A very brief history of the Estonian Artists' Association
Delivered by actor Jaak Prints at the New Year’s Eve reception dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the EAA on 4 January 2018 at Tallinn Art Hall.
Tonight, I will tell you briefly about the rich, multifaceted and at times controversial history of the Artists' Association. As time is limited, this will necessarily be just a small selection of important events, names and statements. This historical assortment was put together by Vano Allsalu and Elin Kard, the current leaders of the Association, relying on written and spoken statements by respected experts Jaak Kangilaski, Sirje Helme, Ülle Kruusi and others.
Artistic masterpieces that catch the eye, touch the heart and move the mind of the spectator have been made in Estonia for many centuries; professional artists and associations appeared with the advent of the 20th century. Estonian Art Society (Eesti Kunstiselts), founded in Tallinn in 1907, may be considered the first Estonian art organisation. On 21 January 1918, the Pallas Art Society is established in Tartu, initially bringing together mostly writers. At the national level, Estonian art life is managed by the arts and heritage department of the Ministry of Education, instituted in February 1919 under the leadership of artist Kristjan Raud.
Many young artists are acquiring their education in the artistic centres of Western Europe, while the Pallas Art School and the Tallinn School of Arts and Crafts are also drawing more and more students with each year. The art scene is diversifying and establishing a broader social basis for itself. In 1925, the Estonian Cultural Endowment is founded to support cultural life. The Tallinn Art Hall building is completed in 1934 and the Kuku club opens in the basement the next year. At the 1937 world exposition in Paris, Estonian artists and architects are awarded seven Grand Prix, eight honorary diplomas, nine gold, six silver and one bronze medal.
The sheer number of artist organisations that sprung up between the two world wars and the intense relationships between these groups speak of creative freedom – and also the inability of the opinion leaders of the day to compromise and work together. In March 1922, a more centralised organisation, the Central Association of Estonian Artists' (Eesti Kujutavate Kunstnikkude Keskühing), was established and continued to operate until 1940. The present-day Estonian Artists' Association regards it as one of its most important predecessors. As of 1932, the Association had 36 artists as members, including Ants Laikmaa, Kristjan Raud, Eduard Wiiralt, Eduard Ole, Jaan Koort, Günther Reindorff, Eduard Taska and Adamson-Eric.
Already in 1923, however, the competing Estonian Artists’ Group (Eesti Kunstnikkude Ryhm, EKR) and Estonian Artists’ Association (Eesti Kunstnikkude Liit, EKL) had been set up – the latter with ambitions of becoming the leading force in art life, unfortunately without much success. There were also the applied artists’ associations RaKü (Rakenduskunstnike ühing) and Dekoor as well as the ARS art association. The art organisations of the interwar Republic of Estonia include still other interesting names: the Society for the Promotion of Art, the Estonian Academic Association of Professional Artists, the Estonian Professional Association of Sculptors, the Narva Art Association and the New Artists' Association.
I Establishment / 1943
At the beginning of the 1940s, Estonia loses its independence; people are deprived of their freedoms and way of life, many also lose their homes, loved ones and lives. Dramatic changes also affect the art scene. On 15 November 1940, all the existing art organisations are abolished as unsuitable for a socialist state. Preparations begin for the establishment of the Estonian Soviet Artists' Association.
The objectives of the new organisation are to be as follows: comprehensively and actively contributing to the building of socialism by means available to visual art; establishing close ties with the working people and propagating Soviet art among the general public; developing all artistic fields in accordance with the principles of socialist realism; educating visual artists both politically and culturally, and increasing their socio-political activity.
The Estonian Soviet Artists' Association is established in the city of Yaroslavl behind Soviet lines, where 75 years ago 18 Estonian artists gathered in a local club, Gigant. Elected to the board and audit committee were Adamson-Eric, Richard Sagrits, Paul Luhtein, Aino Bach, Ferdi Sannamees, Boris Lukats, Jaan Jensen and Hendrik Vitsur; the others present at the meeting, including Eduard Einmann, Evald Okas, Karl Burman, Märt Bormeister, Ernst Kollom and Priid Aavik, would be ordinary members.
These are difficult and harsh times. Art is made under the watchful eye of government agencies, adhering to the canons of social realism. The subjects are also handed down: the heroic struggle of the Soviet people against the fascist conquerors, the building of socialism, the communist party and the great leader Stalin. Importantly, however, the first major Soviet Estonian art exhibition in Moscow is dedicated to the 600th anniversary of the Uprising on Saint George’s Night.
The same division that ran through the entire nation also divided the artists: often forced, sometimes out of conviction and sometimes by pure chance, people found themselves on either side of the front line. Just like Eduard Taska, Roman Tavast or Kaarel Liimand, who died in prison camps or fighting in the Red Army, we must not forget Andrus Johan, Arkadio Laiga, Karl Pärsimägi and many other artists who fell victim to the German occupation.
While some artists are preparing to join the victorious Red Army forces returning to Estonia, others have already made their escape over the stormy sea to Sweden, joined the Finnish army to fight the Soviets or are set to leave for Germany. In total, more than 250 artists, art historians and architects leave Estonia for the West.
On this festive occasion, we are not judging or passing verdict but trying to remember and understand – and see not only the political side but also the searching of the creative spirit, the artist’s enduring effort to speak to his or her contemporaries, the courage to play and sometimes provoke. Creativity also shines through in an anecdote about how Adamson-Eric and Paul Pinna borrowed fancy suits from a theatre in Yaroslavl and, immersed in casual dialogue in French, managed to pose as diplomats – making their way into a restaurant reserved for allied representatives and tasting soup that was far richer than the diet intended for a Soviet artist. Wearing a necktie under a worker’s jacket – this is how European artistic thought, culture and experience survive under Stalinist oppression, only to once blossom in less despotic times.
II Fear / the 1950s
In the first post-war years, the Soviet powers exercised some restraint in Estonia: initially there is no forced collectivisation in agriculture and culture – mostly fearful anticipation. There is a lot of injustice and informing on fellow citizens, but the more brutal repressions are mainly directed against the resistance fighters known as Forest Brothers. By way of victor’s justice, the artists and other creative people who had stood east of the front line occupy the best positions in the local art scene, also in terms of studios and appointments.
From mid-1947, persecution and terror are unleashed, culminating in the deportations of March 1949. In the spring of 1950, the 8th plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Estonian SSR convenes, focusing on the condemnation of bourgeois nationalists, formalists, cosmopolitans and other “vermin”.
The purge begins among the leadership of the local communist party leader, but soon spreads and Adamson-Eric, the head of the Artists Association and director of the Tallinn State Institute of Applied Arts, is one of many removed from their positions. The Tartu State Art Institute, which is successor to the Pallas Art School, is abolished. Numerous artists and art historians – among them Ülo Sooster, Olev Subbi, Lembit Saarts, Henn Roode, Ilmar Malin, Villem Raam, Heldur Viires and Henno Arrak – are imprisoned or deported. More than 60 artists are expelled from higher education and the Artists Association or lose the opportunity to work professionally.
In the 18 November issue of the cultural newspaper Sirp ja Vasar in 1950, Comrade Max Laosson protests the fact that “political education and the improvement of professional qualifications among the workers of art institutions and members of artistic associations have been completely neglected”. Eduard Einmann, the newly installed head of the Estonian Soviet Artists' Association, emphasises the need to enhance artists’ professional skills and also draws attention to the inadequacy of political education among a number of artists (Richard Sagrits, Elmar Kits and others) who do not regard it with the appropriate seriousness. With indignation, a newspaper article states that “not a single artist was heard to describe working to enhance their professional skills or to execute the ideological decisions of the Central Committee of the CPSU(b).” Even art critics are not spared criticism: “Despite having shed the falsehoods of formalist-cosmopolitanism, we have not yet achieved true Marxist criticism in these areas.”
On 5 March 1953, the great leader Joseph Stalin dies. In the same year, a building with studios and apartments built specifically for artists is completed at 6 Võidu väljak (Vabaduse plats), Tallinn. Another few years pass, and the deportees start returning home – the vice-like grip on the cultural sphere loosens.
III Thaw / the 1960s
The 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow becomes the cultural harbinger of the de-Stalinisation process under Nikita Khrushchev, known as the Khrushchev Thaw. Among the young artists dispatched from Estonia are Leili Muuga and Endel Taniloo. Inspired by her meeting with American abstract painters, Lola Liivat-Makarova paints her first abstract work. As the foundations of social realism start to crumble, formal generalisation, the play of colour and more human themes are increasingly allowed into Estonian art.
The Estonian Soviet Artists' Association is renamed as the Artists' Association of the Estonian SSR and given new statutes by the 9th Congress in 1957. Remarkably, no member of the Communist Party is elected to the board as a result of the secret ballot. Construction on the Tartu Art House begins the same year.
This is a time when a whole pleiad of significant figures appear in the limelight to shape post-war Estonian culture; they emerge tortured, dreaming and partying, many having just returned from the dark oblivion of political repression. Among others, Artur Alliksaar, who will be known as the King of Tartu Bohemians, makes his way back from Vologda Oblast, Russia in 1958 and is forced to work at the local brewery and on the railway.
Naturally, this new-found relative freedom boosts creative life in Tallinn as well as Tartu, at Kuku and Werner, where artists mix with poets, musicians and doctors, playing chess and making jokes, where wine and paint flow in streams. “What is the most expensive colour?” the painters ask. The answer is “nasal red”, as it takes a long time and a lot of expensive cognac to acquire it.
The vibrant art scene of the 1960s is full of works and artists who would be immortalised in Estonian art history. A 1966 solo show by Elmar Kits at Tartu Art House would be a powerful manifestation of modern art, with most of the more than a hundred works in the show having been painted in a creative frenzy the same year. “The connection to familiar reality is maintained only by the finest of threads, but it never ceases to exist as a basis for intrigue. Rather than one of objects, this is a world of impressions and sensations,” says art critic Ene Lamp in a review of the exhibition.
In Tallinn, young artists Tõnis Vint, Malle Leis, Jüri Arrak, Kristiina Kaasik, Tiiu Pallo-Vaik, Enno Ootsing, Tõnis Laanemaa and Aili Vint
have formed a group called ANK’64 – their artistic explorations engage with youth culture, jazz and op art. In Tartu, Kaljo Põld heads the legendary university art studio, where in 1967 the art group Visarid emerges, building its manifesto around the authenticity, harmony and balance of national culture.
In December 1969, a poster for an exhibition in the Pegasus café in Tallinn features a can of Campbell’s tomato soup à la Andy Warhol. Initiated by Leonhard Lapin, Ando Keskküla, Andres Tolts and Ülevi Eljand, this is the birth of the SOUP ’69 group, which introduces the aesthetics and motifs of pop art into the local art scene. The same year, Bruno Tomberg launches the first exhibition of the “Space and Form” series at Tallinn Art Hall, seeking to find new connections rather than focus on completed objects. A year before, in 1968, the Tallinn Print Triennial is established and continues to this day.
During the Khrushchev Thaw, the socialist “creative economy” also flourishes – the Estonian department of the USSR Art Foundation, first established in 1944, is reorganised as the Estonian SSR Art Foundation in 1958 and, over the coming decades, will become the productive platform for artistic creation as well as an economic driver for the Artists' Association and art life. In 1964, a new production facility is completed at 154 Pärnu maantee, Tallinn, which will house most of the workshops previously scattered all around the city.
By the second half of the decade, there is an increasing impression that life can be beautiful and hopeful even under the Soviet regime. Humankind is striving for outer space, while a spirit of liberalism and even rebellion travels the globe. With student unrest, hippies shedding their clothes and protests being held against the war in Vietnam, it is beginning to feel like socialism itself may evolve into something humane. With the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 comes disillusionment. And let us not forget that already in the autumn of 1964, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev comes to power, leading the Soviet empire into ever deeper stagnation and international isolation over the next two decades.
IV Stagnation / the 1970s and 1980s
This is how the Artists' Association of the Estonian SSR is managed: the congress elects a management board, which in turn elects a presidium. The chairman and executive secretary of the Association are paid positions. From 1967 to 1985, the position of chairman is held by Ilmar Torn, a “corps boy” [member of the 8th Estonian Rifle Corps of the Red Army] from Saaremaa, who succeeded Jaan Jensen, a cartoonist. The Presidium draws up exhibition plans, composes juries and art councils, plans funding and monitors the activities of the Art Fund, assesses applicants for association membership, and also hands out apartments, studios, car purchase permits and travel vouchers. A few times a year, the presidium reports to the board, which discusses financial strategy, approves exhibition plans, funding allocations and art councils, and decides on the admission of new association members.
Among the responsibilities of the management is communication with Moscow – new members are confirmed and membership cards issued by the secretariat of the all-Union management board – and artistic as well as ideological guidance naturally comes from the top. Local communist party organs also keep a close eye on the activities of the Estonian artistic circles. Cautioning, orders and the prohibitions last until perestroika. At the 15th Congress of the Artists Association in 1972, for example, the head of the cultural department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia, Olaf Utt, communicates the Party orders to the artists: “Art should support communist ideals, express the positive and promising, refrain from pursuing technical perfectionism and speculating on topical issues for the sake of formalist experimentation.”
In 1975, the ARS Art Factory of the Art Fund of the Estonian SSR is established in Tallinn, with the ceramics, leatherwork, metalwork, textiles, decorative knitting, interior design and monumental art studios forming its backbone. Each studio has a director and artistic director, artists, craftsmen and technical staff; the designs are evaluated by the factory art council. In 1973, the artists submit over 3,000 designs, of which 1458 are selected for production. In 1979, ARS employs 217 artists. By the 1980s, the Art Fund has outlets in Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu and Kohtla-Järve. The decorative items produced at ARS are cherished in households across Estonian and the other Soviet republics. Management problems in ARS, stemming from a conflict of interests between the factory leadership and artists, are discussed repeatedly by the Presidium of the Artists Association during that period. While the leadership prioritise the production of goods that maximise profit, the artists expect the factory to show more appreciation for creative aspirations and, above all, foster the creation of unique objects.
Painting continues to be “the king of the arts”, with printmaking and sculpture also standing out in terms of depth and exploration into formal problems as well as technique and material. At the centre of exhibition activities lie nationwide spring exhibitions in Tallinn Art Hall, the shows by Tartu artists and numerous smaller exhibitions in schools, companies and clubs. The high point of the year for the Artists Association is the annual art week.
The public shows great interest in art, and in 1986, all the various exhibitions and art events in Estonia attract over 1.2 million visitors.
For those active in the fine arts, the procurement policy of the Art Fund, which is subordinated to both the state and the Artists Association, forms the income basis – with the support of the Art Fund in particular, an impressive collection of 1970s and 1980s art is put together and will later become known as the Tallinn Art Hall collection. The commissions are substantial and a hard-working artist does not have to starve; the popularity of the field is also confirmed by the highly competitive admission to the Estonian State Art Institute.
Already in 1973, the Artists Association and the Tallinn City Government had started giving the Kristjan Raud Prize, soon to emerge as one of the most prestigious awards in the local art scene. The first winners are Ilmar Kimm, Enn Põldroos, Riho Kuld and Salme Raunam. In 1979, the Konrad Mägi Medal, currently funded by the Estonian Cultural Endowment, is introduced as the highest prize for painting; the first medal goes to Juhan Muks.
At the 16th Congress of the Artists' Association in January 1977, Boris Nemenski, Secretary of the Board of the Artists’ Union of the USSR, gives a welcome address, stressing that life in the Soviet Union changes with every year, and even artists who once used to visit new power plants and other large construction projects on creative missions, are now liable to break with reality. “The second year of the 10th Five-Year Plan is underway: the Soviet youth are building the BAM [i.e. the Baikal–Amur Mainline], new industrial facilities and cultural buildings are being erected, Soviet farmers are working with selfless determination, and it is the responsibility of the artists to relate all this in their creative work.” The attendants are also presented with more practical information: for example, during the four years since the previous congresses, 797 exhibitions of Estonian art have been organised within the republic and outside it. Our applied artists, who have made waves even in Italy and France, and printmakers, who “give strong impulses to printmaking throughout the Soviet Union, both in terms technical development and increasing its popularity”, are commended at the congress.
This is how the life of the artist passes during these years of stagnation – seeking a balance between the realities of life and official ideology like every other Soviet citizen ... and occasionally rejoicing at a difficult-to-come-by new tube of paint or the chance to let off some steam at the KuKu art club.
In the latter half of the 1980s, perestroika brings social liberation and allows for more radical changes in Estonian art – we see a new kind of expressiveness, artists look for personal roots and national romantic themes gain currency; work based on neo-avant-garde enters the picture. The Estonian art scene is opening up and becoming more international, facilitated by an explosion in free communication with the outside world and direct contact with Western art.
In October 1987, the 18th Congress of the Artists' Association of the Estonian SSR is held. Functionaries from Moscow and guests from other Soviet republics arrive; Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia, Rein Ristlaan, and Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Estonian SSR, Indrek Toome, attend. The opening address is delivered by the most senior member of the Association, Professor Voldemar Vaga. Chairman of the Board of the Artists Association Enn Põldroos reports on the artist’s role in contemporary culture in Estonia, stating that social activism, which only yesterday had the connotation of submissively busying oneself with empty gestures, has now become a real trigger for social change. Joining the rest of the creative intelligentsia coordinated by the newly established Cultural Council of Artistic Associations, the Artists' Association also wants to weigh in on the burning issues that are threatening Estonia’s nature and people – phosphorite mining and the demographic situation. A possible solution is envisaged by a proposed transition of the Estonian SSR to full self-management. The Artists Association backs the proposal unanimously.
At the beginning of April 1988, a plenum of Estonian artistic associations meets; the Popular Front of Estonia, citizens’ committees and new political parties are formed the same year. The most powerful voices on the political arena are painter Enn Põldroos, elected as head of the Artists Association in 1985, architect Ignar Fjuk and artist Heinz Valgu, whose slogan “One day, no matter what, we will win!” will inspire hundreds of thousands of Estonians in the days of the Singing Revolution.
Analysing the decade, Ando Keskküla, who succeeded Põldroos as head of the Association in 1989, has said that there is no common denominator to describe the 1980s. Art historian Sirje Helme summaries the decade as follows: “This controversial decade that produced both hope and despair seems to have closed with the coming of a new decade, under new political conditions – like a sphinx (such a beloved figure in 1980s art).”
Professor Jaak Kangilaski has described the economic situation of artists at the time as follows: “The shortage of many art supplies and materials worsened and hyperinflation began to affect the ability of both the state and the Art Fund to finance art. Selling their work abroad or to foreign visitors was an economic escape route for many artists. Unfortunately, artists were initially held back by their lack of knowledge of the international art market. The economic foundations of Soviet art life were eradicated by the restoration of Estonia’s independence.”
V Awakening, standstill and self-discovery / the 1990s and 2000s
The 1990s are in many ways a decade of rethinking and discovering one’s identity. Rather than one single identity, we now talk about identities in the plural, construction and deconstruction thereof. Cracks appear in the traditional hierarchy of art forms: photography, installation, performance and video art take centre stage, while painting as the former front runner assumes a conservative and even outdated status. Artworks “no longer speak for themselves” – they are described as contextual and conceptual. Good art is now characterised by being topical, relevant and focusing on a problem, be it gender, environmental awareness or social conventions.
The institutional structure of art life also undergoes important shifts. After the restoration of independence in 1991, the Artists Association of the Estonian SSR is succeeded by the Estonian Artists Association. In 1993, the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia opens, taking on a leading role in artistic innovation.
Previously the economic motor of the Artists Association, the Art Fund is forced to limit its scope, now remaining active mainly in real estate management and distributing studio spaces to artists. The Tartu Department of the Artists Association, which has operated since 1957, breaks away as an independent Tartu Artists Association, taking possession of Tartu Art House and a production facility in Ujula tänav.
Around Christmas 1994, the Tallinn Art Hall Fund is established and takes over the responsibility for organising exhibitions in the Art Hall. One of the milestone projects in Estonian art life of the 1990s will be “The Revival of Space” led by Georg Steinmann, an Estonian-Swiss collaboration to restore the facade and interior of Tallinn Art Hall. Completed by spring 1995, the project will include the renovation of all authentic details, current condition permitting, with the help of local experts Rein Laur, Liivi Künnapu and Anu Liivak.
In 1997, the first Tallinn Applied Art Triennial is held. The show, “Useless Things”, is curated by Lea Pruuli and features 79 artists from 16 countries; it is provocation but also offers a key to understanding contemporary applied art.
Following the liquidation of the Art Fund in 1996, its assets are transferred to the Estonian Artists Association. The 1998 General Assembly elects textile artist Signe Kivi to head the Association after sculptor Mati Karmin and Enn Põldroos, who has just ended his second term. When she moves on to become minister of culture, Kivi will in turn be succeeded by painter Jaan Elken. Elken ends up holding the position for a total of 14 years, with Liina Siib stepping in as his first vice president, later succeeded by Anu Kalm.
The spectrum of art forms and artistic freedom keep expanding. Around the 80th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, Raul Meel’s “Estonian Apocrypha”, showing obscene texts on blue-black-and-white national flags, caused an outrage. There was strong indignation and the Internal Security Service even built a case for the Prosecutor’s Office. “It seemed as if all of a sudden the entire Estonian people cared about that the work of an artist,” commented Meel himself.
Perhaps an even greater scandal – this time involving allegations of child pornography – breaks at the second annual exhibition of the EAA, “Young British Art”, curated by Anders Härm, Kiwa and Hanno Soans in 2001, and boils down to a long-standing confrontation between young artists and curators on the one hand and the Artists' Association on the other. The same year, Fideelia-Signe Roots walks topless from Tartu to Karepa to voice the message that women’s breasts should not be sexual objects; someone calls the police on her in Väike-Maarja. As a more general trend, there is a growing gap between a public that is accustomed to established aesthetic and ethical canons and the more radical contemporary artists. Inevitably, outraged art lovers have already dubbed contemporary art as “shitting in a jar”, in reference to a 1992 installation by Jaan Toomik, which had shocked them deeply. In any case, interpreting art and the art scene has become a familiar process involving everyone who feels interested in or affected by it.
In November 2000, the first issue of the Estonian visual culture magazine KUNST.EE appears. It is a 21st-century revival of the “Kunst” almanac, which was published since the 1950s but faded away in the 1990s; the sole sponsor of the magazine, apart from public funding, has always been the Artists Association.
Institutions, including exhibition venues, have an increasingly important role in the Estonian art world. In 2001–2002, the Artists' Association reconstructs the Hobusepea Gallery with extensive financial support from the Ministry of Culture; the opening exhibition takes place in January 2003. In 2002, the Hansapank Gallery on Liivalaia tänav, which showed the exhibitions of the Center for Contemporary Arts Estonia, had been closed and Vaal Gallery, one of Estonia’s most prestigious contemporary art galleries, had been evicted from its premise on Väike-Karja tänav in Tallinn Old Town after 12 years.
Both Hobusepea and the renovated Draakon Gallery are now expected to replace them as contemporary exhibition spaces under the leadership of gallerist Elin Kard, bringing together different art practices and generations; the two galleries will prove particularly valuable as a stepping stone for the younger generation in particular to enter an independent, and often international, artistic existence. This way, the Association’s galleries become a kind of replacement mechanism for the one-time young artists association, which had been aimed at ensuring the organic development of new professional artists. In 2006, the HOP Gallery for applied art and design is established as a new addition to the Association’s galleries, followed in 2009 by the Vabaduse Gallery, which will focus on senior artists.
Alongside the dire shortage of exhibition spaces, the need for change and attracting a younger membership is felt by the then council and board of the Artists' Association among others. The objectives set to foster the next generation of artists in the early 2000s are similar to the those in the 1970s – increasing membership, enhancing the operation and reputation of the organisation, and this way boosting the development of the art scene more broadly.
A monumental win in the struggle for exhibition spaces fought throughout the decade is the opening, after long debates and deliberations, of the KUMU Art Museum in 2006; the following years will show how the magnificent new building helps improve not only the visibility of Estonian art but also its image.
In the 2000s, the Artists Association under the leadership of Jaan Elke makes significant contributions to the drafting of two pieces of legislation that represent an important milestone in Estonian cultural policy and the improvement of the livelihood of creative individuals: the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act of 2004 and the Commissioning of Artworks Act of 2010.
VI Epilogue / Present day
In the spring of 2013, Vano Allsalu is elected as president and Elin Kard as vice president of the Artists' Association. In his election speech, Allsalu promises evolution rather than revolution. For the successful achievement of its objectives, the hitherto largely intuitive and traditional approach needs to be replaced with a more efficient and systematic way of running the Association, enhancing its competence as a sectoral expert organisation. A standstill would be a setback. New statutes are drawn up for the EAA and a number of persisting problems are resolved – occasionally causing public outcries and even giving the yellow press something to talk about.
Managing the Association’s real estate is an important part of its daily operations, as artists continue to need studios and galleries at an affordable price, or better yet – free of charge. However, the buildings are old, which means that dripping pipes and flickering lights are an everyday reality. The properties are surveyed and redrawn room by room, mapping the possibilities for development. The facade of Tallinn Art Hall – one of the most prominent walls in the country – is renovated in cooperation with the Tallinn Art Hall Foundation. The Muhu Art Residency is brought back to life. The growing interest of young artists in joining the Association breeds confidence in a sustainable future for the organisation.
A major challenge facing the Association on the real estate front will be the revival of the legendary ARS Art Factory as a creative hub and art centre. For a time having been set on a course for extinction, the ARS factory now brings together more than 90 artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs, many of whom are young and have already made a name for themselves. With support from Enterprise Estonia, the EAA will be implementing the Open ARS project to development of a promotion and training centre, project space and ceramics centre. The 21st-century ARS must combine innovation with history, contemporary practices and technologies with the traditional skills of professional art in Estonia.
Cooperation between people as well as institutions will be increasingly important. A month ago, the Art Hall Foundation was established as the first joint foundation of the Estonian state and an artistic association; the Ministry of Culture will ensure more stable funding for exhibitions and the EAA will provide premises free of charge for 50 years.
Since 2015, the Estonian state has been funding artist and writer laureate salaries – a long-awaited realisation of an idea first put forward by the Estonian authors Friedebert Tuglas and Henrik Visnapuu in 1920. A fundamentally new measure, it is set to bring about a shift in public awareness – apart from a few vocal critics claiming to represent the taxpayer, the Estonian people seem to be embracing the idea that artistic creation also constitutes work and should be rewarded and recognised with more than just pretty words. Today, 12 artists receive a salary. For exhibitions in the EAA galleries and Tallinn Art Hall, artists now also receive an exhibiting fee, a modest for now but hopefully set to increase in the future.
Believing in a better future need not be naïve – good things in art and society as a whole are brought about by positive thinking and believing in one another.
The story of the Estonian Artists' Association is not completed. It is a process recreated and reshaped by artists, curators, art critics and art workers every day. The face of the Association is its members – just like the face of a nation are the people – it is the face of Estonia today, the world today and there is a little bit of each one of us in it.