Monday, June 25, 2012

The Great Debate: The Relevance of Art in Daily Life

By Susan Hallett   

A busker on Esplanadi, in the heart of Helsinki. (Valteri Hirvonen/Eriksson&Company)

A busker on Esplanadi, in the heart of Helsinki. (Valteri Hirvonen/Eriksson&Company)

OTTAWA—“Art In Daily Life: Essential Or Irrelevant? Who decides? Who pays? Who cares?”

Those were the questions up for discussion at the third annual Walrus Foundation debate held at the National Gallery of Canada on May 2.

The query was also posted on the new “Soapbox” site ( created by The Walrus Magazine to provoke debate about the relevance of art in daily life.

The thought-provoking event, moderated by CBC Radio’s Carol Off, saw Stephen Borys, executive director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Kate Taylor, feature writer for the Globe and Mail’s arts section, arguing for “essential” against National Gallery director Marc Mayer and Toronto writer Sarah Milroy, who argued for “irrelevant.”

Several “provocateurs,” including Peter Simpson of The Ottawa Citizen and artist Andrew Morrow, were present to lead a lively Q&A period after the debate.

Morrow asked whether it would be considered frivolous to have the government send him to Berlin during the economic downturn to take advantage of the seething arts culture in that happening city.
One debater considered art to be something for the elite, or too Euro-centric, while another stated that art is part of a healthy lifestyle and contributes to well-being.

No need for debate in Finland

No one brought up the fact that the Finnish city of Helsinki is the World Design Capital (WDC) in 2012 along with Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen, and Lahti.
Approximately 100 exhibitions covering a wide range of designs will be presented throughout the year and the boundaries between art and design will be examined. All exhibitions of both the Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture are included in the program.

Design is also taking over all major museums, including Kunsthalle Helsinki, Amos Anderson Art Museum, the City Museums, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Technology.

In fact, “365 Wellbeing” is a project led by Aalto University (named after the world-famous Finnish designer Alvar Aalto) in which designers will look for new patient-centred solutions for municipal well-being services. The official website states that the project “encourages the exploration and adoption of healthier lifestyles and designs functional, pleasant, and healthy environments.”


My experience of Finland is that art is present in nearly all aspects of daily life. I was particularly struck by the fact that an Arabia fruit bowl from the Tuuli line that I bought had been used in Tampere, southern Finland, to hold the holy water used in the baptism of a child.

Mass-production of well-designed objects for daily use has been present in the Scandinavian countries for over a century. Visitors to Helsinki will have the opportunity to see the first-ever mass-produced Futuro house, merging high-end design with technology. WDC Helsinki Pavilion opens this month but September will be the most design intensive month.

One aspect I would love to see is the comparison of current design standards in different countries. Helsinki will certainly be a key meeting place for artists of all kinds.

Perhaps the Walrus Magazine debate will encourage more Canadians to live with art.

For information about WDC Helsinki go to

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among many others. E-mail:

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