The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Dr. Janne Sirén '88 Opens 2019–2020 TASIS Speaker Series

Dr. Janne Sirén—a 1988 graduate of TASIS who now serves as the Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director of the renowned Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York—opened the 2019–2020 TASIS Speaker Series on Monday, October 21. He delivered a captivating address to the senior class in the Palmer Center that evening and led a question-and-answer session with a smaller group of students and faculty members in Casa Fleming afterward.

Dr. Sirén opened his address by noting that his five and a half years at TASIS were a formative experience for him while offering high praise for retired Photography Teacher Horst Dürrschmidt—whose vision, leadership, and creative energy helped to shape what the arts mean at TASIS—and current Art History and Architecture & Design Teacher Mark Aeschliman, who was named a Khan-Page Master Teacher in 2010.

“I owe a great debt of gratitude to all my TASIS teachers, but especially Horst Dürrschmidt and Mark Aeschliman,” he said. “Thank you for everything you have done for generations of students. You literally have changed the world, and you continue to do that. And I hope TASIS understands and gets it because the work the arts and humanities faculty does is tremendously important.”

Reconnecting with Mr. Aeschliman

Dr. Sirén then analyzed the precise placement of Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Accademia Gallery to help students better understand that seeing artwork in a museum is a highly curated, highly directed experience. He later explained that he was inspired to add this to his presentation after visiting Florence just before he came to TASIS. 

“In Florence, I took part in a captivating tour by Dr. Rocky Ruggiero, a specialist in Italian Renaissance art and architecture,” he explained. “His captivating descriptions of Michelangelo’s David and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Santa Maria del Fiore inspired me to talk about these remarkable human achievements at TASIS. Thank you, Dr. Ruggiero, for bringing these works back to my life. My talk is deeply indebted to your vision and interpretations!” 

He then discussed his own background—noting that one comment from an Art History teacher in college changed the trajectory of his life—before delving into the unique history of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which was founded in 1862 and is one of the oldest public arts institutions in the United States. “In the DNA of the Albright-Knox there has always been one important thing,” he said. “And this is very hard to do: try to recognize the revolutions of tomorrow before tomorrow recognizes them as revolutions. Now what does that mean? You’re trying to find a Picasso before anybody else understands that Picasso is an important artist.”

Dr. Sirén then provided a fascinating description of the role he is playing in the historic expansion of the Albright-Knox campus, which has included raising $140.2 million so far. He unveiled the museum’s ambitious plans and shared images of what the campus will eventually look like, discussing the importance of adding a number of beautiful, scenic vistas—an idea inspired by the time he spent on the breathtaking TASIS campus.

He displayed the photo above and said, “And of course this is really the inspiration for many of the things we are doing in Buffalo. That’s how important TASIS and other places of education can be. Ideas migrate. They migrate with you. You are the torchbearers who will take them to new places. Remember these vistas. I know there are days when you are on this campus and you just wish to be somewhere else. I certainly felt all those sentiments and many others during my five and a half years here. Today I only remember the positive and the good.”

Dr. Sirén closed by sharing a poignant letter TASIS Founder M. Crist Fleming wrote to his graduating class. “She was truly an amazing, amazing individual, and we are so lucky to have TASIS thanks to her,” he said. He then took questions from the audience before moving to a more intimate setting in Casa Fleming to continue the discussion with those who wished to do so.

See more photos from Dr. Sirén’s visit on the TASIS Smugmug page.

Dr. Sirén’s three-day visit also included spending time with six IB and AP visual arts classes and enjoying a meal at Grotto Flora with the students and faculty members who serve on the TASIS Speaker Series Committee.

And what was his impression of TASIS students? “Amazing,” he said. “They are such bright kids. I’m so happy to see that TASIS has continued its dedication to art and culture because I think that’s something Mrs. Fleming held very close to her heart, and that was really part of her vision for the School. There are very few schools I know of that do what TASIS does in the field of art and culture, which for me is the glue that holds humanity together—even in troubled times.”

“TASIS is the foundation for everything I have done and aspire to do.” – Dr. Janne Sirén

Quite a few visual arts students were fortunate to have Dr. Sirén review their portfolios, and he was astounded by the quality of their work.

“Both the student portfolios and the questions the students asked in IB Visual Arts 1 and 2 and in AP Photography were at a level that I would compare to a collegiate level of inquiry and art-making,” he said. “And I can say that because I taught Art History at the university level for four years—at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The level simply is very high here. There’s a long legacy of that focus on art and culture here at TASIS, and it’s great to see that it’s being taken good care of by excellent teachers and really inspired students.”

Count Michele Cipolini ’21, a member of the TASIS Speaker Series Committee and an IB Visual Arts 1 student, among those who were equally impressed with their visitor. 

“I really enjoyed Dr. Sirén’s address and his visit to my IB class,” he said. “He demonstrated the true value of public speaking. As he said, the two most important things he looks for in a colleague are the capacity to write like an angel and speak like an angel. He embodied both of these qualities. The quote of his that stood out the most to me as an artist was, ‘It’s the work of art that at first bothers you and frustrates you, as you are unable to understand it at first glance, that in the end is the one you remember and carry with you.’”

Dr. Sirén noted that the state-of-the-art Şahenk Fine Arts Center, which opened in 2012, has helped aspiring artists reach new heights.

“It is a key node because now there is actually a space where these pursuits can be realized in an appropriate setting,” he said. “Back in the 1980s, we didn’t have the spaces. We had the talent and the drive and the passion and the vision of individuals such as Mark Aeschliman, Horst Dürrschmidt, and others. But today there is the setting as well, and it’s important that TASIS continues to not lose sight of its North Star, which is a passion for art and culture.”

Dr. Sirén, who also spoke to TASIS seniors in November 2012 and has sent his children to the TASIS Summer Programs, explained what keeps drawing him back to his alma mater.

“I keep coming back because of the good memories that were formative to my academic career,” he said. “TASIS is the foundation for everything I have done and aspire to do. In a migratory life like the one I have lived, it’s important to have certain places that are symbols of home, and this place, more than perhaps any other, is my home.”

Dr. Sirén was appointed Director of the Albright-Knox in April 2013 after serving as Director of Finland’s Helsinki Art Museum—one of the largest cultural institutions in the Nordic region—where he oversaw an active exhibitions, acquisitions, and museum development program. Prior to that, he served as Director of the Tampere Art Museum in southern Finland from 2004–2007. He has also worked in the Department of Art History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaching courses in modern and contemporary art, aesthetics, museology, and critical theory.

Dr. Sirén has demonstrated experience in community growth and development. He served on Helsinki’s Tourism Advancement Group as a representative of the cultural and museum field, helping to strengthen the tourism industry in Helsinki while identifying strategic principles for future development. Because of his work on that task force, he is keenly aware of the issues and challenges surrounding cultural tourism.

A passionate advocate for the active role of the museum and the arts, Dr. Sirén has a special interest in the growth of communities. Since his appointment at Albright-Knox, he has initiated several major exhibitions—including Monet and the Impressionist Revolution, 1860–1910, and Anselm Kiefer: Beyond Landscape—launched the innovative Public Art Initiative and Innovation Lab, and directed the AK360 Campus Expansion & Renovation Project.

Dr. Sirén spent all of his collegiate career in the United States, ultimately earning a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 2001.

The 2019–2020 TASIS Speaker Series Committee

The TASIS Speaker Series (TSS), formerly known as the Senior Humanities Program (SHP) and renamed in the fall of 2018 year to more accurately reflect its present purpose, draws from five fundamental elements of the TASIS identity—truth, goodness, beauty, international understanding, and humanitarian action—to provide TASIS students with a signature educational experience. 

The TSS Committee—now chaired by English Department Chair Dr. Chris Love following the excellent work done by departed English teacher Peter Locke—selects four speakers each year who embody the pillars of the program—with priority given to speakers who fulfill those virtues in some capacity. The Committee strives for a variety of voices, backgrounds, and professions represented in each year’s group but ultimately selects speakers on the basis of their ability to enhance the intellectual and moral experience of the outgoing seniors and the community as a whole. (The full lineup for the 2019-2020 TASIS Speaker Series is forthcoming.)

Although the TSS focuses on students near the end of their TASIS careers, the program aspires to serve as an educative instrument for the entire division, creating opportunities for all High School students to interact with people and ideas of significance that are concerned with the world beyond the TASIS campus. Students enhance their intellectual experience through discussions, lectures, class visits, and film screenings centered on some combination of truth, goodness, beauty, international understanding, and humanitarian action. Above all else, the program conveys a clear message to students about what the School hopes for and expects from them after they leave TASIS.

The influential program was initially made possible by a CHF 100,000 donation from TASIS parents Michael and Jane Grindfors to The M. Crist Fleming Endowment for International Understanding and Leadership in 2008. It remains an integral part of a TASIS education thanks to ongoing support from the TASIS Board of Directors and the excellent behind-the-scenes work done by a dedicated group of students and faculty members.

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