Catching Up with Consul General: Farewell words from Kaarina Gould, Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York
Kaarina Gould has worked as the Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute here in New York, the cultural capital of the US, for nearly five years. Before embarking on a new journey in Finland, Consul General Mika Koskinen interviewed her about her most memorable experiences in the field of culture in this city that never sleeps.
Mika Koskinen: You have worked as the Executive Director of the Finnish Cultural Institute here in New York for nearly five years. New York is often described as the cultural capital of the United States. In your experience, what are some of the most effective ways to promote Finnish culture in such a competitive environment?
Kaarina Gould: At the Institute, we have been focusing on building strong networks in the professional fields we work in – design, architecture, and contemporary art. As a small non-profit organization, massive campaigns, projects, or events are out of our reach. Instead, we have focused on a method I would describe as planting seeds in the ground, each meaningful encounter planting a seed of thought for potential future collaboration. Some will never sprout, but some grow strong roots and blossom.
It is also vital to recognize artists and practitioners whose work resonates here and now.
MK: The whole cultural sector in New York has been heavily struck by the coronavirus pandemic. In the media, there has been speculation whether New York will ever manage to recover its vibrating cultural industry. How do you see the future of the city going forward? Will we see a cultural renaissance anytime soon?
KG: If you look at history – major crises have always been followed by a vivid phase in arts and culture. I do believe New York will recover, and the world too, in different phases. The cultural life in the city may not look exactly like it was pre-pandemic, as people's behavior has likely altered for good. Also, artists' practices have been impacted by the pandemic, and institutions have been forced – and inspired – to seek new ways of reaching out and encountering audiences.
MK: Can you name some of the main achievements and the toughest challenges during your mandate?
KG: I would say the toughest challenge was to adapt and keep going under the last administration. I moved in just three weeks before the 2016 election, and the shift in the landscape that happened overnight was a profound shock both personally and professionally. Finding purpose was not always easy, but I hope we managed to make a dent in the bigger fight for equity and sustainability through some of our projects.
Thinking of the achievements, I just finished writing our annual report for 2020. In the midst of all the programs and events that had to be postponed or canceled, my team, with the artist collective Mark Niskanen & Jani-Matti Salo, produced and presented a public sound installation Murmurations, that was also an FCINY commission. We set the piece up in a COVID-19 proof manner in Brooklyn Bridge Park in October 2020, and looking back, it feels like a bit of a miracle. I salute everyone who managed to produce and present new work during the pandemic.
MK: The Institute runs an artist-in-residence program of its own for architects, designers, and visual artists, as well as facilitates Finnish artists' mobility to the US with a number of local residence programs. How would you describe the impact of these residencies in terms of long-term cultural exchange?
KG: Residencies and other types of mobility programs – like the fellowship program we hosted for curators for many years – are building exactly the kind of slow impact I described earlier. A residency in New York might have a profound effect and alter the direction of an artist's practice; a peer network built during a residency might result in collaborations even long in the future. I do believe it is one of the smartest forms of cultural exchange to have an institution in place focused on fostering these connections.
MK: The Institute has been rethinking and reshaping its mission lately. Where do you see the organization going in the next five years?
KG: We did go through a thorough process of rethinking and rewriting our mission last fall – the whole team and the board felt the massive shifts around us called for it. The result was respectful to the 30-year long presence of the Institute in New York while stating a new ambition to be more committed to equity and inclusion, as well as puts sustainability at the center of our mission.
In terms of organization and funding, the Institute is in a very good place, and as a small and dynamic agent with lots of good friends and supporters, I trust the Institute will remain attuned to the times.
MK: What would be your most cherished memory during these years at the helm of the Institute?
KG: There are so many! Right now, the simplest moments where people got together – friends, peers, colleagues – over ideas, food, maybe wine, seem the most precious ones. Thankfully there are signs that we are closer and closer to being able to hug each other again.
MK: You are moving on to a fascinating new position in Helsinki to pave the way for the new Architecture and Design Museum. Could you shed some light on your new role and what the prospect of this new museum entails for Finland's cultural life in the coming years?
KG: In May, I will start leading the process of founding a new national museum for design and architecture in Finland. The museum is long overdue, yet I feel now is the right time to make it happen. With the whole newly gained perspective the pandemic has given cultural institutions, we are wiser than ever before when designing a museum for the future. The project is so important for the design and architecture communities in Finland. I'm confident we are about to create something that resonates, and ripples globally, and becomes an open, inviting platform locally. The reason the museum is now moving forward is the City of Helsinki's commitment to redevelop the South Harbor district in the center of the capital. It's been decided that the new museum building will be the anchor of the area. So exciting and humbling to be part of building something that will have a permanent presence in the city.
MK: On behalf of the Consulate General of Finland in New York, I want to thank you for the excellent cooperation and wish you all the best in the future.
KG: Thank you for a generous and meaningful partnership over the years!