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NEW YORK — Flights between New York and Helsinki are nine-hour undertakings, so Finland’s minister of culture, Paavo Arhinmäki, is trying to shorten the distance for creative types with the new initiative New Cut!

Launched last week, the program aims to unite architects, designers, artists, musicians and others in a series of events that will foster collaborations between the two cities. After welcoming a crowd of about 80 at the American Institute of Architects’ South Village office, Arhinmäki explained how being a nuclear power protestor and former graffiti tagging street artist are legitimate job credentials. Last year the 36-year-old made an unsuccessful presidential bid, but his zeal for Finnish culture remains as strong as ever.

More than 100 free cultural events are held on June 12 for Helsinki Day, and residents have provided many of the ideas, such as pop-up art exhibitions and flea markets. And when they do, they spread the word without being asked to via Facebook and other social media, which helps government officials defray costs. Helsinki Day has spread to cities like Paris, Berlin, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Washington.

AIA executive director Rick Bell said the recent unveiling of NYC x Design, a 12-day celebration of design that will debut May 10, reflects the importance of adopting a more inclusive mind-set. “We’re not just talking about a specific segment like fashion or architecture. The idea is to have all these different types of people come together for the greater good,” he said. “So much of what we do comes down to the kindness of strangers and the instigation of catalysts.”

In an Alexander McQueen skull-covered skinny tie, a pink button-down shirt, a navy Tiger of Sweden suit and Paul Smith two-tone shoes worn with polka-dot socks, the minister spoke of his unconventional and traditional beliefs before he tagged a space at AIA with his graffiti. Here, a summary of his views:

WWD: What do you hope New York designers will gain from what’s been done in Finland?
Paavo Arhinmäki:
With Finnish design and architecture, good design is not just good-looking but, even more importantly, it is easy to use and can last for decades. We can’t have the sort of culture where we have nice-looking stuff that only lasts for a year or two.

WWD: What role does fashion play in all of this?
In recent years in Finland, we have had a lot of new interesting designers running their own small lines. Before that everybody wore quite similar clothes. Even though all of the factories are in the Far East, it has become important to make things near you — not just with food but clothes as well. We have loads and loads of fashion designers who are manufacturing a few things by themselves or nearby. People are dressing much more fresh than they were 10 or 15 years ago. It’s part of the whole change in our society, which is a more creative perspective

WWD: How long have you done graffiti?
I’m not really doing it so much any more because…[laughter] Graffiti came to Finland in the mid-Eighties through films like “Wild Style” and “Beat Street” and music videos we saw on MTV. I used to live in Pasila, the neighborhood where graffiti started. It’s about 2 kilometers from Helsinki’s center, with freight-train yards and loads of concrete tunnels where people painted. It wasn’t legal, but no one cared about it. In that culture everybody knew each other because it was very, very small, but then it became very important. It’s interesting to see how graffiti has influenced our whole culture. Many of our top artists are around 35, and almost all of them have some type of graffiti background, like Jani Leinonen, who showed at Miami’s Art Basel.

WWD: How did that affect what you do today?
Before I became minister of culture, I knew so many artists because we met when we were 14 or 15 years. Like me, many first became interested in graffiti, then it was Pop Art like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. I haven’t done anything in 15 or 20 years. When I served in Helsinki’s city council, we had a zero tolerance [policy for graffiti] in Helsinki, but then it collapsed. We are now building a new cultural hub, Suvilahti, near what used to be a steam power station. We have a gallery selling spray cans [of paint], and 10- to 12-year-old children, mostly boys but girls as well, are painting and getting interested in art. I’m proud of what I’ve done because now there is a new generation that is so interested in culture and art.

WWD: What was your tag?
That’s not important, but I am probably the first to run by having artists paint a [campaign] ad on a wall. Before the last election we had a huge debate about what is proper art and what isn’t. When I ran for president in Finland, we had three major artists do art posters. I gave them no idea about what they should do and told them it could even be without my face or my name. We bought ad spaces to put art where people can see it. I was more radical than the artists because each of them used my picture somehow.

WWD: Would you run for president again?
I am minister of culture and sport. These are the things that I have been active in since I was a child. It was made for me. Of course, we have a small country where everybody knows each other. People are always saying, “OK, he’s giving his friends projects.” But I can’t do anything else — I almost know everybody. In Finland — as in the rest of the world — [most of] the people who are taking advantage of the culture and arts by going to concerts or seeing exhibitions are middle-aged or older. There are more women than men. But there are loads of people who don’t go anywhere. My work has tried to bring the possibility of these things to children and young people whose parents don’t really have the money to give them culture and art. As a society, there are things that can be done to get them interested and to help them find things that will last for their whole lives.

WWD: Are you still fighting nuclear power?
Yes, of course. I have even been arrested for that, just once, in 2003. We bicycled into a nuclear power plant area and had a demonstration. We should concentrate more on new ways of producing power. Nuclear power plants are so huge, and they need so much funding that they take away from everything else. On our industrial side we could have much more work if we had a home base where wind power was more popular. We have loads and loads of knowledge but we have to have the funding. In Finland companies need a home base where they can export their goods as well.

WWD: What is your greatest challenge?
Last week, for example, we funded a project at the contemporary art museum in Helsinki where kids from all over Finland, including smaller towns in the countryside where there isn’t that much culture and art, were brought together with artists. This is the type of project that interests me. It’s a question of equality so that every child and youth has the possibility of culture.

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