There are millions of people all across the U.S. that claim Scandinavian heritage, yet it’s states like Minnesota and Seattle that are often seen as the spiritual home of Scandinavian Americans.
Minnesota’s Norway House and Seattle’s National Nordic Museum are certainly important community centers, but there’s another center of Scandinavian American life in a place that’s less associated with the Nordic region in the minds of many.
Given the cultural diversity of New York City, it’s perhaps no surprise that the city and state is home to so many people with Scandinavian heritage. While in percentage terms it’s a long way behind the likes of Minnesota and Seattle, New York State still boasts an estimated 250,000 Scandinavian Americans.
A Scandinavian cultural exchange
Despite the name, Scandinavia House on Park Avenue offers a range of programs designed to promote the culture of all Nordic countries. “It has been wonderful to represent the Nordic countries here and see the interest and appreciation from our audiences,” explains Lori Fredrickson, head of communications at Scandinavia House.
Simply put, Scandinavia House is a cultural community center offering everything from film showings and exhibitions to language courses and activities for children.
“For many of the Nordic or Nordic-American people living in New York, it’s exciting to have a location where they can revisit their heritage,” says Fredrickson, “but it’s also a place where they can share those experiences with others from many other backgrounds, who are equally excited about participating in broader ideas of cultural exchange.”
The American Scandinavian Foundation
Scandinavia House is the headquarters of the American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF). Founded in 1911 by Danish-American industrialist Niels Poulson, ASF now uses the center to deliver on its cultural and educational mission.
Every year, the ASF fellowships and grants program awards up to $700,000 to individuals from a diverse range of fields to conduct research, study and creative projects abroad. “Many have gone on to become leaders in their fields and have been able to continually contribute to the broader exchange of education and ideas as a result,” explains Fredrickson.
Further grants are available to folk artists throughout the upper midwest enabling them to travel to specific regions to hone their craft. ASF also awards annual translation prizes to recognize works by important Nordic voices that have been brought to English-speaking audiences. Yet more Scandinaivan-American exchanges are enabled through an internships and training programs for young people.
Staying relevant during the pandemic
Shortly after the pandemic hit New York City, Scandinavia House moved its program online. While frustrating for many, the move did create new opportunities. In the fall, the event ‘Nordic Authors You Should Know’ brought together authors from remote locations such as the Faroe Islands, which would have proved difficult in person.
“In March 2021, we launched our first-ever interactive digital exhibition ‘Conversations with a Shipwreck’ created in word and image by Adam Davies and Joan Wickersham. It is a multimedia meditation on the legendary Vasa warship created over the course of an ASF Fellowship in Sweden,” says Fredrickson.
All the digital content created over the past 18 months is available on the Scandinavia House website and YouTube channel, which should go some way to attracting a new generation of patron.
In normal times, Fredrickson says visitors to Scandinavia House can expect a “holistic” experience unlike many other cultural centers: “Our cultural experiences range from recent Nordic hit films like our yearly Nordic Oscar contenders and cinema presentations of acclaimed directors like Ingmar Bergman to jazz, classical, folk, and contemporary music performances. There’s also book talks with Nordic authors, and lectures and panel discussions on a wide array of important recent conversations.”
The Smörgås Chef restaurant (still closed due to the pandemic) and the Nordic design shop are also key attractions.
Children at Scandinavia House
Children with Scandinavian American roots aren’t forgotten either. During the pandemic, Scandinavia House launched a series of children’s workshop videos featuring a range of craft, art and movement activities based in the Nordic early education model.
“Over the years one of our great attractions has been the Heimbold Family Children’s Learning & Playing Center, which has been designed to emphasize early childhood sensory perception through highlights like a mushroom house, sensory tunnel, and reading theater,” says Fredrickson.
The future of ASF and Scandinavia House
In-house events partly returned to Scandinavia House this summer. Fredrickson says that although in-person events will remain central to the center’s activities, they plan to host more hybrid events going forward: “We’ll be continuing to connect with virtual audiences through a wide range of book talks, lectures, remote round-table panel discussions and virtual studio tours throughout the fall.”
For example, in September the center hosts a virtual book talk on The Viking Heart and an expert panel discussion on the current prospects of architecture and design learning in K-12 education from the U.S. and Finland.
Meanwhile, the New York Baltic Film Festival will return in November for its fourth year in a hybrid format. Screenings and discussions will take place at Scandinavia House alongside similar content online.
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