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"Soaked Old Badgers" and The Fragile Cat's Cradle of Trans-Generational Cooperation

Maria-Kristiina Soomre (2/2014)

Maria-Kristiina Soomre analyses the present situation in the institutional landscape of Estonian art.


A significant portion of the previous issue of the KUNST.EE quarterly was dedicated to key institutional positions in the Estonian art scene, featuring interviews with "newcomers" who have recently been chosen to lead some central organisations. Although everyone in the chat rooms always knows everything about leadership and power – especially about the "real" goals and agendas of the colleagues currently in positions of responsibility, and also of course, about how to "really" run organisations and guide developments in the art scene – I don't think the professional media has described the local arts scene by way of such a broad-based and straightforward institutional analysis. Let us hope that the ideas expressed in these interviews will not remain hanging in the air as questions, intrigues and utopias, and that the discussion will carry on.

As the editor-in-chief, using a literary vignette, alluded in the previous issue to my own agency with regard to this imagined change of generations ("Those listening to the programme ‘Art Ministry' cannot see, but Soomre's facial expression conveys satisfaction – things are moving."1), I am now gratefully picking up the gauntlet. I will try to proceed from where the last issue left off, and answer questions that arose in that issue, alongside questions that have really interested me for a long time (about what is or is not in fact going on in our institutional landscape, and why?): are we living amidst another institutional change of generations? Is there some fundamental conflict between different generations and how could this be articulated? Why are things happening as they are at Tartu Art Museum? Etc.


A change of generations?

Recently, generational change has become topical in Estonia, and in very different contexts: a young (34) prime minister taking office, politics and political governance in general and the electoral lists of individual parties in particular, but also in advertising, business ownership and various cultural fields (after a quick Google search). We cannot fight the passage of time, but this is doubtless more than a mere demographical phenomenon, and one that involves society more broadly. Looking at the Estonian commercial landscape in 2010, media businessman Hans H. Luik, one of the iconic capitalists of the 1990s, coined a generational diagnosis, an unambiguously evaluative one at first blush – the time of the alpha males is over, the dreams of the "soaked old badgers" no longer seem interesting enough to the young "gazelles" of today.2 Although in his statement Luik was clearly manifesting the expectations of the "new alphas" in the business world, it would nevertheless be intriguing to analyse the developments of the last five years in the art world on the basis of a similar western/safari logic, looking at the legacy of the 1990s and the (traumato)logical repetition of this in today's institutional culture.

How apt would it be to speak of "overdriven horses" in this context? How illustrative would the parallel with Augean stables be? What role has the onslaught of Generation Y and indigos, on the one hand, and the continued passive-aggressive power struggle of opposing ideological positions, on the other hand, played in the changes that have occurred? Will fundamental changes in working culture and positions in Estonian art life more broadly take place in the process of this imagined change of generations or will the upshot be just minor changes in our phonebooks?


Spring cleaning?

Looking at the six main characters in the last issue of KUNST.EE with their very different backgrounds in terms of age (years of birth varying from 1957 to 1983), art politics, education and career (Vano Allsalu, Rael Artel, Maria Arusoo, Karin Hallas-Murula, Elin Kard, Kai Lobjakas)3 and their administrative starting positions, we can find a common characteristic that is perhaps even surprising at first glance. More specifically, the change of leadership in all institutions in question has taken place in a situation where a number of previous instances of neglect have had to be addressed; instances which at best have been restricted to some segment of activity having been ignored, the organisation having fallen from public attention or having stopped developing as a result, and at worst have caused financial damage or even a hiatus that has paralysed the organisation, stopping it from acting in the public interest. (Without going into detail: the new director of Tallinn Art Hall, Karin Hallas-Murula, found upon arrival, a state of disorganisation in the art collection of the fund and directed her energy to organising it, which, in combination with laying off curators, can certainly be seen as a clear case of professional positioning by her as a former museum director, but at the same time inevitably necessary and by now a successfully completed process; with Tartu Art Museum, again, an audit by the Estonian Ministry of Culture has revealed sizeable shortcomings in the museum's organisation of work, which the new director Rael Artel had only begun to address, when she was immediately subjected to vocal disapproval by the staff, etc.) Of course, it is important to stress at this point that no leaders in Estonian art institutions have been laid off by executive bodies, either due to their actions or lack of them. All changes have either routinely followed from the electoral cycle or taken place at the initiative of those involved and in light of new challenges rather than anything else.

Three out of the six "new" leaders have previously for a longer or shorter period been personally associated with the same organisation, but even in these cases, "consistency" is not necessarily the first word that is associated with their role as a leader. None of the five women and one man highlighted in this focus on the change in power has positioned themselves as a holder of a glamorous honorific appointment taking over a golden baton from their forerunner. Rather, in most of these cases (and also when reading about their own attitudes and the goals they have set), we could see things in terms of the responsible role of a "special unit" rushing in to respond to a call. They have a clear idea of how the organisation should operate and what the most urgent problems are. Furthermore, they have a 3 to 5-year deadline in order to reach their goal, so there is not much time for big talk; what is needed is fast action (which in many cases does not, of course, exclude taking a very clear political position, and in the two more extreme cases, public conflict with the opposition).

In most cases it is still too early to predict whether the new leaders will accomplish their mission, whether their activity will help bring order to specific segments of work or improve the operation of the whole organisation and through that to influence the development of the field more broadly; likewise, it is difficult to guess the cost of the desired changes. While we can agree with the suggestion that things are moving, something is changing, a view of the Estonian art world based on leadership culture tends to raise additional important, and so far often unasked, questions about the state of things.


Lost generation(s) vs. fresh blood?

In discussing the "musical chairs" surrounding leadership positions in his introduction, Andreas Trossek pointed to a certain compensatory logic: in the case of key institutions, the reigns are clearly in the hands of the older generation and these institutional titans do not favour change; young people tend to be directed to act within smaller structures. Although the editor-in-chief's line of thinking is logical, it is also easy to argue against it, as so far "young people" are not known to have applied for leading positions in what may be called the central organisations or in any other way taken a clear position relative to them, if only as an uncomfortable critic. (I would exclude the case of the Tallinn Art Hall from this context, as today it can be referred to as "central" only in futuristic fantasies or due to a narrowly provincial view, despite the fact that it is doubtless an organisation that manages one of the most prestigious exhibition halls in Estonia and has a politically important role to fulfil.) However, Kumu Art Museum and the Estonian Academy of Arts aside, today the next largest organisations in the country (both in terms of budget and their political position) are run precisely by the youngest, in every sense representatives of "fresh blood", Artel (Tartu Art Museum), Arusoo (Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia) and Anders Härm's position as head of the programmatically alternative Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) has more weight in art political terms and more broad-based public financing than its external image as a wayward squat would perhaps allow one to presume. Still, there is an important grain of truth that unfolds from what Trossek says and cannot be ignored when speaking about leadership in the art world: let us call it, by way of generalisation, the syndrome of "the lost generation" (and here leave inquiries into birth years and other personal issues to passport officials or two-bit know-it-alls).

The fact that our art world all but lacks the rotation vital for any ecosystem, and the cooperation to create internal cohesion, maintaining oxygen levels (experiences, contacts, historical memory, etc.) equally in all its strata, while keeping it securely inside the system, has created a situation where no professionals with skills and characteristics for leadership are rising to the role (with a few exceptions, of course). The average difference in age between our generations of leaders is 30 years, which is neither normal nor sustainable. The older and middle generation generally do not consider developing the necessary "bureaucratic acumen" to be worthwhile; at the same time, the general underfinancing of the field fails to motivate those tired from the struggle of the 1990s to vegetate endlessly in lower positions (for by middle age at the latest people generally develop a certain standard of living; only a very few sacrifice themselves in seriously demanding work that is poorly compensated in the name of art and higher ideals to the end of their lives). Therefore, many see a leadership position as well deserved laurels, for they have "done their share of toiling". The occasional intellectual "sofa dissent" that accompanies this attitude and sees the allocation of public funds on the basis of personal priorities as the sole task of the leader of an art organisation and views all financial activity, strategic planning and reporting duties on the part of the leader as a troublesome, unnecessary ritual in quite an unequivocal way also forms the general image of the field in Estonian society. There are organisations that would not exactly allow themselves to be led in this style for long, but surprisingly, there are more of those that have done so and will apparently continue to do so in the future. The Soviet-era vision of organisational culture is in some instances surprisingly resilient in the art world – with regard to art, the pinnacle of the fullness of power still seems to be neither budgetary balance nor an abstract role as an influencer of the "development of the field" but the right to decide what is art, who belongs in the "presidium" and who in the "underground".

We cannot ignore the human dimension either – the relationships both among the "leaders" and the "led" are affected by, in addition to personal traits and upbringing, a more general culture of communication in the field, which in our art world, probably for decades, but very significantly at least since the 1990s, has been clearly polarising, aggressive and conflict-based, and constantly reproducing itself as such. On the one hand, the by now habitual opposition of ideological or art political positions (which, it seems to me, lives on primarily due to the "idiosyncrasies" of certain individuals), and on the other hand, a sometimes seemingly fundamentally Estonian inferiority complex, finds expression in an indiscriminate "critique of power" mostly lacking any basis in solid analysis (for personal attacks against leaders and decision-makers are, after all, "covered by their salaries"). Irrational bragging "behind a beer glass", however, is never equivalent to progressive feedback, let alone constructive criticism; on the contrary, in civilised society it is considered more a form of harassment. The beats-therefore-loves relationship does not usually go a long way, as the muddy circle around one's own rather short axis that is ever more distinctly taking shape in the field of Estonian art also seems to prove. The greatest expectation that those tired of hatred place on a new generation of leaders is precisely that they would break this endlessly recurring curse; something that calls for people who have a clear vision and firm principles, relative "selflessness", at least to begin with, and strong nerves.


Helen Melesk / Where You End, I Begin

Helen Melesk
From the series "Where You End, I Begin"
pigment print, collage, 90 x 60 cm
Courtesy of the artist



April Unrest or Spring Coalition?

What has so far been the biggest problem in the Estonian art world is the chronic lack of good leaders who would be able to create and develop teams, cooperate constructively and effectively with both the public and the private sphere, as well as function as an opinion leader in questions of art in the eyes of the public. Basically, this problem relates to the discussion, which gathered momentum in the wake of the Sirp scandal last year, regarding the topic of supervisory boards, or the question of what expertise should be represented and what role is borne by the members of the supervisory bodies of cultural institutions.4 Due to the institutional structure of the art scene (only two private foundations, two state museums and a "field-full" of civic and private initiatives), the influx of professionals with experience in the "co-responsibility" of a board member is not exactly booming because here too an "arts council" mentality still seems to dominate, as was also suggested by the vice president of the Estonian Artists' Association Elin Kard in the last issue of KUNST.EE. This is also the reason why there is a hopeful proneness to read too much into even the smallest developments in leadership – let alone whole chains of events that look like tendencies.

Hierarchy is a persistent category in leadership. With respect to a leader, we intuitively tend to expect an authoritative, if not authoritarian, position; in a position that requires responsibility and the setting of strategic directions, especially when working with a very diverse team, equality and joint action characteristic of civil society may not work all the way.5 Masked by a "generational change" that strikes one as positive at first glance, there is in fact a very acute problem with generational cohesion looming in the art scene: with regard to both leaders and specialists, a syndrome of generational "waves" seems to apply, with only very few having been able to allow themselves the luxury of accumulating experience and growing into a leader in positive cooperation with their colleagues. The privilege of a trusting mentor relationship, too, is to be considered the exception in the art world in general and with regard to leaders in particular; rather, a colleague to a colleague is still a competitor, or "wolf", and "at the end of the day" everyone is still only out for themselves. So it seems natural that in team formation – if anyone at all besides oneself is trusted – the safe models of a "friendship circle" or "kindergarten group" tend to dominate in Estonia (especially in the practice of leaders from the middle or older generation) – with regard to subordinates, people tend to rely on loyalty that preserves a comfortable status quo.

The current examples of young and fledgling leaders do seem to focus predominantly on valuing the expertise and professionalism of the staff. Paradoxically, it is precisely these expectations, however, that most hopelessly run on the rocks of the lack of an ability for trans-generational dialogue and cooperation, oftentimes because of distrust from older colleagues who place value in established patterns (here it is impossible to avoid mentioning the obvious "conflict of civilisations" as exemplified at Tartu Art Museum). "Professionalism" is, of course, the magic word that, depending on your personal view of art, worldview and life experience, is associated with very different values – it is on this scale, if anywhere, that one possible substantive litmus test for generational conflict can be placed. At any rate, it seems to onlookers that both the field as a whole and each institution individually would only stand to gain if after each decade there was no need to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, and there could be cohesive trans-generational cooperation, allowing a diversity of experience, richness of historical memory and fresh, motivated energy that is capable of keeping up and maintaining a dialogue with the changing world that could be applied in the direction of progress.

Being an inextricable part of the modern worldview, the vision of a rebellious youth and of the world conquering the ambitions of each new generation is probably a biological necessity. The image of a herd of ungulates ruthlessly trampling on a well-groomed lawn must seem – apocalyptic to a mustelidae who has gone to great pains to gather just a thin layer of fat under its skin in the name of survival and is now warming itself by the that's-how-it's-always-been bonfire of tradition. Whether it is "fiendish curators", "lights-on-lights-off conceptualists", "globalised glamour hipsters", "naïvely friendly pussies and pooches" or "pseudo-intellectuals opposing the popular will" – at first blush it is probably impossible to find professional common ground with them, and as a rule, talk of the gentle and inclusive activism of Generation Y wins no trust with the previous avant-garde generation.

What also causes a certain distrust of fresh blood among the colleagues who have so far been mainly educated in "the only possible university" in Estonia is the fact that the former are oftentimes figures with an "uncheckable" background. There is an increasing number of those who have studied at least partly outside Estonia (or at least been brought up on literature in foreign languages, with the number unified and shared basic texts therefore diminishing) and thus have a more fragile tie with the previous strata of the local art world, both socially and memory-wise. Therefore, what is called intellectual speak, or a real linguistic shift between the older and younger generations of colleagues, which is caused by both unshared "basic theories" and the dwindling expressive richness of the native language, may turn into a great intergenerational problem.


What to do?

I have no magic formula to offer for the field of art to prosper. Without taking a position with regard to generation or worldview, I would like to join the imagined choir of "pussies and pooches", who repeat as a chorus the importance of cooperation, transparency, equal treatment, setting of broad-based strategic goals and trans-generational dialogue within the field. Surely, all of us – personally as well as institutionally – have at least a couple of very good and reliable colleagues both among the younger and older generation; therefore, there must be a chance of real common ground, of at least a minimal shared professional platform. For it is not necessary that all the (hundreds) of arts people rally around the same flag and come to an agreement in the name of world revolution. However, under the conditions of a plurality of opinions and special interests, argumentative self-assertion, long-term impact analysis of short-term decisions from the perspective of the institutional "big picture" and possibly pointing to the need for a critical rethinking of habitual movements should not automatically mean personal attacks or struggles for territory, but sometimes also a joint front for the better use of shared strengths in the name of a more successful future. Whether all this is cat, racoon dog or gazelle talk, so to speak – you tell me.


1 Andreas Trossek, New Generation? – KUNST.EE 2014, No. 1, pp 3–4.

2 Hans H. Luik, Vettinud mägrad versus noored gasellid. – Eesti Ekspress 11. X 2010.

3 When discussing the wave of "generational change" of leaders, we should not forget related areas more broadly, e.g. the recent examples of the Estonian Museum of Architecture and the cultural weekly Sirp, which are at least as symbolically loaded.

4 Ott Karulin, Sihtasutus Eesti Kultuur – kuidas seda juhtida? – Sirp 6. II 2014.

5 See e.g. columns by Maarin Mürk and Helen Tammemäe in Müürileht. "Instead of everyone twiddling on their own, we could learn to cooperate more – to combine our plans and goals and work together to achieve them. [---] Without living in constant fear that someone is definitely about to rip you off, it is possible to achieve great things – to change the world." – Helen Tammemäe, Koosolemise võimalikkusest. – Müürileht 17. II 2014.


Maria-Kristiina Soomre is an art historian. She has been working as art adviser for the Estonian Ministry of Culture since 2011, is a member of the Tallinn Art Hall Foundation representing the Ministry of Culture, and was a member of the Council of the Estonian Artists' Association representing the International Association of Art Critics.

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