When the Ateneum was placed under government administration in 1990, its collections were divided between the Ateneum Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the moment, the work of artists who have begun their career in 1960 or later is administered by the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. Ateneum’s collections thus introduce Finnish art from the Gustavian period of the mid-18th century to the modernist movements of the 1950s. Ateneum also houses a handsome collection of international art, featuring works by such masters as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall.
The collection was initiated a couple of years after the Finnish Art Society had been established in 1846. The society itself acquired a few works considered worthy of the collection, while it also accepted donations of one or more works. A part of the donations was pure financial support. Interest from private testamentary funds provided great relief for the society struggling on a tight budget.
In 1863, the collection managed by the Finnish Art Society was first put on permanent public display. In 1864, the government began to purchase model works for the society’s drawing school on state funds. The Ateneum building itself, dubbed a “Palace of a million marks” by its contemporaries, was completed in 1887, and the Finnish Art Society’s collections were first exhibited in its rooms on 13 October 1888. The name Ateneum alludes to the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, Pallas Athene. She was also a protector of cities and government. Ateneum means a temple or shrine to Athene.
The most notable donation at the turn of the twentieth century was made by Licentiate of Medicine Herman Frithiof Antell, who not only donated the whole of his collection but also the funds for regular acquisitions. The Antell Collection includes works by van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Edvard Munch, choices questioned by his contemporaries – to them the Finnish Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Albert Edelfelt, and Hugo Simberg seemed so much safer options.
The museum’s own acquisition committee concentrated on purchasing Finnish art. Sometimes, however, their funds were not even adequate for that. Towards the late 1920s the museum expressed its concern that there would be serious gaps in their Finnish collection.
The 1950s and 60s saw a campaign to raise the Ateneum to a standard European level, and one way of achieving this was thought to be the purchase of international contemporary art. The number of acquisitions, however, was no bigger than that in the beginning of the century. The emphasis was still on Finnish art, as befits a national gallery.
During the first half of the twentieth century the museum received several important donations, but then things changed. Social structure was established, and hopes for an economic boom replaced the insecurity of the war era. On the other hand, the time of extensive donations seemed to be over. The museum had already received a large collection of works by turn-of-the-century masters.
The Ateneum Art Museum adds to its collection every year. The first major acquisition after the museum was placed under government administration was an early self-portrait by Helene Schjerfbeck, purchased with support from the Friends of Ateneum.
In recent years, Ateneum has once again received some notable donations from private individuals as well. Such donations include the Ester and Jalo Sihtola Fine Arts Foundation collection, the Yrjö and Nanny Kaunisto Collection and the Rolando and Siv Pieraccini Collection.