Text: Reeta Holma
Photos: Lehtikuva / Emmi Korhonen
The article was first published in Finnish in the Tammenlastuja magazine 1/2023.
In February it was announced that the Finnish Cultural Foundation’s CEO starting from June 2023 will be Susanna Pettersson, PhD.
Pettersson has been in many demanding leadership and board of trustees positions in Finland and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys culture in many forms, but especially reading has been important to her since childhood. She makes sure to continue having enough time and opportunities for reading.
“I read both fiction and non-fiction from Finland and abroad. Right now I’m in the middle of two delightful books, one on the wonderful world of birds and one on the cultural history of wigs.”
Pettersson grew up in the part of Helsinki called Katajanokka, and she often checked out books from Helsinki’s beautiful former main library on Rikhardinkatu. Her mother’s roots are in the towns of Kälviä and Terijoki, her father’s in Ruovesi ja Lusi. She spent the summers of her childhood in the towns of Kuusamo and Mikkeli.
Another dear hobby is knitting, which Pettersson considers meditative. “When one’s job is complex and abstract, it feels great to get things done quickly on a small scale.”
She also spends time jogging and with her 13-year-old wire-haired dachshund. Her family includes a spouse and two adult children.
Inspiration and energy
“Good leadership depends on having other things in life besides work. Hobbies help us recharge, and we can get ideas and inspiration from them that provide energy we need at work.”
Pettersson describes herself as a value-based leader whose leadership philosophy centres on people. “I think it’s very important that people feel good in the workplace and that their expertise is appreciated at every level of the organization”, she says. “Traditional hierarchical thinking doesn’t fit into today’s world.”
Pettersson has been the director general of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum since 2018. When she announced she was leaving in February, she was asked if this was due to the difficulties such as the pandemic and inflation encountered by the museum in recent years.
“There were adversities during my tenure, but if I feared difficult things, I wouldn’t have even started at the Nationalmuseum”, she points out.
“Things can be difficult, but if the work environment is safe and encourages colleagues to develop ideas together and if people enjoy working there, even difficult things can be solved.” Creating such a work environment is one of the most important tasks of a leader according to Pettersson.
Getting a grant was crucial
Pettersson already has connections with the Finnish Cultural Foundation. She is a member of its support association, has held lectures at the Kirpilä Art Collection, has consulted the Museum Vision project, and has also received a grant from the Foundation. This three-year grant for her art history doctoral dissertation on building a public art collection was awarded in 2000, when multiyear grants were much less common than nowadays.
“Getting a grant from the Cultural Foundation was absolutely crucial for my career”, says Pettersson. The grant enabled concentrating on research and also enabled her family’s move to London, where she wrote the dissertation.
“Although time has already gone by since then, I’m still satisfied with the dissertation. I did the fundamental work carefully, and the beginnings of public art collecting in Finland were researched thoroughly and recorded.”
Pettersson has been in many demanding positions in her career. Before being in charge of the Nationalmuseum, she headed the Ateneum Art Museum, the Finnish Institute in London, and the Alvar Aalto Foundation and Museum. Simultaneously, she has always wanted to be active in academia.
She is an adjunct professor of museology at the University of Jyväskylä and enjoys mentoring doctoral dissertations. She keeps her own writing skills honed by annually publishing articles in her field. Recently an article appeared in the catalogue of the Nationalmuseum’s exhibition The Garden – Six Centuries of Art and Nature, and on the way is, for example, an article on Ulla-Maija Alanen’s photography and a book on Ola Kolehmainen’s newest works. An extensive book on Nordic art and social history from 1820 to 1920, which she is editing together with Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, is planned for 2024.
Nine years on the board of Aalto University have also provided her with a strong understanding of the academic world. “I was vice chair for two years and on the HR committee for nine years, where I participated in the recruitment of leading academic personnel”, Pettersson explains. “In my time at Aalto, I was able to acquaint myself in detail with the multidisciplinary world of academia.”
A manifestation of Finland’s civil society
Job interviews have the classic question “Why do you want to work for us?” What is Susanna Pettersson’s response?
“During my career, I have acquired a combination of various kinds of know-how that I believe will benefit the Foundation. I have experience working in several countries and in various jobs and on different trustee roles. I know the worlds of culture, art, and academia, and I have also had the chance to deal with the practices of donating.”
She considers the Finnish Cultural Foundation to be unique.
“Many foundations revolve around a single donor or organization, whereas the Finnish Cultural Foundation has from the very beginning been a strong manifestation of Finland’s civil society”, Pettersson explains.
She considers the Foundation’s national scope to be an essential strength. As one of her first tasks, she intends to familiarize herself with its regional funds in order to get a picture of the Foundation’s activities that is as comprehensive as possible.
She also feels it’s important to collaborate with other foundations, for example, and calls for courage to engage in large joint endeavours.
“It’s time to look at ways of doing things from a new angle. The very first thing I want to do is to talk about the visions for the future with everyone working at the Foundation.”