Sara Hildén’s life and art 

Don’t call me a patron of the arts. Say art lover. Since that is what I am and have been all my adult life, ever since I bought works by young Tampere painters as a young girl.

Sara Hildén in 1979 at the opening of the Museum that bears her name.

Sara Hildén (1905–1993) was a fashion-trade businesswoman, art collector and culture lover, and also founder of a modern art museum. A woman who for her day was exceptionally independent and determined, a pioneer in the world of fashion and art. 

CHILDHOOD  

Sara Hildén was born into modest circumstances in Tampere on August 16, 1905. Her mother was crofter’s daughter Ida Maria Kadell. Her father’s identity is unknown. At birth, Sara Hildén received the name Saara Ester Kadell. In 1909, Ida Maria married Kalle Kustaa Hilden from Sääksmäki, to where the family moved. There, Sara also took her stepfather’s surname, Hilden.  

Sara Hildén spent most of her childhood in her great grandparents’ home in Lempäälä, where she moved in 1915 after her stepfather’s death. Her grandfather, the crofter Johan Henrik Kadell, became her dearest relative, who Sara later remembered as strong-willed and demanding in his upbringing of her. He died in spring 1918 and her mother succumbed to the Spanish flu the following spring. After the Civil War, in spring 1919, Sara, who was only 13, moved on her own back to the city of her birth, Tampere. 

Sara Hildén Foundation archives.

CAREER IN THE CLOTHING TRADE

Sara Hildén initially worked in Tampere as a housemaid, and briefly also as a bus conductress. In June 1922, she was admitted as a trainee at August Walldén’s clothing shop in Tampere’s Kylmähalli market hall, where she later continued as a saleswoman until 1926. Her career in the clothing trade advanced until, as a 20-year-old, Sara got a position as a saleswoman with the clothing shop Puku-Aitta, initially at Kauppakatu Street 1 and later at Hämeenkatu Street 11. It was when she travelled as a representative of Puku-Aitta in Lapland and made visits to Sweden that her name first appeared in the form “Sara Hildén”. 

Sara Hildén worked at Puku-Aita right up until 1936. Gradually she began to dream of starting her own business. She worked for brief periods in clothes shops in Pori, Turku and Helsinki. In August 1939, she returned to Tampere and began working as store manager with Tampereen Pukutehdas at Tuomiokirkonkatu Street 19. In summer 1942, Sara was promoted to full manager and was put in charge of Tampereen Puku Oy’s new store in the Tempo building at Hämeenkatu Street 15. 

THE BIRTH OF AN ART COLLECTION 

Sara Hildén made her first art acquisitions in the 1930s, from Tampere artists. She continued to acquire works in the mid-1940s, having made new artist friends, including the ceramic artist Rut Bryk (1916–1999) and the sculptor Essi Renvall (1911–1979).  

ERIK ENROTH 

In summer 1945, Sara Hildén was introduced to the young painter Erik Enroth (1917–1975). She offered to help the 27-year-old artist, a graduate of the School of the Finnish Art Academy, and provided him with work space in her home. In the autumn, Sara and Erik began to spend time together. During their courtship they occasionally lived in different cities, even in different countries. In September 1947, Sara bought the first residence of her own in her home building on Hämeenpuisto Park, on the same stairwell where she had been living since 1941. 

Sara Hildén and Erik Enroth married on August 8, 1949. She took the name Saara Hildén-Enroth, but her first name increasingly frequently began to appear as “Sara”.  

MUOTITALO HILDÉN 

Sara Hildén and Erik Enroth both advanced in their careers, and Sara’s dream of having her own business was reawoken. In 1952, she started up her first clothes shop under personal ownership – “Hildén’s” – in the stone-built street level of her home building at Hämeenpuisto Park 35.  

Sara Hildén’s business operations expanded considerably over the years. In October 1956, she opened a new shop for Muotitalo Hildén (fashion house Hildén) at Näsilinnankatu Street 26. In 1957, Sara and Erik moved to a new home in the Ainanlinna building on the corner of Kauppakatu Street and Näsilinnankatu Street. From its windows Sara could see Muotitalo Hildén.  

Sara Hildén also expanded her business to Lahti, co-founding a clothes shop there under the name Karmala & Hildén-Enroth, which she later bought out for herself. During 1958, she also became a shareholder in the Muoditar (fashioness) shop at Aleksis Kiven katu Street 13, Tampere and, in autumn 1961, opened a second Muoditar shop at Kauppakatu Street 12, Tampere.  

Sara Hildén Foundation Archives.

PATRON OF THE ARTS  

All of Sara Hildén’s clothing shops did well. An important part of running the business was keeping up with foreign fashion, which also meant trips to Paris. On her travels she got to see fashion houses’ new designs and bought goods for her shops, while also visiting art galleries. 

Sara Hildén and Erik Enroth’s marriage ended in divorce in 1963. When the marriage began to break down, she found a new life’s mission for herself: she began collecting modern art. She had always been interested in beautiful objects, ceramics and textiles. Her art hobby had already taken on a new level of seriousness at the turn of the 1940s and ’50s, when she attempted to keep all of Erik Enroth’s works for herself as a private collection. Sara Hildén could also afford to collect art, since the success of her fashion shops gave her the wherewithal to make purchases. 

Sara Hildén received support in building up her collection from the Ateneum Art Museum’s experts. Her good friend, the Assistant Director of the Ateneum E. J. Vehmas, proposed that Sara Hildén set about acquiring foreign contemporary art in particular. A spur to collecting contemporary art came from the Ateneum’s ARS 61 exhibition, which marked the breakthrough of modern art in Finland. Sara Hildén’s acquisitions from ARS 61 represented top-flight international contemporary art. 

THE SARA HILDÉN FOUNDATION 

A new phase in Sara Hildén’s life began when, at the age of 57, she began purposefully accumulating an art collection. In 1962, she set up a foundation, to which she donated the artworks in her possession. She stipulated the purpose of the Foundation as being to promote the visual arts and their status, and the practice of them, preserving the artworks in her possession for posterity as an art collection, and caring for and augmenting the collection. 

In the following years, the collection was expanded with both foreign and Finnish artworks. Sara Hildén visited all the Venice Biennales in 1962–1972. She was also still making regular visits to Paris, where, besides galleries, museums and meetings with artists, her crowded programme also took in shows by leading fashion houses. It was on these trips that she made her most important acquisitions, some of the best-names being: Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Pierre Bonnard, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Paul Delvaux, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Giorgio Morandi. 

The Ateneum’s Curator, later Assistant Director, Leena Peltola (1921–2008) often accompanied Sara Hildén on her art-buying trips from 1964 onwards. In an interview with Suomen Kuvalehti pictorial magazine in 1985 Peltola described her travelling companion as follows: “Nobody is as indefatigable a viewer of art as Sara Hildén. When the rest of us are already exhausted, Sara sets off round the exhibition once again.” 

SARA HILDÉN ART MUSEUM 

In 1975, the Sara Hildén Foundation and the City of Tampere agreed to set up the Sara Hildén Art Museum and to have a new museum built. According to the agreement, the works in the collection were to be kept in the new museum in Särkänniemi. Previously, they had been deposited at several sites, such as the Ateneum Art Museum and Hatanpää Manor. The new Sara Hildén Art Museum was designed by Pekka Ilveskoski’s architect’s office, and the official opening was on Saturday, February 10, 1979.  

Sara Hildén purposefully kept her own person out of the public eye and let the art speak for her. “Write about the paintings, not about me,” she said in a rare interview (Suomen Kuvalehti 42/1985). 

With the aid of art experts, Sara Hildén acquired classics of modernism, allowing the museum to give visitors a general overview of the main aspects of the art history of the first half of the 20th century. She also bought contemporary art, with acquisitions generally being linked to the Museum’s changing exhibitions. During Sara Hildén’s lifetime, she was the sole member of the Foundation’s Board. Since her death, the Board has comprised five expert members from different disciplines. The principles of the Foundation’s operations are still the same as those that Sara Hildén set for it in her day. 

Sara Hildén Foundation archives.

HONORARY PROFESSORSHIP 

In 1984, Sara Hildén was awarded an honorary professorship. It is thanks to her that Finland has an international modern-art collection whose value and high standard are also recognized abroad. As a collector of Finnish contemporary art, she was a respected patron of the arts and an open-minded supporter of young artists in particular. The Foundation’s contemporary-art collection has also provided a starting point for multifaceted exhibition collaborations, which has made it possible to host numerous important exhibitions of both Finnish and foreign contemporary art at the Sara Hildén Art Museum. 

Professor Sara Hildén died on October 7, 1993 in Tampere. Her gravestone in Kalevankangas Cemetery is engraved with Auguste Renoir’s words: “When art becomes a useless thing, it is the beginning of the end.”  

Literature: 

Kortelainen, Anna: Hyvä Sara! Sara Hildénin kolme elämää. Gummerus, 2018. 

Vuorikoski, Timo: Sara Hildén: Mesenaatin muotokuva. Sara Hildén Art Museum Publication 59. Sara Hildén Art Museum, 1994. 

Sara Hildénin Foundation archives.