At the Well blog


A decade of IHME Festivals at the heart of creating and experiencing art

Held for the tenth time, the annual IHME Festival introduces a large-scale work by an internationally renowned contemporary artist on exhibit in a public space. The themes of the commissioned art work are opened for public discussion in the festival programme. Executive Director Paula Toppila discusses the meaning of a public space and the changes faced by the festival amidst its decennial celebrations.

The mission of the festival’s organiser, the Pro Arte Foundation, is to promote art in a democratic society as an integral part of peoples’ daily lives.

The Foundation believes that the best way to reach people is in public spaces – spaces in which we live and move each day but where art is traditionally not experienced. An artwork in a public space is often not a consciously sought experience but a fleeting and coincidental situation or event.

Through cooperation with internationally renowned and distinguished artists, we seek to bolster the status and visibility of visual arts and provide our own input to the field. We feel that art in a public space is more accessible because it is able to reach new audiences who are not typical consumers of art and culture.


Public space, public situation, public time

The IHME Contemporary Art Festival considers all shared outdoor, indoor and virtual spaces that people can freely access to be public spaces. Over the years, urban residents have experienced the IHME works of art in places such as the Kaisaniemi park, Central Railway Station, Market Square, shopping centres, sports venues and streets, as well as in libraries across the country in Helsinki, Joensuu, Vaasa and Rovaniemi.

But what is it that we mean by a public space? From the perspective of ownership or right of possession, the concept is surprisingly complex. Upon closer inspection, many spaces that we consider public are in fact controlled by private businesses and usually also used for commercial purposes. These include facades, public transport stops and streets sold as advertising space, not to mention shopping centres and other, clearly commercial spaces. The spaces we perceive as public are therefore a blend of public and private and that which we consider to be common space.

On closer inspection, it is evident that a public space is not enough to describe the comprehensive experience and its emphases created by the contemporary artworks. Public space as the venue for an artwork is an inadequate definition because it is increasingly common that art is encountered in a situation.  Often, the overall physical environment of the experienced work of art and its constantly changing parameters become an essential part of the work. In such cases, instead of public spaces, it would be clearer to talk about public urban environments or contexts.

In addition to the space or environment, time is an equally essential and often a significantly more important parameter. Could we refer to this concept as the time of public space, or public time? What is public time or the time of public space? Is it the time we spent in shared spaces with other people, outside private properties?  Is it more apt to speak of a comprehensive public life, the multisensory, psychophysical and psychosocial every experience outside our homes in spaces where art is encountered?


Changes in the festival’s environment

Over its decade-long history, the IHME festival has witnessed a surge in the use of public spaces as settings where art takes place.

Around the time of inception of IHME, the curatorial agency PUBLICS, then named Checkpoint Helsinki, initiated its first programmes for producing art in public spaces. In comparison to the artist-based approach of IHME, PUBLICS focuses on the practicalities of curating contemporary public art in dialogue with international parties. The Helsinki Art Museum (HAM), responsible for maintaining the city’s public artworks, recently announced its intention to establish a maritime biennale, to be held on the islands of Kuninkaansaari and Vallisaari.

As a result of the equality challenge posed last year by artist Terike Haapoja to the field of arts, the promotion of equality has become an increasingly important area of development for the IHME festival. We have discussed possible avenues for the promotion of equality and diversity, as well as how we could take into account the inclusion of different groups of people in our organisational structure and strategic planning. What can we do to combat discriminatory discourse? What kinds of methods of valuation do we use to assess the impact of art and programmes?

Another major challenge to our operations that requires discussion is climate change: how can a contemporary art agent reduce their carbon footprint and help good practices take root in the field of art?

The parameters related to way of living that significantly impact climate change are the same for institutions and individual people: how we live, travel and eat.

For this year’s festival, we have ensured that our printed products are environmentally friendly, and our communications with the public will increasingly take place on our website. All printed publications have been produced using recycled paper and plant-based colours. The emissions caused by the air travel of international guests to the festival will be ecologically compensated. The efficiency of recycling at our office has been increased. At our events, guests will be served vegan dishes to encourage discussion over dietary choices.

By starting with small actions and changes in practices, we will constantly learn new and can gradually institute both equality and the fight against climate change as core values that guide all our activities.

The theme of this year’s IHME Project and therefore of the entire festival programme is the relationship between humans, environment and other species.



Paula Toppila, Curator and Executive Director, IHME Contemporary Art Festival