Image size 11 Kb Fine Art in a Little Village

The Salmela Art Centre in Mäntyharju is very much a one-man show, the man concerned being Tuomas Hoikkala. A saxophonist and Sibelius Academy graduate, he was actually supposed to carve out a career for himself as a musician. But he turned his attention to other things and now runs one of the finest art centres in Finland.

It all began when the local municipality was seeking a use for a 19th century building that had once served as a coach inn. The idea that Tuomas Hoikkala came up with was the least expensive and most convincing. The art centre that he proposed opened its doors in 1990.

Salmela together with the adjacent Iso-Pappila - a former vicarage - has excellent facilities for exhibitions of work by carefully chosen artists. For several young ones it has been a springboard into the ranks of well-known names. In 1997, for example, the highly impressive paintings exhibited by the young artist Pasi Tammi were snapped up. He is only 26, but experts say his paintings are a good investment right now. Tammi was in good company that included internationally famous professors, the sculptor Timo Sarpaneva and the painter Kimmo Kaivanto. The works on display in Iso-Pappila this year are by women artists: the painters Anitra Lucander and Marjatta Tapiola and the sculptor Nina Tervo.

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Nina Tervo: "The Rider"

As recommended by Unesco in a set of guidelines, Tuomas Hoikkala set out to revitalise an old village milieu of historical and cultural importance and find a new use for it. The rich variety of cultural events on the summer 1997 calendar included concerts in Mantyharju Church. Indicative of the importance of this summer programme among the dozens of festivals arranged in Finland was the fact that the President's wife Eeva Ahtisaari agreed to be the patron and the opening ceremony was performed by Chancellor Risto Ihamuotila of the University of Helsinki.

Now in its eighth year, Salmela is everything that Hoikkala envisaged in his plans. Not that the beginning was easy: "Not a single work was sold the first summer," he recalls, proudly adding: "But now collectors and the general public have discovered Salmela. There has never been any compromise on the high standards that we originally set for ourselves."

The two large buildings can cater for simultaneous exhibitions of works by up to six artists. Each has several rooms, as much space as one gets at a decent private exhibition. The framework of each summer's exhibition is built around some well-established names. This has brought Hoikkala some criticism for playing it too safe. His response is: "Well, Salmela is one of the rare few summer exhibitions that survived even the roughest years of the recent recession. One can always count on the 'sure' names, and we have done well with the new ones as well." The list of names signed up for summer 1998 is impressive: Hannu Väisänen, Kain Tapper, Eila Hiltunen, Juhana Blomstedt, Juhani Harri, Ukri Merikanto and Kimmo Pyykkö.

The distinct image that Salmela has developed over the years is one that artists appreciate. The concerts and lectures that have been held in the sculpture park for several years are a wonderful inspiration for new ideas. The idyllic lake landscapes and the beautiful old wooden buildings create an ideal setting for a cultural event that is not too big, but all the higher-class for that. "Just right for the Salmela Art Festival," says Tuomas Hoikkala, and he has always proved a man of his word.

The number of visitors proves that Hoikkala has got it right with his idea of an interdisciplinary arts centre. Last year’s record of 20,000 had been broken already by July 1998. A series of concerts in early August - especially one dedicated to the Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924) and featuring the renowned bass Jaakko Ryhänen - promises to be another big crowd-puller.

Image size 9 Kb Merikanto Song Contest

This year - with the Arts Centre celebrating its tenth anniversary - music has a big role in the Salmela programme. In addition to presenting a comprehensive list of exhibitions, the centre will be publishing a CD of music by Oskar Merikanto, interpreted by top stars that include Matti Salminen and Monica Groop.

The profits from sales of the CD will help finance a new project in 2001: a Merikanto Song Contest, in which the obligatory pieces will include also works by Oskar's son Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958).