The Ateneum building celebrated its inauguration on 18 November 1887. The new art forum was a momentous achievement for the Finnish cultural establishment, albeit that its inception was the subject of heated controversy and debate. The project was conceived by Professor Carl Gustaf Estlander, who envisaged a house of the arts in which art and crafts would flourish under the same roof in a creative alliance – an idea greeted none too enthusiastically by Finland’s artists. Few in number though they were, they felt reluctant to relegate “real art” to the same status as “commonplace” applied arts, particularly as the Finnish Art Society (founded 1846) had already instigated the practice of organising art exhibitions. Eventually these differences were put aside and a compromise was reached, but the motto carved above the building’s main entrance survives as a telling reminder of Ateneum’s controversial early history: Concordia res parvae crescunt – through unity small things do grow.
All things considered, Ateneum was a remarkable achievement for a budding nation of Finland’s size. For a small country yet to gain independence, Finland was willing to invest a generous sum of capital in a cultural undertaking so ambitious as to be dubbed among its contemporaries as a “Palace of a million marks”.
The Ateneum building originally served a variety of different functions. One half of the building was taken up by the collections and Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society, while the other half accommodated the School of Applied Art and the collections and offices of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design. Symbolising this dual role, the patron goddess of arts stands in the centre of the tympanum above the main entrance, with two words engraved in the crowns of laurel she holds in either hand: art in one, crafts in the other.
The task of drawing up the architectural plans for the building was entrusted to Theodor Höijer, a prominent architect who designed many important buildings in Helsinki’s centre. For the facade ornaments, Höijer enlisted the help of his friend Carl Eneas Sjöstrand, who sculpted the allegorical goddess of art in the tympanum, the caryatids guarding the main entrance, and the portraits of the great masters, Bramante, Raphael and Phidias. The facade decorations also feature a set of medallion portraits of the world’s celebrated artists, sculpted not by Sjöstrand but Ville Vallgren, Finland’s leading sculptor of that time, then already based in Paris. The execution of all other ornamental elements was delegated to a decorative sculptor, Magnus von Wright.
Within a few decades, the interiors grew crowded for the building’s numerous occupants. Faced with an acute shortage of space, the Society of Crafts and Design sought new premises for its museum. Today the Design Museum has its own building at 23 Korkeavuorenkatu. The two schools and the art museum remained in the building until the 1970s, at which point the School of Applied Art (today the University of Art and Design) and the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society (now the Fine Arts Academy) were relocated to their own premises. After these changes, the sole occupant remaining in the building was the art museum, then administered by the Finnish Art Society. In autumn 1990, it was placed under government administration and incorporated within the Finnish National Gallery. Today the building houses the Ateneum Art Museum and the Central Art Archives. The other two departments of the National Gallery occupy their own buildings; the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma was inaugurated at Postiaukio in May 1998, and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum dedicated to older international art is completely renovated at 40 Bulevardi.