a strong change.”

Terike: “One reason could be that the people who have remained in the gatherings are genuinely dedicated. The group has changed a bit. It’s been very difficult to get the museum directors to attend, usually, they send someone from their educational department. It’s good to remember that many organisations during that time of 2016–17 didn’t have any strategies regarding equity and equality. A lot of those key organisations had strategies for international networking, and not a word about equality or an ethics of sustainability. The problem in Finland comes down from so far in education. Now it’s much better, but when I studied, you could get through your arts education without ever hearing the word post-colonialism. That is why it is very important to get art universities/curatorial programs to be part of this process. I agree that there has been so much, just, language up to this point, this fear existed from the beginning that they just produce this standard strategy jargon that doesn’t mean anything, and there is that also. But there has been a change, people like Sonya Lindfors, Maryan Abdulkarim, MIF, GAP, Culture for All, Feminist Culture House, they have managed to bring these topics to the surface, and to change things in a totally different way, so in relationship to the big art institutions I see myself as a facilitator, not the educator.”

Facilitating change in institutions and bringing them into actualising it is no easy task. You cannot be too antagonising so they don’t crawl back into their comfort zones, and you cannot not be critical, because then not much will move forward. To me, at times, it grimly feels like one is left with not much of a choice but to act as a cheerleader; stand outside the playing field, be encouraging, supportive at any cost and hope for the best.

“The attempt was to try and create this pressure, but pressure gently, because the scene is so fragmented, and friction gets generated so easily that is not very helpful,” Terike says.

What is the role of the public front in this struggle? What other forms of contestations should we pursue? “The Finnish media seems to be unbothered by all these conversations for the most part, or just simply on the wrong side of it. Militant approaches that work in New York or London would most likely fail in Helsinki, because of the lack of support and coverage from the media. They will just be ignored and not heard about. The scene being small, and everyone knowing each other, is no help either,” Terike answers. To my observations, if someone facing a form of inequality calls out something problematic happening in the art scene, they are often faced with the loudest of silences. If they receive support, it is usually from the other marginalised voices who share the same concerns, and guess what, none of those people work – or I should say, can find work – in Helsinki institutions. There is a need for a coalition of art workers that would protest openly, loudly and fiercely against the questionable values and practices of local institutions.

The institution of art, as Adorno writes, is intricately linked to the governing ideology at large [4]. They are linked together as allies, as a complement to one another, they practice the same structure of social control and oppression that the ideology prescribes to them. The art institution, much like the works that are made for it, will always reproduce the types of inequality that characterise existing conditions in society. Politics is entangled in the institutions of art, and now, more than ever, the institutions seem to be politically dead. Given everything, with all the respect I have for the work done within AFE, I personally have little patience left for the type of institutional critique it sees in its power to pursue. There is indeed a need for a multitude of approaches with different strategies, yet we, as the agents in this art scene without institutional backing, are a small number of people with very limited resources and next to no support from any media. Trying multiple approaches requires an investment from our time and resources that with the current structures we cannot afford. We need to be able to imagine alternative sites in which we can fight for equity, and practice the values we believe in, leading change instead of cheerleading it. We already have some of those sites in Helsinki: Globe Art Point, Museum of Impossible Forms, Ruskeat Tytöt, Third Space, Arma Alliance, Academy of Moving People & Images, UrbanApa, Kettuki, Catalysti, Feminist Culture House, etc. are finding ways, each in their own scale, to get out of the frame, and by doing so, change it to some extent through developing practices capable of operating outside of the confines of the art institutions, or at times, by bringing forward collaborations that pull the institutions towards their desired goals. If I have seen the slightest of changes in terms of the pursuit of equality in the Helsinki art scene, it is thanks to the activity of such associations, collectives, and individuals.

Having said this, I have to add that working through such initiatives mentioned above has its own perils that we need to be strongly cautious of. I think Terike explains it very well here:

“I lived in and helped run Oranssi for 15 years (Oranssi is an autonomous youth housing project that started out as a squat, owned and governed by the tenants). Even if it was a radical leftist group with ecological awareness, it interestingly was also used as a poster-child for the conservatives who saw a certain entrepreneurial DIY spirit in it; even though the project was a response to structural youth homelessness at the time. This reminds me also of what a colleague wrote about the outburst of mutual aid networks in the US at this moment; that while invention, mutual aid and entrepreneurship are celebrated as great characteristics of the US society, they are in reality just people trying desperately to fix a totally broken system. So this is why I believe that it is necessary to push the state and its institutions and the whole societal value system. Otherwise, there’s a danger that independent projects become tokenized or even that the work of justice-based networks and support is fully delegated to them; something that seems to be happening now in Helsinki. Most of the progressive educational work is done by independent projects who are in reality marginalised from real power and kept precarious. That needs to change.”

From Art for Equ(al)ity towards an Equity Alliance

What does the future look like for AFE? In the words of Ki: “The initial strategy challenge to Helsinki-based arts organisations was much needed. However, in order to have a real impact on actual practices, I think AFE has to change. In its current form, it is neither an inclusive nor a sustainable operation. Its value lies in how it has been building up interest and awareness – and created a forum for learning across institutional borders. But seeing so many advocacy groups excelling at the work that we are trying to do, I would like to see more attention and resources directed at them. In my view, tight cooperation on the challengers’ side is essential in pressuring cultural institutions to undergo the kind of profound transformations needed. Since I started coordinating the AFE initiative, I have been thinking about how to gain more leverage through collaboration. If all goes as planned, by the beginning of 2021 AFE has been transformed into Equity Alliance. This would mean that a diverse coalition of advocacy groups working with various aspects of equity and equality will take (and make) over the AFE forum. The institutions involved would still receive education and coaching but they would have to commit to the alliance’s goals and support it through membership fees and/or through purchasing tailored education services. The exact operating model is to be decided collectively. With the increased competence and leverage provided by the alliance, this interest towards developing a more inclusive and equitable cultural sector can be turned into concrete actions. I want to add that in addition to pressure, the cultural field as a whole would need financial instruments (perhaps in the form of increased but targets-bound [5] funding) in order to commit to the change – and this is something for the funding bodies to consider.”

I appreciate so much the honesty and transparency with which Terike and Ki have contributed to this conversation. Ki kindly reached out to Kiasma on my behalf to see if someone would like to comment on the issues brought up in this article from their point of view, but we failed to receive a response.

Elham Rahmati

Elham Rahmati is a visual artist and curator based in Helsinki. She has worked as the curator and producer of Academy of Moving People & Images (2019–2020).


[1] ”The number of educated people with an immigrant background who seek entry into this field remains quite small. We create preconditions and work to lower the threshold for people to seek entry into the field through internships and various projects (e.g., internship opportunities at different stages of study, working as guides, working in workshops, Art Testers initiative [Taidetestaajat]).” Source:

[2] Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique.” Artforum, September 2005.

[3] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, “Theses upon Art and Religion Today” (1945), in Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature, 2 vols., ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 2:293.

[5] Brown, M. (2020, February 18). Arts bodies threatened with funding cuts over lack of diversity.