Museums in the era
The Art Museum of Estonia, established in 1919, collects, conducts research on and introduces Estonian art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. It is comprised of five leading Estonian museums: Kumu Art Museum, which displays Estonian art from the 18th century until the present; Kadriorg Art Museum, which houses the largest and most important collections of Russian and Western European art spanning from the 16th to 20th centuries; Mikkel Museum, exhibiting the art collection of Johannes Mikkel which was donated to the museum in 1995, and is one of the few art collections obtained in Estonia in the post-war period, and features Western European, Russian, Chinese and Estonian masterpieces; Niguliste Museum, which is housed in the former St. Nicholas' Church, features a collection of historical ecclesiastical art spanning nearly seven centuries, including medieval and post-reformation art in Estonia; and the Adamson-eric Museum, which houses the art collection of the modernist artist Adamson-eric, one of the most versatile Estonian artists of the 20th century.
The Baltic Times interviewed Sirje Helme, the Chief Executive Officer of the Art Museum of Estonia to gain an insight into the Estonian art scene, plans for Estonia’s centenary celebration in 2018, the impact of Estonian artists around the world, the changing role of museums, and much more.
Helme graduated from the University of Tartu with a degree in history and art history, and obtained her doctorate at the Estonian Academy of Arts, focusing on post-wwii modernism, and lectures at the University of Tartu on this period. She has authored most of the fine artsrelated content in two books of Volume 6 of the History of Estonian Art (spanning the period from the 1940’s to the late 1970’s and 1969-1991, respectively), and has previously served as the director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia.
How would you characterise the current Estonian art scene?
Contemporary art in Estonia isn’t in a bad situation at all. We have very distinctive artists, which is something that’s very important. Both international funding and domestic economic support , which has been available already for a few years, has made it possible to apply for an artist's fee, which has contributed a great deal in favouring opportunities to work as an artist. The potential of Estonian art is also shown by the successful Venice Biennale appearance of the installation artist Katja Novitskova who represented Estonia this year. Her work focuses on issues of technology, evolutionary processes, digital imagery and corporate aesthetics.
In 2018, Estonia celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding. What are some of the major activities which the Art Museum of Estonia has planned during 2018? Has it planned and is it participating in any major art activities/presentations/exhibitions abroad?
We have three very serious years ahead of us. In 2017, Estonia holds the Presidency of the European Union, 2018 is the national centennial, and in 2019 the Art Museum will turn 100. The common focus of these three years at the museum is introducing Estonian art into the international arena. We have planned seven major exhibitions in different museums, starting with the exhibition that opens in September 2017 at the BOZAR cultural venue in Brussels, Belgium. Right after that, in October, we will open an exhibition devoted to the great Estonian painter Konrad Magi at the Galleria Nazionale d’arte Moderna in Rome. Five exhibitions are planned for 2018, including two genuinely major events. In April, a joint exhibition of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian art will open in the Musee d'orsay in Paris, the theme being early 20th century Symbolism. Our own most ambitious project is to “repatriate” the work of the 15th century artist Michel Sittow and organise an exhibition of his paintings in the city in which he was born and died, although he worked most of his life for the crowned heads of Europe. This project has been four or five years in preparation. The works come from the most important museums in Europe (the Louvre, Vienna Museum of Art History, Berlin State Museums, Mauritshuis and others), as well as from the US (the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Detroit Institute of Art) and Moscow. The exhibition is being prepared in cooperation with the National Gallery in Washington and will open on 28 January 2018 in Washington, and then on 9 June in Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia. In the same year, we will also open exhibitions in Nantes (contemporary Estonian art), the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and in Japan (a Kaljo Pollu exhibition). Exhibitions outside Estonia will also continue in 2019, but the focus that year is more on the local exhibition programme, and on communicating with local art audiences.
What impact are Estonian art and Estonian artists having around the world? What major exhibitions featuring Estonian art/ artists are being staged around the world?
When the general histories of Modernism and postwar art in the 20th century were written, Estonia and other Soviet republics were omitted, and they did not figure in the stereotypical ways of reading early to mid-20th century art. Estonia essentially didn’t exist in general histories, much less in art histories. In the last couple of decades, much has been done (works written and conferences held) to break the mould and enrich the general picture of European modernism with art that is from places more distant than the traditional art capitals, that has its own clear personality and high professional calibre. We are holding our own exhibitions with this aim in mind. Putting one’s own culture on the map takes a lot of time, effort and money. Estonian contemporary art has had an easier time, especially for artists who left a mark in the 1990s, as during that time there was great interest in art from the “new countries”. Jaan Toomik, the Estonian video and film artist and painter, appeared at many of the major exhibitions during this era, including the Venice Biennale Curator’s Exhibition, and interest remains high in his work. Right now, I see a bright international future for quite a few emerging artists.
How is the role of museums changing. Are they becoming more open and engaging cultural structures? What role do you see the Art Museum of Estonia playing in the future?
The role of museums in society is constantly changing and Estonian museums have been very open to development. Having long been a member of the European Museum Forum annual award judging panel, I’ve seen changes that have engulfed most European museums in waves. For example, there was a time when multimedia became such a massive presence in exhibitions that the importance of the original objects declined. Today, multimedia is a common but not main part of exhibitions. There was a great deal of discussion on what roles a museum should take on in communicating with audiences, and sometimes it seemed that the museum was being delegated roles that exceeded our professional skills or led us to make decisive changes to the structure of our workforces. Today, public outreach in every conceivable form is a self-evident necessity; there’s no point in building a museum that no one goes to or if no one is interested in the treasures stored there. Still, there are boundaries and duties that personnel in the social sphere in particular have to come to terms with; museums can assist in this regard, but they can’t play the leading roles. There have been many experiments, both productive and unproductive, but in general, museums are increasingly user-friendly and introduce themselves not just as treasure houses, but above all, as friendly places that offer experiences.
The new Modern Art Centre in Vilnius and the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art are being built with private funding and are set to open in a few years' time. It is expected that this may provide a boom in placing the Baltic States on the world contemporary art map.
What role will the Art Museum of Estonia play in this regional art dialogue? Will there be greater cooperation? What are some of the major cooperation projects that the museum has undertaken within the Baltic States region, and plans to undertake in the future?
The Art Museum of Estonia is pleased by the opening of new museums in both Riga and Vilnius. We at Kumu were the first to develop a new system for operating an art museum and communicating with the public. This has proved successful. The new museums in our area can only increase the role we’ve hoped to give museums in our society, and interest in the whole region is likely to increase.
Our cooperation with both the Riga and Vilnius museums has been going on the whole time. We borrow works from each other for our exhibitions and we’ve also produced exhibitions to introduce each other’s art (such as an Estonian pop art exhibition in Vilnius). We’ve had exhibitions devoted to Sarunas Sauka (Lithuania) and Visvaldis Ziedinsi (Latvia) at Kumu. Our mutual cooperation is a natural part of the museum's way of life.
The Art Museum of Estonia is comprised of five museums, which form an organisation with a collec-
“Contemporary art in Estonia isn’t in a bad situation at all. We have very distinctive artists, which is something that’s very important. Both international funding and domestic economic support, which has been available already for a few years, has made it possible to apply for an artist's fee, which has contributed a great deal in favouring opportunities to work as an artist.”
tive identity and development plan. Are contemporary cultural institutions finding themselves learning through horizontal structures and experiencing growing decentralisation?
The Art Museum of Estonia is undoubtedly a complicated organisation, because museums like Kumu, the Kadriorg Art Museum and the Niguliste Museum are above all orientated at exhibiting and organising public outreach; they are the different brands of one organisation that we use in communication and marketing. The system itself is much bigger; it is comprised of collections, archives, the library, the whole administrative and financial sphere, and our common “horizontal” cohesiveness: research development, publishing, all information systems (website,etc.), conservation and so on. It seems in our world today that small institutions can’t survive in the long term, especially when the financing system requires constant growth in revenue generated by the institution itself. I firmly believe that smaller and more flexible structures are extremely important in the art world. They are created and change and sometimes disappear, and without them there’d be no normal art scene, but in my role in charge of the largest state-owned art collection, I see the possibility for success in acting together: to put it figuratively, balling our five fingers into a fist.
Research projects constitute an important part of the Art Museum of Estonia’s work plan. What are some of the major pan-baltic projects which you have undertaken, and will be undertaking in the future?
Supporting research and research projects truly have special importance for us. Based on the topics, our research projects are approved by the Conservation Council or Research Council (postwar art, for example). Each project has its own budget, goal and person(s) in charge, as is customary. It isn’t possible to be a credible museum if we don’t work in a researchbased manner with our collections. For that reason, we also support our staff ’s PHD studies. The latest major recognition came recently: the conservation project “Rode Altarpiece in Close-up” received the prestigious Europa Nostra prize. We now have the status of an associated member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, and that’s a big honour for the museum.
Naturally, we have discussed cooperation with our colleagues on a number of occasions. Today this occurs mostly through conferences. The biggest ongoing cooperation project – which is also research for us – is undoubtedly the joint exhibition to be held in the Musee d'orsay, Baltic Symbolism. This has motivated us to review a number of topics from the start of the last century.
What is the annual running costs of the five museums of the Art Museum of Estonia?
It varies a little each year. Every year, we apply for state funding and contribute a minimum of 1/4 ourselves (out of the museum’s own income). The 2017 budget is 7.6 million Euros.
What is the annual revenue/profit generated by the five museums of the Art Museum of Estonia?
The 2017 budget provides for an obligation of contributing 1.85 million Euros of our own revenue.
Could you also share with us some of the major conservation efforts which the Art Museum of Estonia has undertaken in Estonia. Have you undertaken any conservation projects with Latvian or Lithuanian institutions? And what have the projects been?
When Kumu opened 11 years ago, the most important thing was to explain to Estonian society the role and importance of museums in society. I firmly believe that our efforts back then have done a great deal to contribute to the rise of the prestige of museums in Estonia. Another constant subject of discussion is the role of contemporary art; our curators take part in this discourse whenever possible. A museum is able to present its positions mainly through exhibitions, and we have done so. I think the same themes can be found in many places.
Naturally, we organise various seminars and conferences to discuss different topics, but so far the organisational side has existed separately at all of the museums, although we present and participate in all three Baltic States.
I’d like to wish all of us in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the greatest success! You have to have some good luck in art, besides everything else.
Kumu Art Museum 18th century until present Estonian art. July–sept: Tue–wed 10am–6pm, Thu 10am–8pm, Fri–sun 10am–6pm www. kumu.ekm.ee
Kadriorg Art Museum 16th - 20th century Russian and Western European art. July– Sept: Tue, Thu–sun 10am– 6pm, Wed 10am–8pm www. kadriorumuuseum.ekm.ee
Mikkel Museum West-european, Russian, Chinese and Estonian masterpieces. July– Sept: Tue, Thu–sun 10am– 6pm, Wed 10am–8pm www. mikkelimuuseum.ekm.ee
Niguliste Museum Estonian medieval and post-reformation ecclesiastical art. July–sept: Tue–sun 10am– 5pm www.nigulistemuuseum.ekm.ee
Adamson-eric Museum Art collection of most versatile Estonian 20th century artists. July–sept: Tue–sun 11am– 6pm www.adamson-eric.ekm. ee
Sirje Helme is Chief Executive Officer of the Art Museum of Estonia