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Kadi Polli: "The web is no substitute for reallife art experience and the materiality of an artwork." (2020/2)

Erle Loonurm (2/2020)

Erle Loonurm interviews Kumu director Kadi Polli.



Erle Loonurm (EL): After Kumu first opened, the local public quickly took to exhibition catalogues – larger shows were always accompanied by an extensive catalogue, which the visitor could buy from the museum shop. Now, with the coronavirus crisis, a new phenomenon has emerged – the virtual tour. Is looking at exhibitions online the next big thing – has it come to stay?

Kadi Polli (KP): At the moment, we are definitely planning to continue virtual tours for our exhibitions during spring and summer. Online tours are perhaps the most positive outcome of the coronavirus crisis for museums. At peak times, we have had 1,200 simultaneous viewers taking an online tour, while a real or physical tour becomes difficult to follow for a group of more than 30. The crisis has shown how information and culture can be brought to people through social media and virtual tours.

During the corona crisis, we have also not been able to use the interactive displays and touch screens, which otherwise normally accompany exhibitions. Now that the museums are open again [To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Estonian government declared a state of emergency on 12 March 2020, which ended on 17 May 2020. All the branches of the Art Museum of Estonia (EKM) were reopened to the public on 19 May. – Ed.], we are not allowed to use brochures or booklets, and audio guides are also prohibited. The virtual tour continues to be a welcome and useful option in this situation.

We cannot have openings in the classical sense either. For example, with the retrospective exhibition of Ando Keskküla, which opened in Kumu on 21 May 2020, we had a virtual curatorial tour a week later, and it went out live. This was also a good opportunity to bring together larger audiences, because the physical tours we could have offered would have been for no more than ten people. Taking an online tour with the curator has certainly become a special experience during the crisis.

The recordings of the online tours will be available on social media (Facebook, YouTube) and our website. For example, students and teachers will be able to use them in their lessons and lectures. Of course, e-learning tools have developed rapidly during this time: alongside virtual tours, the museum has organised web-based art studios. And there are also actual learning materials; the viewer numbers have reached into the thousands, as the materials are being used in e-school.

By the way, during the coronavirus crisis, the number of followers on Kumu Art Museum's Facebook page has gone up by 2,000, reaching 16,000, and the social media accounts for the Kumu Education Centre and other EKM museums have also experienced substantial growth in new viewers. The experience of the emergency situation has certainly helped us realise the coverage of the virtual world.

EL: The Michel Sittow exhibition in 2018 set the EKM audience record with over 64,000 visitors. How do you even keep a record of virtual spectators, because you cannot count them one by one as you do with physical visitors who buy a museum pass?

KP: There are of course many different ways to collect statistics on virtual visitors... But counting the viewers who watch for at least one minute, we see that the virtual tour of the exhibition "Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art" [The 40-minute video tour with curator Anu Allas was streamed live on Facebook starting 8pm on 24 March 2020. – Ed.] had about 45,000 viewers. That's a huge number! In addition to our domestic audiences, the show also had viewers in Finland.

"Creating the Self" was open from 6 December 2019 until 26 April 2020. During the time leading up to the state of emergency, about 25,000 people visited it. The success of the exhibition had to do with the fact the virtual tour came out almost as soon as the state of emergency began. So if we add these 45,000 virtual visitors to the 25,000 real visitors before the state of emergency, the show had more visitors than the Sittow exhibition.

Of course, we cannot equate these visitors, but the numbers are still impressive. So, while it's obviously a shame that such an extensive exhibition should partly overlap with a state of emergency, the virtual world has given us an experience that opens up new perspectives.

EL: Don't you worry that the real spectators will disappear and people will only want to visit exhibitions virtually?

KP: It seems to me that the virtual tour works as a kind of teaser. It provides advance knowledge of the exhibition and invites you to come and see the real thing. But we have discussed whether or not to make the virtual tours available online free of charge after the exhibitions close. Can our events with physical audiences, on which we rely, compete with this? I mean, we pay the people who do these events, and the visitors in turn buy tickets. Still, I wouldn't worry about this.

Actually, with the virtual tour format for "Creating the Self", we also received some critical feedback from the public. We had consciously decided to film it from the visitor's point of view, which means that the camera went through the exhibition like a visitor listening to the curator. That is to say, it was not cut like a documentary with pauses and close-ups. Many viewers were critical of the fact that they could not take their time to look at the pictures and concentrate, but had to move from one work to the next at the pace set by the curator. The thing is, it was precisely our goal to give the viewer a quick overview of the exhibition through the eyes of the curator, which admittedly didn't leave much time to enjoy this or that individual work properly. So, the web is no substitute for real-life art experience and the materiality of an artwork.

What is more, museums in general have recently become very interactive. They tend to display more and more objects or themes that almost require the audience to participate. Like all art museums, EKM has always been more about looking – which is something we have also been criticised for, by the way. Coming out of the corona crisis, however, this aspect has emerged as a strength and an unexpected advantage of the art museum. Now that visitors are not allowed to do anything interactive or touch anything with their hands, they will still get the art experience from us. In the art museum, virtual exhibitions will therefore not necessarily replace actual exhibition visits and genuine art viewing.

EL: The coronavirus crisis is receding at the moment. What are the plans for EKM for the next six months – will you meet your previously set goals or will art life be forced to submit to the dictates of the crisis for some time to come?

KP: One of the strengths of EKM and Kumu has been our international approach. With older art, we have always tried to juxtapose it with work from other countries and place the local tradition in an international context. We have been less and less willing to do exhibitions that show the unique development of a specific Estonian artist. We have always brought in borrowed work to demonstrate how webs of ideas have worked in art across national borders, for example, how early 20th-century Estonian women artists look alongside Finnish artists or how Ado Vabbe relates to Wassily Kandinsky. And even more so with contemporary art, in which case we hardly ever work with one artist, but do thematic exhibitions with a global perspective. The current crisis, however, puts particular pressure on international projects and we are forced to work with a local perspective.

For example, we can add virtually nothing in terms of borrowed foreign works to the Ado Vabbe exhibition, which opens at the end of August 2020. And we had to actually cancel the exhibition "Up All Night: Rave Culture Up Close", which was due to open in mid-April and would have connected Estonia with the artists of Berlin and other more vibrant centres of music and party culture in Europe. Such an international project with a big party ("KUMUReiv") and performance programme is impossible right now, and we had to push all the preparations back to next year. In its place, we launched a state of emergency special programme in the Kumu gallery of contemporary art for August and September, where artist Flo Kasearu will involve the museum attendants in her activities.

Kumu Art Museum had planned two major international projects for autumn: an Egyptian exhibition, due to come from a museum in Turin, Italy, and a major contemporary art exhibition, "Broken Symmetries", bringing together artists who have worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) residencies. With these two, we are still hoping that they can and should happen. If not, then it will be really hard to imagine how we will refocus solely on Estonian art or what will become of the field of art and culture in general…

Tourism is critical for all major museums. We know that there are more local exhibition visitors in winter and more foreign tourists in summer. We translate our materials and make them available in other languages. We are also under extraordinary pressure to generate revenue, and if there is no physical audience at all, the consequences will be catastrophic for years to come. So, in the long term, I very much hope that international travel will resume, so we can dare to keep planning large foreign exhibitions – either to bring important names to Estonia or to take local artists abroad. Otherwise, we will have to completely rethink our principles and options for organising exhibitions.


Photo by Hedi Jaansoo



EL: How was "Creating the Self", Kumu's largest exhibition in the spring season, received in Estonian society? What feedback did you get?

KP: It's quite surprising that we have never actually had a panoramic exhibition dedicated specifically to women artists. Finland and the Nordic countries, unlike Estonia, have definitely gone through this stage already. We on the other hand had a lot of this grey area – names of women who were active in art but whose works we couldn't find, or the other way round, works by artists whose initials meant nothing to us – and we still had to do the mapping, not to mention drawing more sweeping generalisations. So, the exhibition was undeniably an important step for Estonian art history.

It opened before the corona crisis, and it was very significant how, for example, it seemed to speak to our women politicians. I was pleased to see how the leading female politicians of several parties chose the Kumu exhibition as the venue to give interviews or have their photos taken. They wanted to identify with the emancipating woman of the early 20th century, sensing that their own image and that of the women artists would work for one another. So, there was clearly a gender-specific aspect to the reception. The cross-border experience was certainly the most colourful, as the prime minister of Finland paid us a visit, with which the young woman politician was not only paying homage to the exhibition, but probably also taking a jab at some male politicians who'd suggested that women politicians were either too young or just couldn't be taken seriously...

EL: "Creating the Self" in many ways dealt with the choices and opportunities open to women artists in the early 20th century and explored how women were able to cope as artists in the circumstances and society of the time. Can we ask these same questions about women artists today, or perhaps it is no longer appropriate to distinguish between female and male artists, and we could simply talk about artists?

KP: Looking at today, I really do believe that we no longer need that modifier. Except when the artist is really forceful or conscious about addressing what it means to be a woman, or if it is important for her to emphasise that she creates art based specifically on the experience of being a woman. Young artists have become so self-aware that they know better whether to emphasise and manifest this or not.

However, even when it comes to our own time, it is probably easier to assess this from a greater temporal distance. For example, the Ando Keskküla exhibition and the accompanying book belong to Kumu's contemporary classics series, which looks at key artist and innovators of the 1970s. Before Keskküla, the series, which is now coming to an end in this shape and form, has featured Tõnis Vint, Raul Meel, Jüri Okas, Andres Tolts and Leonhard Lapin – that is, only men!

So even the women of the 1960s, 70s and 80s need to be studied and recognised more, also considering the fact that the domain of women artists was often printmaking. For example, Vive Tolli, who recently passed away. (Tolli died on 8 April 2020 and Mare Vint, another famous Estonian female graphic artist, died on 10 May 2020. – Ed.) It is certainly not as easy to present an influential, grand exhibition of printmakers; painting has always come first.

And it may well be that someday, looking back at the present, it is men that will need a kind of perspective of their own – why are women artists currently dominating and how?

EL: What are the main limitations or barriers to succeeding as an artist today? Could the ease of multitasking be one of the obstacles, as it is increasingly difficult to focus on one activity and make a living from a single income?

KP: It is very difficult to say. The problem of reconciling family life and professional life as a woman has not disappeared, but this obviously concerns not only artists. Personal life is always a burden for creative people, but also a great source of inspiration. When it comes to art, however, I'd like to hope that success is determined by the fact that the artist is able to deal in a serious and interesting way with topics that are important and relevant more generally.

I believe that the key to success now is international relevance. It's been a long time since the artist's potential for success was determined solely by their activities locally within their native country. Estonia has always been a place where people in different fields are taken more seriously if they have managed to achieve a certain international breakthrough. It is like a guarantee that ensures faster recognition in Estonia. International relevance, in turn, is a necessary prerequisite for this, meaning that the artist transcends the boundaries of their native language and culture.

It is a pleasure to see that in recent years women artists have really been flooding in as if a dam had burst. By the way, the Estonian Academy of Arts has many more women students than men. Of course, it is another question who can prove themselves as an artist, but by now the relationship between talented male and female artists is either balanced or even in favour of women.


Erle Loonurm is a cultural journalist and news editor with Estonian Public Broadcasting. She holds an MA in theatre studies from Sorbonne University.


Marketing corner:

"Having quickly reorganised its work during the state of emergency, EKM was one of the first in Estonia to start offering art experiences online. Curatorial tours were launched on the social media pages of the affiliate museums, aiming to bring artistic experiences to audiences even in an exceptional and complex situation. The curated tours and video lectures posted on the museums' Facebook pages reached a total of 90,000 people. At peak times, the live-streamed online tours had more than 1,000 simultaneous viewers and more than 500 people have later watched the tours on YouTube. In addition to the curatorial tours, audience programmes [---] were also launched online. During the state of emergency, a variety of channels and formats were used: art experiences and videos were brought to audiences through the museum's own platforms – social media, website, YouTube and dedicated pages for art classes – as well as the portals of Estonian Public Broadcasting and Postimees. The number of followers on EKM's social media pages also increased significantly – by more than 3,000 users during the weeks of the state of emergency. Aimed at offering added value for teachers and students in e-school lessons and an opportunity for adults to broaden their horizons, online art classes based on various exhibitions also proved popular. The classes had over 11,000 viewers during the state of emergency. More than 10,000 of them came through educational applications such as eKool, Stuudium and Google Classroom, which shows that the classes have been put to use in actual schoolwork."

Art Museum of Estonia press release, 12. V 2020

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