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Art prizes in Estonia: a small commented compendium

Andreas Trossek (2/2013)

Andreas Trossek offers a brief overview of the mechanism of issuing art prizes in Estonia.


Just what is it that makes contemporary art so different, so appealing? One answer is art awards, of course. How else could the wider public even know that there is a contemporary artist, whose work according to expert opinion is somehow better or more interesting than the work of the other contemporary artists? How else could a small art community communicate a message to a wider audience, saying that in local galleries, museums and project spaces, the process of producing cultural values still continues? That art history is being made here and now? That there are artists that are worth "keeping an eye out for"? Yes, this is where the fairy tale begins, a narrative created by public relations and communications professionals that we all as viewers believe... because it really seems that we have no other choice.



What exactly is the media strategy for an art prize, or what is the mechanism for awarding art prizes based on? The authority of experts? The competence of colleagues? No, it is money. Art prizes function on the basis of money, and the amounts of money moving from one bank account to another are quite substantial. The money, in turn, establishes the respect of the public, even if initially expressed as a lack of comprehension in amazed and wondering whispers of "is this art?!". Yet eventually, the paradox is that these thousands and thousands of euros will be transferred to a specific bank account and the detractors will have... only their fingers to wave. So from the position of the viewer you might not be interested in art history, you might consider contemporary art as some kind of pseudo-activity, but when this odd exponent in front of you has been announced worthy of thousands and thousands of euros, you have no other option than to accept the situation. When the news says it, so it is, and that's all. Money talks, money is a universal language, money isn't interested in your upbringing, your diploma or your private interests.

True, in relation to money, contemporary artists are generally cynical. Art is not made for money, a commercial artist is almost a swear word in the art world. However, in Estonia there are no publicly known cases of an artist turning down an art prize – even as a political stand or for scandal, for the free publicity it offers – or claiming that actually some other artist deserves this prize more. It is not even about money or people's inherent greed, but also about (hidden) hierarchies regulating culture: from the artist's perspective the prize in undoubtedly "a free pass to art history". If the experts in the jury said it, it is true, and that's it. So what then are we all talking about in this little art world, that everything is relative, that actually we don't believe in this capitalist sports game called "the best artist of the year"? But time passes, all sorts of layers of irony and the conscious use of double meanings will be swept away from our short active memories and only the names of the winners will shine brightly in history (without any sense of cynicism now). Money talks and we listen.

Undoubtedly, Viktor Misiano is right when he says that the (over)prioritizing of art prizes is characteristic of the former Eastern Bloc, and that fetishized prizes are symptomatic of a lack of infrastructure. As though art awards can compensate for the lack of a considerable art market and the lack of real income. Optimists say that the situation is still pre-market and that the (local) market will eventually emerge. Pessimists state that despite the fact that for nearly a quarter of a century Estonia has been part of the economic zone of the free market (i.e. in the friendly bosom of the capitalist countries), the art scene in this small country is still predominantly based on tax money, as if nothing had essentially changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the prevailing rhetoric of entrepreneurship and creative economy, the artist continues to be some kind of a strange "public employee"; moreover, one who often has to pay for his or her own work. How long does a transition society normally last, a generation? At the same time statisticians and logicians sum up the years, sales figures and forecasts for population growth, reaching once again the conclusion that the only way out is the internationalization of contemporary art at a professional level. The Promised Land starts almost as soon as you cross the border – only contemporary art works that have "travelled" have any hope of finding widespread acceptance in a self-cognitive periphery like Estonia. When the nation-state centred identity-creating narratives are no longer enough to hold the concept of "Estonian Art" together, we continue to find comfort in the fairy-tale of belonging to the motherly bosom of occidental civilization by birth. Money talks… no, it whispers.


Public money

First of all, what is the landscape of art prizes in Estonia like? What is the background to the existing prizes? What and who could a new prize hypothetically outdo?

The oldest art prize in Estonia, which has been awarded since 1973, is the annual Kristjan Raud Prize. Awarded under the auspices of the Estonian Artists' Association (EAA) and Tallinn City Government, although the money comes from the city, it is for all intents and purposes an EAA prize. Named after Kristjan Raud (1865–1943), whose creative peak was in the period of the first Republic of Estonia, when among other things he participated in the publication of an illustrated issue of the national epic "Kalevipoeg" (Kalev's Son). The terms of the prize provides that one Kristjan Raud medal will be issued for an art event disclosed or completed during the previous year, but the prize could also be given for works completed earlier or as a lifetime achievement award. Looking through the list of recipients, it is noticeable that most have been mature, creatively speaking, when they received the prize. Thus, in some sense it is like a classic military medal – given to those who have fought a significant number of battles. Every year the "harvest" is four equally awarded individuals. The prize is 2,240 euros each (this number "strangely" resulting from Estonia's transition to euro in 2011, in the old national currency it was 35,000 kroons). The Kristjan Raud Prize has also been awarded several times to art historians, so it is not only reserved for artists or applied artists. The broad social prestige of the prize manifests itself, among other things, in the fact that it is hard to imagine any evening television news program or cultural section of the daily newspapers neglecting to cover the award ceremony.

Almost as prestigious are the Konrad Mägi Prize and Medal, which are issued by the EAA with one of its sub-unions, the Estonian Painter's Association, and is sponsored by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia (Kulka). As a painting prize – painting was a dominant technique throughout the 20th century – the Konrad Mägi Prize is surrounded by a certain "aura" in the media, in spite of the fact that the upsurge in installation, video, photography and other competing forms in the 21st century has resulted in it becoming slight marginalized. It has been awarded since 1979, and is named after the ill-fated Konrad Mägi (1878–1925), whose landscape paintings influenced by Impressionism, neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and so on, belong to the treasury of the national art canon. Estonia's most prestigious painting award, as it is described in the terms and conditions, is worth 3,200 euros in numerical terms (50,000 kroons). The list of winners shows a noticeable regularity – between the classics some younger painters have also occasionally been recipients; thereby, preventing accusations by the "young" that the "old" do not notice them at all. As with the Kristjan Raud Prize, it can also be said of the Mägi prize that by awarding it every year the EAA successfully establishes its authority in Estonian society as the main professional association that all artists can voluntarily join.

The national cultural prizes organised by the Estonian Ministry of Culture (9,600 euros to one laureate), which sometimes include the visual arts, could be seen as the highest official recognition. With these annual prizes the state generally recognizes contributors to culture that have already run the gauntlet of colleagues and experts, and therefore, the prize could be seen as an institutional prize. Since the majority of what goes on in the Estonian art scene occurs on the basis of tobacco and alcohol taxes, it makes sense to interpret Kulka's annual arts and applied arts endowment prizes (3,500 euros per winner) as producer prizes. In a sense, Kulka's prizes could therefore be compared to the Oscars in the movie world – the "industry" is evaluating itself. Kulka also funds several smaller prizes for the sub-unions within the EAA (e.g. the annual prizes for the Association of Estonian Leather Artists or the Art Historians and Curators), but these events normally do not extend beyond the threshold of narrow collegiate newsletters.


Private money

What should the role of private funds be here? The oldest art prize issued on the basis of private funds in Estonia is the Sadolin Art Prize, which has been awarded since the middle of the 1990s, when after the collapse of the socialist planned economy, the funding models of the Estonian art scene were in an active reconstruction phase (in 1992, the Estonian Soros Center for Contemporary Arts was founded; in 1994, Kulka was restored on the basis of an institution that existed in the first Estonian Republic). There have been interruptions to this prize, and a sort of "third coming" occurred in 2012, when the grand prize was 5,000 euros. As the prize is awarded by a company that manufactures paint and varnish (Akzo Nobel Baltics AS), it is understandable that the laureates have mostly been painters with an occasional graphic artist (in 2012 Paul Kuimet was the first photographer to be awarded the prize). In some sense, the Sadolin Prize has been what could be called a "doping prize" because for the most part the company has awarded artists in the first half of their career, thus excluding recognized mature artists on the one hand, and younger artists on the other (read: EAA deals with mature artists anyway, and for students there is the Eduard Wiiralt Prize (3,000 euros, since 2004) issued by the Ministry of Culture, or the Young Artist Award presented by a number of private collectors/entrepreneurs (1,500 euros, since 2005)).

Undeniably, the role of the former Hansabank Art Prize is also important; although since 2010 it is only possible to speak of it in the past tense. Ideologically, it was rooted in and promoted a Western art model, which emerged through the former network of the George Soros contemporary art centres throughout the former Eastern Bloc. In practice, the office of the former Soros network in Tallinn (currently: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia) co-ordinated its exhibition activities in the 2000s via a gallery at Hansabank. Symbolically, the winners of the Hansabank Prize (Marco Laimre in 2000, Ene-Liis Semper in 2001, Marko Mäetamm in 2002, Mark Raidpere in 2005) sooner or later found themselves among the winners of the competition for the Estonian pavilion at the Venice biennale. When Hansabank was acquired from local bankers and took over the entire Baltic market under the name Swedbank, the prize was also renamed the Swedbank Art Prize in 2008, and drew from a regionally wider selection of nominees. In 2009, the grand prize was increased to 10,000 euros, and in addition there was a travelling exhibition of the five nominees (Tõnis Saadoja was chosen from Estonia) throughout the Baltics, Russia and Sweden – in short, wherever Swedbank operates. However, then another global economic crisis reached this part of the world...


Public and private money

The Köler Prize is the most discussed art prize in the Estonian art scene in recent years. It is a local contemporary art prize (read: limited to Estonia) launched in 2011 with support from Kulka and the "Tallinn – European Capital of Culture 2011" programme. Each year the four members of the council of the Estonian Museum of Contemporary Art EKKM, which was founded in 2007, have promised to nominate five artists. The prize is named after Johann Köler (1826–1899), an Estonian born Academic painter from St. Petersburg, who is also known as an important figure in the national awakening in the second half of the 19th century. Considering the average age of the nominees in 2011, 2012 and 2013, it can be said that the award is for more or less younger artists mostly in the middle of their career – the local art scene generally knows their names well, but the general public (as yet) does not. The Köler Prize continues in many ways from where the Swedbank Art Prize left off (e.g. we find Tõnis Saadoja again among the nominees in 2011), albeit at a more sober level. The grand prize is 5,000 euros; the audience prize is 1,000 euros.

Like most prize-plus-exhibition combinations around the world, the format of the Köler Prize has been borrowed from the British Turner Prize, which is a contemporary art award presented in Great Britain since 1984, each year it is given to a British artist under 50 years of age for an outstanding exhibition or for creative work in the previous year. The media attention surrounding the exhibition of work by the nominees, especially in the 1990s, made the Turner Prize a kind of "icon". Its formula for success followed a standard advertising strategy, placing the audience at the forefront: hefty prize money (in recent years 40,000 pounds), adrenaline-pumping "who will win?" sports moment, provoking the gutter press and an audience with no art education with "implausible" art objects (i.e. dead shark in a glass tank, an unmade bed, etc.). Scandals, discussions, audience numbers, museum purchases, auction records – and British art was put nicely on the map during the last decade of the 20th century. As a result, over the years the Turner Prize has mainly been associated with the conceptual art tradition, although the prize has also been awarded for traditional painting and for a work that could only be heard. It is organized annually by the Tate Gallery, where attendance numbers have undoubtedly only increased since its inception.

So how close after three years have the Estonians who hand out the Köler Prize come to the British example? Not very close considering the money distributed to the artists: 5,000 euros is in no way comparable to 40,000 pounds. If you take the Turner Prize as a conditional model – an exhibition of nominees with a grand prize as the cherry on top – then Estonia's closest neighbours, the Latvians (PurvÄ«tis Prize – 28,500 euros) and the Finns (Ars Fennica – 34,000 euros – a prize which in 2008 went to Estonian Mark Raidpere for his photographic and video works) have bigger contemporary art prizes, as do the Russians (Kandinsky Prize, 40,000 euros). On the other hand, Estonia is still a transitional society and the grand prize of 5,000 euros that the Köler Prize awards, seems like a cosmically abundant pile of money in the local art scene. (Not to mention that this amount of money weighs in at a completely other level compared, for example, with the oldest Estonian art prize, the Kristjan Raud Prize at 2,240 euros.) In addition, a revolutionary step has been taken in the local context in the case of the Köler Prize: the prize money is footed by private capital. This has been an important decision in a system, which is basically based on – as described before – the distribution of tax money. The production costs of the Köler Prize exhibition have been covered by Kulka, odds and ends have been covered by the Ministry of Culture, but there is an explicit agreement that the award money comes from "art friendly private funds". In 2011, the grand prize of 5,000 euros came from logistics company Smarten Logistics, the audience prize of 1000 euros came from Temnikova & Kasela Gallery and the Lawin law firm. The same thing happened in 2012. In 2013, EKKM declined support from Temnikova & Kasela Gallery and Lawin, seeking the funds for the audience prize instead from the architectural bureau Salto AS.

However, it is hard not to notice that these "art-friendly private funds" – for example, in the case of Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, still essentially consist of people from the same art field. Temnikova & Kasela is currently the only solid Estonian participant at noteworthy art fairs, Salto in turn has the reputation of making quite conceptual architectural projects, the chairman of the board at Smarten Logistics is the renowned private collector Armin Kõomägi, and so on. Therefore, the model of the Turner Prize really hasn't taken the nominees of the Köler Prize significantly beyond the art scene to any kind of broader social recognition. This (voluntary?) principle of "niche-product" is in turn reflected in the level of media attention for the exhibition of the Köler Prize nominees, where the cliché of "punk" youth culture mostly emerges. Apparently, the Köler Prize has to put all its bets on the rising generation rather than on the crowds "from children to grandparents" (the word "museum" in the process of branding EKKM is in this sense more of a provocation). And, of course, in the long run, the whole Köler Prize initiative silently contributes to the recognition of the national museum where key works by Köler hang in the halls of honour. Since the captivating embrace of the Estonian Art Museum's purchase committee is where almost all local artists desire to "fall asleep", because due to the microscopic local art market and the difficulties of breaking through internationally, no other ray of hope is to be seen.


Money and relativity

Yet how is it that the Köler Prize has managed to create a more general discussion on the subject of the "quality" of local contemporary art? Have the nominees always been "better" than other contemporary artists? And did the "best" artist always win?

In general, based on the Turner Prize model, the relativity between art and money could be taught to people at a populist level; that the most expensive art could be, but is not always the best – just like the most expensive real estate may or may not be the best possible investment item considering overall quality of life. It seems like a trivial repetition to point out that the Turner Prize model offers the audience an opportunity to observe the game and raise their voice, compare the exhibitions of the nominees and choose their personal favourites within given limits. However, if such critical discussions have emerged in connection with the Köler Prize, they have been largely neglected and rarely public.

The signals coming from the local art scene itself have mostly been positive because artists, curators and critics in Estonia are not accustomed to openly criticizing the decisions of a jury, let alone an international jury. On the contrary, collective (and thus anonymous) expertise is taken as the word of God. The nominees and the winners of the Köler Prize have also been greeted with an affirmative rhetoric in various newspaper stories. One gets the impression that one or another nominee has, as it were, fully deserved the grand prize, as if any other combination would have been unimaginable. However, take any temporary committee, change the setting by one or two people and you see how the politics of the decisions can dramatically change.

The nominees for the Köler Prize in 2011 were Dénes Kalev Farkas, Tõnis Saadoja, Timo Toots, Sigrid Viir and Jevgeni Zolotko. Jevgeni Zolotko, a sculptor who builds bulky cryptic-mystical kabakov-esque installations, won the grand prize, and Tõnis Saadoja was awarded the audience prize. Then again it could have gone differently. For example, Dénes Farkas could have won. A photographic artist, who won the competition for the Estonian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2012; in other words, he was "good" already in 2011. Or why not Tõnis Saadoja? A conceptual painter, whose CV includes probably nearly every possible local art prize, including the 2013 Kristjan Raud Prize; in other words, he was also already a "good" artist in 2011. Or why not Timo Toots, a new media artist, who subsequently won one of the grand prizes at Ars Electronica 2012. Or Sigrid Viir, a photographer, who subsequently won the Pulse Prize at the Pulse art fair in New York in 2012.

The Köler Prize nominees in 2012 were Johnson & Johnson, Flo Kasearu, Marge Monko, Marko Mäetamm and Margus Tamm. Flo Kasearu, who in terms of visual thinking is a strong painter and video artist, won both the grand prize and the audience prize, Marge Monko, who is mainly a photographic artist, received a special mention from the jury. Then again it could have been very different. For example Johnson & Johnson could have won. A sculptor duo, whose portfolio includes probably the most lasting "social sculptures" in Estonia since it regained independence, and which cover the entire city of Paldiski and function like a time-zero for the entire local history of sculpture. Or Marge Monko, one of the most consistent intellectual feminists in the Estonian art world. Or Marko Mäetamm, an artist working in different media, who has represented Estonia at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and 2006, and is therefore a "good" artist. Although it must be admitted that his victory would have seemed unfair to the younger nominees (it seemed that in 2012 Mäetamm was brought in to mix the cards – to prove that the Köler Prize is not just another "youth prize"). Or Margus Tamm, why not? So far the only artist, who in the guise of an institutional critique, has fought against the format of the Köler Prize by exhibiting a curatorial piece at the exhibition of nominees – essentially exhibiting other people's works.

The Köler Prize nominees in 2013 were Paul Kuimet, Karel Koplimets, Kristina Norman, Jaanus Samma and Triin Tamm. Both the grand prize and the audience award went to Jaanus Samma. Then again it could also have gone differently. Far ahead of the others in terms of her previous body of work is Kristina Norman, an artist who represented Estonia in Venice in 2009, although her recent video works are annoyingly universalist, highlighting typical humanist values; nevertheless, it must be conceded that this cliché works in an exhibition space. However, it is only fair to state that Jaanus Samma has developed in recent years as an artist; the gay aesthetic prominent in his work is no longer so hidden, but instead forms the conceptual spine of his position as an artist. The result is interesting and highly sophisticated and in no way "scandalous" in terms of the Estonian gutter press, where homosexuality is constantly laid out as "bait" for anonymous internet commentators. But joking aside, the posters advertising the 2013 Köler Prize were "scandalous" – its graphic design clearly declares the designer's preferred winner.



Jaanus Samma
The Opera "Chairman"
Installation, pigment photo, libreto
Exhibition view at EKKM, photo by Johannes Säre


In any case, even if you are at least a little critical, you can see that the circle of relativity and money closes pretty soon. Someone wins, someone loses, but what counts in the end is... attendance? Indeed, on closer inspection, art prizes in Estonia appear to be simply lists of The Best in Estonian Art, which are easily contestable (art is not sport, although sport like art belongs to the same administrative field in our Ministry of Culture), but it would be naive to claim that these lists do not mean or determine something in the careers of these artists in the future. As with the Latvian PurvÄ«tis Prize for example, every year Estonians can also examine the exhibition of the nominees as a prediction of the competition on a much broader regional scale – who will win not only this year's prize, but also for example, the competition for the national pavilion at the next Venice Biennale?

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.

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