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Q&A: Janne Siren

Janne Siren, the new director of the Albrigh Knox Art Gallery. Photo by kc kratt

It was a cultural cliffhanger: who would fill the vacancy at the helm of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery? In May, Janne Siren, who had lately directed the Helsinki Art Museum in his native Finland,  moved into the director’s office at the art museum he terms Buffalo’s “global asset.” Siren’s hiring continues a tradition of dynamic leadership at AKAG, whose vaunted contemporary art collection has been carefully steered through a century and a half of good times and bad times. As the latest in that long line, Siren is a voluble and passionate advocate for the arts as a primary player on the civic stage. He is a Finn who spent his middle and high school years in Switzerland and completed undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States; a multilinguist (he speaks five languages) and an art historian. Siren brings fresh eyes to AKAG, and has big plans for getting all of Buffalo on board.

Have you always wanted to be in the art world?
As it happens, I do have an ancestor, my mother’s father’s father, who was a well-known Finnish painter. My mother is an interior designer and author, and my father is a biochemist. We moved to Switzerland when I was in middle school, and I went to the American school, Tasis, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where I studied through high school. It was a very diverse student body, a real cultural melting pot, as is Switzerland itself. Travel was a very important part of my education, and a camera was my constant companion. This was the nondigital age, of course, and I would go through hundreds of rolls of film annually, developing them myself. So my visual literacy was actively being trained.

You came to the US for college. Why?
After attending an American high school, I had a pretty straightforward path to an American collegiate system. The world was a different place then—this was the period of the Cold War—and in Finland, there was no kind of reciprocity or acceptance of an American high school diploma. I enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I started out studying political science; I was definitely inclined toward poli-sci and history—I had been a Model U.N. [an academic simulation of the United Nations] participant. I vividly recall one contest when I was seventeen; it was held in the Hague, and I was representing South Africa and had to defend apartheid. Of course, this really went against the grain of my educational background! In those days, I saw my future in the classroom and planned to become a university professor. I was also passionate about crew and rowed for Holy Cross. With our training schedule, it was tough getting through early morning classes. At one point, I was taking a basic art history course and was called in by the section head. I was sure I was in trouble, as we’d just turned in a big paper, and I assumed my grade was poor. It turned out the professor thought it was the most remarkable piece of undergraduate art writing she’d seen in three decades. “You must drop poli-sci and stop this crew nonsense,” was her advice. I resisted for a while, but then I did switch majors. She changed my life, I think. She was able to ignite a passion, a flame that has been burning ever since.
I was accepted into New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where I earned master’s and PhD degrees in art history, matching my BA in the subject from Holy Cross. I was certainly aware of the Albright-Knox collection at this time, and I considered it a great privilege to study at NYU, so close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which we visited frequently.

Your sights were still set on teaching, but you didn’t start that right away.
There was a slight detour. Finland has mandatory military service for a year, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. It seemed odd to me, as I hadn’t lived in Finland since I was thirteen. But here I was in the US, a Finnish citizen with a Finnish passport and Swiss residency, and I was approaching the deadline. I had one chapter left in my dissertation when I entered the army and was accepted into the Special Forces, which is like the US Airborne Rangers. I spent my army days jumping out of airplanes and helicopters and learning to survive in hostile climates. I also met the woman who would become my wife—I was on a weekend leave in Helsinki, and she was visiting her family, on a vacation from her job at the Finnish Institute in the Middle East, located in Jerusalem at the time.
[When she returned], emails kept our relationship alive, despite the distance. I was writing from the barracks; she was back in Jerusalem. That’s how I spent my spare time in the army—finishing my doctoral work and writing to her.  By the time I met up with her a second time, on a visit to Jerusalem, our bond had been solidified through the power of the written word.  I recommend this kind of slow courtship!

You and your wife were married in Israel and are now parents of three young children, who have recently joined you in Buffalo, a long way from both Jerusalem and Finland. What happened in those intervening years?
While I was in Jerusalem visiting her, I also paid a visit to the art history department at the Hebrew University. I ended up speaking to the head of the department for an hour and was eventually offered a visiting assistant professorship for one year. This turned into four years, and I taught, among other courses, modern art history and the history of the modern art museum. So I did fulfill my dream of teaching at the university level. (I plan to teach a museology course here at the Albright this fall and spring.) For years, I had wanted to go to work in America. In the years just after September 11, it was very difficult for foreigners to get hired here. In 2004, with our first child on the way, I was hired for the directorship of Tampere Art Museum, located in an old industrial city that is now a bustling cultural hub in the lake district of southern Finland. I was a civil servant; for that job, I had to translate my CV into Finnish for the first time! Three years later, I took over as director of the Helsinki Art Museum, one of the largest cultural institutions in the Nordic region. A contemporary and modern art museum with two exhibition spaces, the museum also oversees visual arts policies for the City of Helsinki and manages public art programs.

What attracted you to Buffalo?
Of course I knew about the collection at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery—in terms of the works, it is really my field. It was like a second visual home to me during my graduate school years. When I was asked [by a recruiting firm] if I would like to be considered for an opening at the top of this gallery, it did not take long to answer affirmatively. It felt like the AKAG was a familiar place intellectually, with such remarkable acquisitions. Anywhere you look, you see brilliance and greatness. I was also attracted to a city on the border, a city on a lake.

How do you intend to strengthen the city/art museum connection, which has had its ups and downs in a blue-collar sports-obsessed milieu?
I am wondering how, for example, the cost of a ticket to a Sabres game compares to say, a youth membership at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which gives you a year of access to the collection and special programming? I see this museum as a place without walls, a very porous place, and the whole city as a comprehensive cultural space. We plan to roll out a roster of events and show why everyone in Buffalo should be a member of the AKAG. We will be reaching out actively to make our case. This is the only global cultural asset in the state, outside of New York City art museums.The only way we can compete in tomorrow’s global marketplace is to be multiculturally literate. We stand on the doorstep of the most visual of centuries. There is no better place to absorb the skill of visual literacy than by absorbing works of genius, en masse, which we have here. It is for the community’s sake that we exist. We are custodians. We have to take care of the city’s cultural well-being; I am 100 percent committed to that task. We owe this to our children.        



Maria Scrivani is a Buffalo resident with an interest in local history and people who make a difference.

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