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Elin Kard: "If artists have no galleries where they can start out, the other institutions will have no one's work to sell, mediate, reward or represent later on."

Andreas Trossek (1/2014)

Andreas Trossek interviews Elin Kard, vice president of the Estonian Artists' Association (EAA).

 

You accepted your position as the new vice president of the EAA on 1 August 2013, and the question that probably the whole art community would like to ask is the following: what will become of the Hobusepea Gallery, where you have curated the exhibition programme for the last decade? Also, what will become of Draakon Gallery?

Sadly, I don't believe that the imaginary audience consisting of "the entire art community" would be deeply concerned about what will happen to those galleries. Of course I would like it to be so. But since I care very much about the future of the galleries that have been almost the only ones creating a positive image of the EAA in the last years and happen to be the best working part of the EAA's structure, I wouldn't consider it wise to tear down the system that functions almost impeccably within the bounds of the present limited possibilities. For that reason I decided to keep working at the galleries on a partial workload and hired Sirja-Liisa Eelma as an assistant gallerist in August 2013, and I am paying her from my own gallerist salary because of the scant resources we have. Sirja-Liisa's main tasks are dealing with the daily matters and changing the exhibitions; we communicate with the artists while preparing the exhibitions together; my share of work is also finding extra funding for all the EAA's galleries in addition to drafting projects and composing reports. Until now I have produced the exhibition programmes on my own, but my assistant and I will select the projects that have been submitted for next year together. The programme will be approved by the EAA's council just as it has been for years.

Due to the circumstances and the division of work, I as vice president am also responsible for keeping the EAA's galleries functioning and improving the working conditions for the gallerists and the gallery technicians, and to help them get a raise for their rather high pressure work. The EAA's attitude towards the galleries has so far been divided – its management has not directly intervened in their work; on the one hand this has been a sign of their trust, but on the other hand it has also expressed their indifference. The galleries and the gallerists working there have been left on their own; the underpaid gallerists with their undefined working hours have so far remained in the lowest position in the EAA's hierarchical management system, which has manifested both in the fact that they have been excluded from decision-making and have had to accept little in terms of remuneration.

Keeping the galleries functioning has been – and will apparently continue to be – a rather complex battle, where finding compromises is necessary. On the one hand, the EAA has limited financial resources, but on the other hand we have to deal with the attempts by various other institutions to "co-curate" the activities of the EAA's galleries. As the EAA is an independent and self-supporting artistic association, and gets no financial support from the state or the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, we need to find additional funding for the galleries. Since 2006, its source has been the Ministry of Culture programme for supporting galleries, where I have applied for extra financing to run the galleries. Most of those sums have been used to reduce the rent paid by the artists, but all four of the EAA's galleries (Hobusepea, Draakon, Hop and Vabaduse galleries. – Ed.) have used the same funding for preparing exhibitions and covering expenses needed to support the galleries. This year, I was forced to turn for help to the Cultural Endowment of Estonia because of changes in the terms of financial support created by the Ministry of Culture. I have always considered it inappropriate for any institution to apply for financial support from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, since the main goal of the latter should be supporting the creative activities of artists and furthering their skills. However, the Ministry's new demand that in order to qualify for any financial support a gallery should guarantee rent free exhibition rooms for artists would create a gaping void in the budget of the EAA, meaning that the alternative would be not to apply for any financial support from the Ministry at all, and to start collecting the rent from the artists instead.

Such a development would be extremely difficult to explain to artists in present day Estonia, where artists are already drafting exhibition projects with ridiculously low financial means and without gaining any profit for their work. Added to the economic difficulties of this situation are the aforementioned "attempts to co-curate". The main problems embedded in the current model seem to be the overly brief duration of the exhibitions (The average length of exhibitions at the Hobusepea and Draakon Galleries is two weeks. – Ed.), while many have forgotten that this has a number of reasons, which actually come down to the creative freedom of the artists and problems managing economically. Co-funding generally tends to be accompanied by the aforementioned attempt at co-curating – "Yes, you will get some of the money, but we want you to keep the exhibitions open for a longer time", "choose these artists instead of the others", "the artistic level of the exhibitions is uneven", etc. But drafting an exhibition programme normally takes place three quarters of a year before the applications for some financial support and therefore the EAA cannot take such risks that might put the artists displaying their works in the galleries into a financially difficult position.

In addition, it is often forgotten that we are speaking about the EAA's galleries – that means the need for a certain amount of broadmindedness and sometimes also compromises in choosing between different projects. One of the principles in drafting programmes for Hobusepea and Draakon galleries has been to provide young artists who have just started their careers an opportunity to have their share of solo exhibitions and projects in addition to those, who are already recognized artists. If that causes a certain amount of unevenness in the artistic level of the final outcome of the exhibitions, it cannot be helped; we should also keep in mind that even exhibitions by well-known and highly experienced artists sometimes fail for various reasons. The galleries take the responsibility in drawing up their programmes, whether they like it or not. It is extremely important to remember the following: if young artists have no galleries where they can start out exhibiting, the other institutions that usually take a critical position and have an interest in "co-curating" will have no one's work to sell, mediate, reward or represent later on.

Has this broadminded politics of compromise been fruitful? And how many success stories do we have by now?

It is not the broadmindedness that is our focus, but giving an opportunity for young artists to get a chance to start coming up with their own exhibitions. The success stories are not the result of a gallery's work; they are born in a co-operation between the artists and the galleries, where the artist has the most important role to play. Hobusepea Gallery alone is a place where several people who have gained recognition started with their exhibitions in recent years, or came up with some projects that drew a lot of attention.

Considering that the local art world has often complained about the EEA focusing too much on dealing with its real estate problems and not enough on fighting for the social guarantees of artists in recent years, what is your stand on the central problems and priorities for the EAA?

After having worked at EAA for more than eleven years, until last August mine used be the experience of an outsider. However, now that I have spent half a year studying the situation from within, I understand the difficulty and the complexity of the situation better.

I cannot agree with the claim that the EAA has up to now spent too much time on solving its real estate problems. If anyone had actively dealt with these problems, we might no longer have the difficulties that are by now quite severe. I would say that the EAA's earlier activity could be summed up as follows: they have dealt a bit with various issues, have made some decisions, but there are many problems that have for numerous reasons been left unresolved. Of course, these problems have been the uncomfortable ones. It is hard for me to say whether the reason for that has been the fear of losing votes, worrying about getting too much of attention, or perhaps the shortage of staff.

The deeper Vano Allsalu and I have looked over the last six months, the more disheartening the picture has become, to put it mildly. It is true that even at the moment most of our working time is spent taking care of matters concerning the real estate, because the amount of it in the possession of the EAA is large, it is in bad condition, our resources of managing it are limited and we have no finances for the renovation works. Our workload has also been great during the last six months, considering the low number of the EAA's employees and the fact that the management's abilities have their limits. We have mostly dealt with the "spring cleaning" and gaining control of the situation. I am slightly more optimistic about the future; once the real estate objects belonging to the EAA and all the matters related to it have been carefully charted, and the priorities for future activities have been defined, then we may be able to focus more intensely on issues other than those I listed here.

Investing a lot of time in dealing with the real estate is unavoidable at this point, because the EAA as a creative association is a self-financing non-profit alliance, and managing our real estate is where we get the means to guarantee our existence. Those means do not come from the membership fees as people often mistakenly believe.

You already mentioned that the EAA gets no regular financial support from the state or the Cultural Endowment, but I suppose many people still mistakenly assume that the EAA is actually funded by the state?

I read with interest and a measure of sadness the Cultural Endowment's table of financial contributions for the 4th quarter of 2013 in the cultural weekly Sirp: the financial support for the Union of Estonian Architects in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 28,000 euros; support for the Estonian Association of Designers in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 18,700 euros; support for the Union of Estonian Interior Architects in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 17,000 euros; the support for the Estonian Union of Theatres in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 12,060 euros; the support for the Association of Professional Actors of Estonia in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 12,000 euros; the support for the Estonian Amateur Theatre Association in the 1st quarter of 2014 was 15,400 euros. And there were many others.

Knowing that a grant of 15,762 euros to support the EAA's galleries work for the first six months of the current year has so far been our only subsidy fills me with hopelessness. On the one hand, we must look after a large amount of real estate that requires inhuman efforts from us, and yet this is one reason why the EAA's applications for financial support are hardly ever welcomed. On the other hand, the tenants of those buildings are mainly the members of our artistic community, which should speak for itself, considering the microscopic scale of the local art market.

EAA's prospects of getting any additional financing to add to our rental income are close to zero, to put it mildly. Therefore, our main short-term challenge is to encourage our staff to work in a more systematic and motivated manner, so that the management consisting of two people could dedicate themselves more to the legislation, the social guarantees for artists and others working in the art field, and to the obligations stated in our constitution.

Still, what in the long run will become of the ARS building, a large building from the Soviet era at 154 Pärnu Road? With the gallery and the complex of art studios situated at Hobusepea 2, and Draakon Gallery at 18 Pikk, the aforementioned behemoth of a house must be one of the first things that people associate with the EAA in Tallinn today.

Actually I don't believe that the people associate the ARS building with the EAA so much, except for a small number of artists. People do not remember the earlier times of glory of ARS; they have already become a part of the local history of design and applied art. People often don't even realise the fact that some of the legendary companies are still functioning at ARS; for example, the ornamental leatherwork and porcelain studios.

Since in addition to the main ARS building, the EAA also owns a large territory, the size of which is almost two hectares, and which mostly consists of decaying hangars and other buildings, the issue of the future plans for ARS have become an inseparable part of our daily work since last August. And because one of the EAA's constitutional goals is creating suitable conditions for the artists to work in, we have assembled a group to develop those areas of real estate that concern artists from the different fields, business men, journalists and architects in addition to the members of the council.

The ARS building is located in a rather unsuitable place, as our goal is to attract people to it – the residential areas are too far away, the neighbourhood is full of offices, and the focus of other developers is mostly on building more business premises. People don't just happen to walk around this area after work; the district remains too distant for the tourists, and even though the ARS building is located in the city centre, the artists currently working there feel rather cut off from the world.

That territory could ideally work as a centre uniting several creative fields, where we might build studios for artists from many fields, workshops, open studios and stores, project rooms, and companies providing the materials necessary for creative work in addition to the store rooms that the artists need. All that could be packaged into an environment with an interesting architectural appearance in addition to a renovated industrial building. To realise all these changes would take time and more than a little bit of money, but this forms quite a considerable part of the work that we plan to do in the near future.

There is one provocative question I would like to ask: would it not be more sensible to sell all the real estate in possession of the EAA in our small post-Soviet country with its liberal market, and then to divide the money between its members? At least its new president Vano Allsalu and the new vice president Elin Kard would get tons of cheap popularity.

I don't believe such a course of action would make us popular. Such an approach and strategy also definitely does not fit with my personal beliefs nor ethical norms.

In the course of time different leaders at EAA have sold quite a few things: some of the studios have been privatized, and some other "interesting" deeds have been done. It would definitely be better for the present economic situation of the EAA, if these had not been done. The gains from selling some of the real estate belonging to the EAA could be considerable, but it would still be a single injection of funds leaving us uncertain as to whether it would provide the desired amount after using the gains for some other project; in fact, it could end up harming the functioning of the entire EAA. As a manager of this institution I have no right to take such risks that could affect the existence of the institution, the salaries of its workers and their jobs. In addition, I would definitely not like to belong to the list of the EAA's managers, who have made bad decisions by reducing our capital base. Thankfully, the real estate belonging to the EAA is also the source of its income; for instance, the buildings at 6 and 8 Freedom Square are protected by our constitution – those buildings cannot be sold by the management or the municipal council without the agreement of our general assembly. Similarly, the same restriction should be used on the building at 2 Hobusepea Street to insure the safety of the EAA, its staff and all the artists.

Is there a chance that at some point in the bright future a salary for artists might come into existence?

I really hope that such bright future does is not light years away. It will become a reality when the state starts to perceive itself as the employer of the artistic community, which is not the case at the moment. We cannot turn with all of our problems to the already over-burdened Cultural Endowment, which could be an alternative as a temporary solution to the difficulties, but considering its lack of means that institution cannot afford such large expenses. Raising the number of the yearly grants for creative work might be a way to partially alleviate the problem – and as far as I know, that is something that the foundation of visual and applied art at the Cultural Endowment has already decided to do.

Our interview takes place at the beginning of 2014, which is why I assume that the EAA's new management has already had to deal with several cases inherited from its previous president Jaan Elken, who remained in his position since 1999. But leaving aside the fact that no large organization can be reformed overnight, I will ask you directly, what will the EAA be like after, say, five years?

We could compare the EAA with its historic baggage and equally historic real estate to a rusty tank, and it would be rather difficult and unnecessary to attempt turning it into a rapidly manoeuvrable machine gun. As I said before, we have been busy putting in order and improving the structure of all we possess. After selecting us as managers last year, the EAA's general assembly also gave us a mandate to make some changes; the changes are necessary and unavoidable, and we must make some unpleasant decisions in implementing them. Once the changes, already underway, connected with organizing our work and the work discipline have been fully implemented, we can focus more on our visions and plans for the future. The changes taking place now have mostly to do with enabling us to carry out the changing priorities at the EAA.

I very much hope that the systems that are currently working well will remain so after five years as well, and will function even better by then. I also hope that our new projects will be realized, and no foolish or unfair decisions have been made in order to make them work. I hope that the managers who run this association in five years' time will understand the magnitude of their responsibility.

How does running the EAA on daily basis look like and how do the processes of decision-making work?

The EAA is managed daily by its president and vice president, both of whom are part-time. The board informs the council of its activities and asks the council's permission before making any larger changes. The council consists of the president and vice president, the leaders of the twenty sub-committees, and ten individual members chosen at a general assembly. The EAA's highest-ranking organ of management is its general assembly, which is regularly summoned at intervals of three years and consists of all the members of the EAA. At the moment 950 artists and art historians are members of the EAA. In addition to the two members of the board, the EAA has two administrative managers, a financial manager, a specialist, two accountants, a secretary-project manager, the coordinator of creative persons, three gallerists, a gallery technician, two real estate supervisors, an electrician, seven gallery guards, several cleaners and caretakers. The president and the vice president are always responsible for the daily decisions connected with the EAA and their consequences.

Almost a thousand people form a considerable force in a small country. Why is it then that many outside the art world have the impression that artists are basically unable to agree on anything? The young artists do not visit exhibitions by older artists and the seniors in turn scorn the juniors. Is that impression right or wrong?

That impression is neither right nor wrong, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is natural that each generation will be replaced by the next, but the related problems tend to repeat themselves. Since I communicate with both parties as a gallerist, vice president and a lecturer, I have noticed that dissatisfaction is more characteristic of the older generation. I do not know whether this is caused by the competition, the limited local art world or the lack of opportunities. The younger generation tends to have a lack of interest in history both when it comes to the distant past or recent history.

And it should not be said that one of the two parties is mistaken or is doing something wrong, because as trite as it may sound, history repeats itself and will always continue to do so. The older generation is stuck in their established mind-set and stereotypes, and prefers the safe lack of change; the younger generation impatiently seeks some new, unforeseen solutions and innovations, and it would be incorrect to claim that either group is mistaken; both have their reasons to feel and hold on to their beliefs as they do. I do not believe it is likely to be any different in other creative fields or walks of life.

If we leave the matter of generations aside for a moment, I doubt that artists are unable to reach any kind of agreement. Such an idea refers rather to the claim spread by the new editor in chief of Sirp regarding the composition of a document stating the foundation of cultural politics, where the partners of the Ministry of Culture were several specialist organizations, but "individual fields of art like the visual arts have several umbrella organizations and the friction between the old and new is stronger there", or due to internal opposition "it is particularly noticeable in the visual arts; after all, they did not offer any proposals simply because they were unable to agree on who should represent them". When the Ministry did not find it necessary to cooperate with the representatives of Estonia's largest arts association for a certain period, because the EAA's president at the time might not have been the most suitable for cooperation, false information still should not be spread and the blame should not be shifted onto whoever was not given an opportunity to participate in the matter.

In the speech I gave at the general assembly of the EAA last May I said that if I were to become the vice president of the EAA, I would accept, in addition to the other tasks, the role of "state mediator" between the different age groups, fields, different groups of opinion, and arts institutions. In order to help the EAA and its leaders keep this promise, the artists belonging to the EAA should sense their unity more than ever. Despite the fact that a plurality of opinions is the most characteristic trait of the EAA that consists of numerous members, instead of an inter-generational struggle this trait could lead to forming a platform for uniting our different ideas, and help us finally to become a respected opinion leader in society. It is irrelevant whether this pertains to the position of artists in society, social guarantees for arts groups, long-term creative scholarships, evaluating an artist's work, or the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act.

When the former Minister of Culture said that he doubted whether the artistic associations represent the entire cultural field, it inevitably raises the question, who does the state regard as its partner when making significant decisions related to cultural policy? After all, it's not a matter of someone assuming that all creative people should belong to some kind of "trade union"; it's about the fact that cultural politics should hardly hang on a phone call made to a familiar business man, a media figure, or any single person, while completely excluding arts associations from the process?

Hopefully, Rein Lang said at that moment (During the scandal of appointing the acting editor in chief of Sirp at the end of 2013, which lead to the Minister of Culture resigning. – Ed.) some things he did not really mean. The associations acknowledged by the Ministry are the official representatives of arts individuals, who also cooperate and act as spokespersons in their relations with the state. So, the representatives of the arts associations who had a discussion with the minister on that day acted as council for him, because the members of the arts associations are also voters. In situations where the very same council had just given their vote of no confidence because of his loss of trust, it is certainly difficult to remain calm and not take offence – even for such an experienced minister as Rein Lang. I believe that for most of us who were at that moment face to face with the Minister, it was both sad and difficult to give a vote of no confidence, since Rein Lang was not a bad minister, quite the contrary. However, expressing our dissatisfaction about a situation where the work of the state institutions was being directed through private phone calls was unavoidable.

What was the institutional relationship between the EAA and Tallinn Art Hall like, which several critics have in the past called the EAA's underling in art policy?

The Tallinn Art Hall Foundation is a substructure of the EAA. In addition to the representatives of the Cultural Endowment and the Ministry of Culture, Tallinn Art Hall's committee also includes a representative of Tallinn and appointed members from the council of the EAA. Vano Allsalu, a member of the EAA's board, was appointed a member of Tallinn Art Hall's committee according to the council's decision at the end of last year.

In the course of previous years, the EAA has repeatedly interfered with the exhibition and personnel politics at the Tallinn Art Hall, but less in their financial activities. The current council of the Tallinn Art Hall works as an advisory board, but according to its statutes, it should work as a monitoring agency and plan activities instead. Such a breach of the law and its statutes has allowed them for years to choose exhibitions in a biased manner and according to the preferences of their council. In cooperation with the EAA and the foundation we may consider a partial withdrawal of the artist committee members in the near future and replace them with people who are more familiar with economic matters.

There have been complaints that the EAA has not dealt sufficiently with sales work and finding opportunities for sales of art even within the conditions of our tiny local art market. As you worked at Vaal Gallery at a time when it was practically the only commercial gallery in Estonia, you should be familiar with these problems?

I am not certain whether the EAA with its limited means and staff should focus more intensely on selling art, because up to now we have focused on providing the artists the elementary means for mounting exhibitions and creating work, and keeping all the systems working. It is also possible to buy art from the galleries owned by the EAA; this has been done for years, it is being done even now, and will hopefully continue in the same way in the future. If by "selling" you mean the sale of our symbolic capital, the EAA has always dealt with representing and introducing the artists. This has been done both through the galleries and by creating some direct contacts.

And yet it is characteristic of Estonia for the work of several institutions to overlap, instead of each one trying to specialize and have a well-defined role within the system. We have the Ministry of Culture that expects its partners to have the ability to export goods and to handle the creative industries; we have two centres that bear rather similar names and basically handle the same field of work (Center for Contemporary Arts Estonia created in 1992 and Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center created in 2012. – Ed.); we also have two or three private galleries that sell art works. But in my opinion, the EAA should be more similar to a trade union compared to all the other institutions – we should be the first to speak up and interfere, when significant cultural policy topics arise.

I would still like to continue on a provocative note. For example, why does the EAA not help organize the sending of the works by local artists to international fairs, or not coordinate the matters related to the competition for the national pavilion for the international art biennale in Venice?

I have already given a partial answer to that question. Let the commercial galleries continue to work their way through the fairs, while the Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia keeps representing Estonia at the Venice biennale. Still, the EAA mediates the participations of artists at several international exhibitions, provides artists with information about opportunities to exhibit and attend residencies, etc. The excessive disunion of a single organization does not guarantee quality, but the division of work between different institutions will definitely yield better results. Also a long time has passed since the Soviet period, when controlled centralization was considered unavoidable in order to fulfil the Five-Year Plan in any field successfully.

True, the Soviet period has passed and today's reality is the free market economy: people vote with their feet and their purses. Considering the fact that the majority of the audience for the exhibition programmes at Tallinn Art Hall in recent years has been keen on traditional spring exhibitions approved by the hanging committee, does it not mean that you have an overlooked market niche: why not arrange every year an enjoyable spring fair, where the members of the EAA could arrange clearance sales from their studios, everyone in their own little corner?

If you speak of having an annual selling exhibition at the Art Hall, then those who wish can obtain art works now as well; on one occasion there were even price lists printed at an exhibition and the option of buying art was actively advertised to the audience. If I recall correctly, it resulted in selling one or two works. By the way, I once sincerely suggested to the president Jaan Elken to rent a large tent instead of arranging the traditional annual exhibition, and to set it up on Freedom Square – one with built in movable partitions, just like the fairs, where all the artists could exhibit the works they wanted to sell. Jaan Elken replied that I was being cynical. But I am not. 

 

Andreas Trossek works as the editor in chief of KUNST.EE.



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