February 1, 2014

Estonian State Cultural Policies and Diplomacy

As a small country with limited resources, Estonia needs to think carefully about where its state funding for culture goes.

Estonian cultural policies abroad – which I treat in this article with an emphasis on visual art – are a topic that has not received much coverage. I’m talking specifically about cultural policies; after all, there are many institutions and entities that represent Estonian culture in foreign countries. Moreover, private and public initiatives are not competitors in Estonia – they support each other, and so strategies utilized to promote Estonian culture abroad often intertwine. Based on my current position as cultural attaché, I would make the generalization that long-term contacts are important in foreign relations, as are maintaining relations and constantly establishing new contacts and seeking out new opportunities. While this generalization is certainly no newsflash, my experience is that participants have to be reminded of this old wisdom time and again. Putting cultural policy into action abroad undoubtedly requires state support, funding and coordination. Above all, it requires enthusiastic and capable people who have an appreciation of the diversity of Estonian culture.
Estonian cultural policy involves marquee projects as well as more everyday kinds of work. In the field of music, “all things Pärt” are important (the Hamburg festival devoted to composer Arvo Pärt is the most recent example) and in the performing arts, the NO99 Theatre takes centre stage (a play in collaboration with Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre is coming up in January). In the field of art, the state’s most prestigious art project is the Biennale di Venezia, which receives nearly all of its support from the government. The Biennale has potentially the most opportunity to establish beneficial art ties or strengthen existing contacts. The state’s contribution to this project is relatively high compared with support it provides to other Estonian art;  accordingly, these ties could be expected to translate into benefits for not just the participants but for the entire Estonian art world. Thus I envision the Artists Union – the broadest-based organization representing Estonian artists – playing a larger role in preparations for the Biennale. The Manifesta European art biennial being held next year in St. Petersburg will also shine an additional spotlight on Estonian art.
Although the Biennale di Venezia (like the Venice architecture biennial) is one of the most important dates on our art calendar—and receives corresponding support and coverage—it  is flanked by a number of other important dates. Any time Estonian artists capitalize on our museums’ international contacts and take part in an important traveling expedition  is certainly an important event not just for the participating artists but the entire public art sphere. The latest example is the exhibition entitled “The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945”, featuring the works of Raul Meel and Kaljo Põllu  which opened in Berlin and  continued  to Milan before this summer arriving at  Kumu [Ed. note: the the Art Museum of Estonia]  in Tallinn. However,  private initiatives and the projects launched by professional unions also deserve recognition. An exhibition of work by Estonian illustrators, “Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales,” traveled through several Russian cities this spring, Carcassonne had a long-running Estonian art exhibition launched by Sirje Eelma. And, coinciding with a Schleswig-Holstein music festival devoted to Baltic music, this summer saw a Baltic pavilion open for the first time at the NordArt exhibition at Kunstwerk Carlshütte in the German state, featuring Jaan Elken, Kaido Ole, Laurentsius, and Erika Tammpere—and all  these are just a few positive examples.
The Estonian Contemporary Art Development Centre – which has received major support from Enterprise Estonia –and the Temnikova & Kasela Gallery have also done competent lobbying work (the same goes for the Estonian Theatre Agency and the Estonian Music Development Centre in their respective areas) As they already have a number of successes and surprises to show for themselves, the Ministry of Culture decided to provide an additional €15,000  of support for the Temnikova & Kasela Gallery from its Estonian Culture Abroad programme in order to exhibit Estonian art at foreign art fairs, and €8,399  for the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Centre’s international practicum project for young gallery operators. The work and projects being done by these institutions have been covered thoroughly by Estonia’s cultural media, and those connected to all these endeavours are young and active people who have managed to attract coverage and support. It is still early to expect these institutions to have posted major results, but hopefully they have a sense of the public hopes and expectations placed in them, and  appreciate the material support they have received.
Of course, it is gratifying that the state is investing in Estonian art export. Yet there are certainly  other enterprising gallery operators who could apply for support from the state. One can only speculate about  what is keeping them from doing so: is courage, self-confidence and artistic ambition in too short supply, or do they need better information and professional administrative support? Perhaps the Artists Union could play a more effective role as an intermediary and the Culture Ministry could be more active, thus ensuring support for a larger and more diverse group of authors. Or should the system be monopolized?
I would make one digression at this point. As said, two above-mentioned art establishments have received state support; their activities should be transparent to the public. While it is considered normal in the art world to publish lists of artworks sold on the international art market, it appears Estonians shy away from publicizing this aspect. In my opinion, there is nothing to be bashful about in the fact that the Temnikova & Kasela Gallery sold the Peeter Laurits work The Last Supper at the Vinzavod Gallery in Russia, or that a painting by Alice Kask was purchased at the Adenauer-Stiftung exhibition in Berlin. Estonian jewelery artists successfully sell their work at Schmuck in Munich. Yet instead of taking pride in this, silence about the artworks sold abroad is preferred. This false modesty will be no boon to our art policy.
When it comes to state cultural policies, the state’s diplomatic missions abroad also play an important role in cooperation with the Culture Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and local partners. In general, awareness of these efforts often does not make it past the parties involved and is not covered in print media. With their limited space for cultural coverage,  Estonian newspapers  believe that information distributed by embassies or ministries is insignificant or that it is too much like official cant to publish; their attitude is “God forbid that some piece of domestic news should be omitted.” But the cultural policy—including the promotion of Estonian culture—implemented  by is much more extensive and diverse than that which is reflected in the public sphere. This work involves far more than the curator projects launched by cultural attachés; it includes all sorts of recommendations of artists and other contacts, delivering speeches at exhibition openings, and simply attending  events—representing  the state, as it were. This, too, is a part of national cultural policy, although not measurable in material terms. We can see state cultural policy in the latter form when an embassy contributes monetarily or in some other way to a given performance or appearance. This could include airfare to a release party for a book translation or exhibition opening, transport of artworks, printing and distribution of invitations and posters, or wine and cheese for a vernissage. (Author’s note: cultural attachés get about €185  in representation costs annually).
In countries with old cultural establishments, ritual modes of behavior are considered exceedingly important: this includes the presence of ambassadors or other diplomats at cultural events where an artist, musician or actor from a particular country is participating. This is how the state shows its interest in providing moral support its artists abroad – a simple gesture that bears a symbolic meaning or symbolic capital. On the other hand, the presence of the state in the form of a VIP such as a head of state – is extraordinary and atypical (I recall that President Mihheil Saakashvili of Georgia arrived at the Biennale in 2011 to open the Georgian pavilion, and former Finnish President Tarja Halonen  visited Kumu for openings of Finnish exhibitions).
Estonian national cultural policy is also expressed by the interior design of, and art displayed in, the country’s embassies—especially  especially if there are no opportunities for rotating/temporary exhibitions (although these are usually possible in the Berlin, Helsinki and Riga embassies). Interior design (in cases not involving an historical interior) and the fine and applied art and furniture displayed there often provide people with a first impression of the culture of a hitherto unknown land. The Estonian embassy in Berlin adjoins the Italian embassy, which permits itself the luxury of decorating its pseudo-Baroque halls with genuine Carracci paintings, 16th century Florentine armoires, and paintings from the 18th century Venetian school. The new Nordic embassy complex introduces the design, furniture and contemporary art of nation-states. If Estonia wants to be a Nordic country – and that is our secret dream – Estonia should not decorate its embassies with cheap and non-functional furniture from a catalogue or Oriental carpets, but rather with the work of domestic designers. Just like the First Lady orders dresses and jewellery from Estonian artists, Estonian embassies should be filled with works by Estonian furniture and textile designers. It’s a paradox that an increasing number of Estonian design events are held abroad – successfully!—but  the public areas of our embassies, the showcases with the most potential,  are neglected by our state design export policy. Shouldn’t the Artists Union, the Association of Designers, and Society of Interior Architects voice their common position on this matter and include the Estonian Academy of Arts in the discussion as well?
I have already touched on how the domestic media covers cultural activity taking place abroad. But the state’s cultural diplomacy is also conditioned by  opportunities for coverage in the country of location – i.e., how and in what way we make it into the international media. While the international media regularly covers Estonian music and film, art breaks the threshold much more infrequently. That makes it all the more unpleasant to discover that the list of correspondents in the October 2013 issue of FlashArt magazine, one of the leading publications in the art world, continues to list “Ando Keskkül”[sic],  a typographical error for “Keskküla.” I also mentioned this at the plenary session of the Artists Union in May.) When I happened to read the name a couple days ago, I remembered Gogol’s Dead Souls. Poor Ando Keskküla (1950–2008) … Who is responsible for this gaffe?
In closing, I’d like to emphasize the phrase “cultural policies” mentioned in the title of this essay, with the stress on the plural form. Estonia is a small country and its pocketbook is limited. As a result, we need to make choices as to who and what gets state funding. But making this choice should definitely not mean reducing the diversity of the Estonian cultural sphere, or  providing  an opportunity to realize the ambitions of specific cliques. It is an elementary truth that our artists represent different practices, ideologies, decades, and communities. All this makes us richer, and ensures that Estonian culture is broad-based and tolerant. The more we can export this diversity, the more benefits it will generate for all of us—so  the Estonian state and its cultural policies should also play a part in supporting diversity.
The article is based on a presentation delivered at the plenary session of the Estonian Artists Union on 13 May 2013 and expresses the author’s personal views.

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