A sauna has popped up outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Its steam will signal the start of a yearlong celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Finland’s independence. Like its mascot, a sauna on wheels, “Finland 100” events will travel across the country, with two large festivals in Washington, D.C. But the U.S. celebration starts and ends in Minnesota, land of the Finns.
The state boasts the biggest percentage of people with Finnish ancestry in the country. “That’s why we felt it would be very important to start there,” said Kirsti Kauppi, ambassador of Finland to the United States. “Of course, it’s really nice to come there in January.
“It will make us feel at home.”
The arts are at the center of the celebration, thanks to the Nordic country’s rich musical traditions and one famous Finn: Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is the honorary chairman of Minnesota Finland 100. Friday and Saturday, the orchestra will play two pieces by Finnish composers close to Vänskä’s heart: Kalevi Aho and Jean Sibelius. At the start of the 20th century, Sibelius’ international renown strengthened the distinct cultural identity that helped push the country to declare its independence in 1917, Vänskä said.
“If a small population would like to get its independence, the question is, could we do it?” said Vänskä. “Are we good enough to hold our independence if we can get it? I think that Sibelius [set] a great example.”
At Orchestra Hall, Ambassador Kauppi will meet with Minnesotans on Saturday, when the sauna will start steaming. The weekend’s events also include a Saturday lecture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts about the impact of Martin Luther, the subject of its massive exhibition, on Nordic Europe. That night, the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul hosts a documentary about Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.
Cultural and artistic identity — through music, art and architecture — were key to Finland’s independence, said Marianne Wargelin, honorary consul of Finland in the Twin Cities. For more than 800 years, the area that’s now Finland was part of Sweden. (Today, Finland counts both Swedish and Finnish as official languages.) In 1809, the area fell into Russian hands. Sibelius, whose face once adorned Finland’s currency, was among a host of artists creating work during a time when dissent against Russia was forbidden.
“The Russians tried to destroy this national pride in Finland and politically, it was very difficult to express dissent,” said Kauppi, who began as ambassador last year. So that pride and dissent “channeled itself in the arts.”
Finland declared itself an independent nation in 1917. There, residents are marking the centennial with a year of films, concerts and other festivities.
“Unlike other countries, Finland’s uniqueness as a country is that its development of its own personal identity is very associated with the development of cultural identity — rather than political or military,” said Wargelin, of Minneapolis, who has been honorary consul since 1999.
The Twin Cities area represents the largest urban Finnish diaspora in the country, Wargelin said, surpassing populations in New York City, Boston and other major cities. In 2015, an estimated 97,000 people in Minnesota — or just shy of 2 percent of the state’s population — had Finnish ancestry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Only Michigan counted a similar proportion of people reporting Finnish ancestry.
After Vänskä joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, Minnesotans with Finnish heritage approached him after concerts with tears in their eyes, he said. They shared their families’ stories, he continued, and expressed their pride in seeing a Finn onstage.
Finland offers lessons in how high taxes can boost the quality of health care, education and the arts, Vänskä said. “There are theaters and symphony orchestras in many, many Finnish towns,” he said, and ticket prices are very low.
The country, which has about 5.5 million people, counts more than 20 symphony orchestras, including a handful in Helsinki alone.
It also boasts about 2 million saunas, according to a national count.
After its stay in Minnesota, Finland 100’s traveling sauna will trek across the country, heading south to Texas before the West and East coasts. That yearlong trip includes another visit to Minneapolis in May, this time at the American Swedish Institute.
“You can’t find anything more Finnish than a sauna,” Kauppi said.
Saunas are so Finnish, in fact, that the country recently lobbied to have one added to the emoji keyboard on the world’s smartphones. In November, the secretive Silicon Valley group that decides such things approved the image proposed by Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
It features smiling figures sitting in a steamy room.
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168