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Karin Hallas-Murula: "The increase in the number of exhibition and museum visitors seems to be a general trend."

Andreas Trossek (1/2014)

Andreas Trossek's interview with the director of Tallinn Art Hall Karin Hallas-Murula who, on becoming the director in 2011, promised to increase the number of visitors, and succeeded.


Which events of this year's exhibition programme are its "cherries on the cake", so to speak? Which ones do you look forward to most?

A cherry is defined in different ways, some like the colour, others prefer the taste. Our exhibition programme offers a similar variety. There will be a lot of painting, both younger and older, from Tallinn and Tartu. "OrnaMent" will be an intriguing exhibition that combines professionalism with folk culture. Regarding visitor numbers, I expect the third spring exhibition by the Estonian Artists' Association (EAA), but also Aili and Toomas Vint's joint exhibition, to be popular. This year, Tallinn Art Hall celebrates its 80th anniversary, and we will mark this event with an exhibition of a selection from our collection.

How many people visited the exhibitions in the Art Hall quarter in 2013? Was there a growing or declining trend? Can we say that the Art Hall quarter has become more prominent in the Estonian art scene? After all, Tallinn Art Hall has a notable competitor in Kumu Art Museum, which was built before the global economic crisis.

The term "Art Hall quarter" seems to me inappropriate, I wouldn't use such a term, since the Art Hall has never owned the whole quarter. Let's rather talk about the Art Hall's main exhibition rooms, the Art Hall Gallery and the City Gallery in adjacent buildings.

However, the number of visitors in 2013 grew abruptly in all of them: in the main exhibition halls by a third, reaching above 22,000 (in 2012 it was a mere 14,000). More people also visited the City Gallery, which has probably never seen more than 20,000 guests a year (this was most likely due to combining exhibitions by artists of different generations). Also, the Art Hall Gallery received more guests than ever, 24,000 visitors in total. The most popular, with 7,000 visitors, was Anu Raud's tapestry exhibition "The Estonian Thing", which coincided with Estonian Independence Day, and Ivo Lill's virtuoso glass exhibition in the gallery with 5,900 visitors. In the last days of Ivo Lill's exhibition, people queued on the street and we had to hire an additional security person in the second week.

The growth in the number of exhibition and museum visitors seems to be a general trend, and I don't think there is big competition here. The opening of the Maritime Museum's Seaplane Hangars might have been expected to have a negative impact on visitor numbers in other museums, but it doesn't seem to have.

Neither do I consider Kumu a serious competitor to the Art Hall in terms of visitors (it might have been so when Kumu first opened, but not any longer). Kumu can never replace the Art Hall with its central location, where people are used to coming out of habit, and which have developed over several decades, and the galleries (with no entrance fee) are simply convenient to step into while passing by. You cannot just "step into" Kumu. Our location is much better than Kumu's, and our rates are of a different class. Yet, whenever the Art Hall and Kumu are compared, it is forgotten that Kumu is many times bigger than us, both in terms of its state budget as well as the number of its staff. I have also used this example, but the exhibitions department at Kumu alone has more employees than in the entire Art Hall. Yet the audience and the exhibiting artists place the same demands on us.

What will the Art Hall look like in, let's say, five years? What are the main strategic goals you have set for yourself and your staff?

Most important is the refurbishing of the Art Hall building and bringing it up to date; for example, building an elevator that opens into the exhibition hall (the shaft is already there), and creating open spaces for large formats.

Bringing a Chinese sculpture exhibition to the Art Hall in May 2013 was a real performance, the heroes here were the men who hauled several hundred kilos worth of sculptures to the second floor. The heaviest sculpture remained downstairs outside – there are limits to what a human being can do. Right now, bringing exhibitions to the Art Hall is a complicated procedure, there's not much room in the courtyard, and to drive up to the building from the square, each time requires special permission from the City Government. We have applied for permanent permission, but the reply has always been: "It is not sufficiently justified..."

An elevator (elevators) would also solve the wheel chair access issues (right now, we try to solve the problem in the exhibition halls, but getting to the second floor will still be a challenge). When talking about the building, my dream cherry – if we were to stick to that same berry – would doubtless be an extension in the courtyard. Only recently, I came across a building project by Jüri Okas and Marika Lõoke from 1992. Their extension included new exhibition and storage halls for the Art Hall, but also a spacious open-air second-floor terrace for KuKu club, which could become the new legendary hangout. However, the Art Hall Foundation cannot decide these matters, they fall under the competence of the Artists' Association. They also need temporary storage and packing rooms on the first floor, so as not to always manage these functions in the corridor and the stairwell, but of course they know their own needs better.

How would you describe the relationship between the current Art Hall Foundation and its "mother organisation", the Estonian Artists' Association (EAA), which is the original founder of the Art Hall? Who pays the rent, the bills for electricity, water, etc, and who serves whose interests? Do the rumours about the Art Hall under your leadership having become an exhibition department for the EAA hold some truth? Or in other words, how independent is the Art Hall in its exhibition policy?

Our relationship with the EAA is completely normal, and why should it be any different as, after all, we are a foundation of the EAA. The EAA "interferes" with our exhibition programme in exactly the same way it has from the very establishment of the foundation: through the people elected as members of the Council. In this regard nothing has changed and it is strange that I still have to explain it, especially to readers of a specialist quarterly.

The EAA Assembly has not seen the need to re-establishing the exhibitions department, but if this request were to be justified, there wouldn't be any problems in principle to continue working in such a format. "Who serves whose interests?" Is this question meant to create an intrigue? I know that some people tried to wage a war with the EAA, wishing to turn the Art Hall into their own private gallery. Some seem to think that they hold a monopoly over the decisions made in the Estonian art scene. This approach reminds me of "the art police". If someone wants exclusive power, let them establish a private gallery – no problem. Creating a conflict with the establisher of the foundation seemed infantile from the very start, and it had a negative effect on the Art Hall as an institution – and art audiences withdrew. This was a lengthy process that happened over the period of several years. But should we go into this again now on the pages of KUNST.EE?

Calling the Art Hall EAA's "exhibition department" is aimed to insult, but from what I have just said, it should be clear that I don't take it that way; it is possible function in various legal structures. I would have no problems in firing back some choice words from "the opposite side", but is KUNST.EE the proper place to do such a thing? Especially now that the once loud exclamations of those who took offence after losing the competition, seem to have sunk into a quiet hissing...

But as to paying the rent, if this really is of interest: we do not pay rent to the EAA. However, we pay for the costs of using the rooms, also those of the exhibition halls. Hence, the artists exhibiting here don't have to pay for the electricity, heating etc. of the exhibition halls.

To continue provocatively: how would you describe the relationship between the Tallinn Art Hall with its chief financer, the Cultural Endowment of Estonia? For example, if one of the rotation-based boards of the endowment for visual and applied arts would so decide, one small commission could freeze the functioning of the oldest and one of the largest Estonian exhibition spaces. In other words, what would be the Art Hall's plan B for alternative financing?

Today, neither the next month's salaries nor the payment of bills is directly dependent on the reception date of the Cultural Endowment money, but this has been the case earlier. Thanks to reviewing and reorganising the system, the economic situation at the Art Hall is much more stable than it used to be. If the Cultural Endowment branch for visual and applied arts should start making decisions that are clearly in breach of its statute, or their decisions would be noticeably cliquish, then this would be dangerous to that particular branch of the endowment as well as to the Cultural Endowment as a whole. Therefore, I believe that no such radical thing can happen. As occurred when the interim editor-in-chief of the cultural weekly Sirp was nominated (The scandal in the end of 2013 which ended with the resignation of the Minister of Culture, Rein Lang. – Ed.), the public and the politicians are quick to intervene in such situations. Culture usually doesn't win in these cases.

"Plan B?" It was only recently that according to predictions, the world was going to end. I am not one of those who took refuge in an underground bunker.

But what kind of relationship do you have with the Ministry of Culture? Haven't you felt tempted, as it were, to sell the Art Hall to the state, because the Art Hall has a unique and extremely valuable collection of Soviet Estonian art? Or to make a "bulk prize" offer to some private collector?

I think you haven't thought this question through. Why should the state, who aims to reduce the number of its sub-institutions to a minimum, want to own the Art Hall?

So, the state is not interested in the fate of Estonian art, but does it interest foreigners? Several leaders of Estonian art institutions have stressed the need to organise international exhibitions and the importance of engaging foreign curators, as if doing things locally would automatically mean nationalism (or worse, Nazism)…

The international and the national doesn't have to be opposed in such a way. The world is multi-coloured. I don't see a problem here. If there's a good partnership with a curator, why not to cooperate? Be he or she an Estonian or a foreigner. If not, then there's no need to force it.

I could draw many parallels from architecture – in order to draw attention to your house, you order, say, a small awning from Santiago Calatrava, so that you can get into foreign magazines with the help of this famous name. It is the foamy part of a bubbly world, which is not worth taking too seriously.

You took the position of the Art Hall director on 1 December 2011. Thereafter you became (in)famous in art circles and in the public media by making the curators of the Art Hall redundant – Reet Varblane who was then and is now still working as the art editor at Sirp, and Anders Härm, who clearly considered himself a more competent candidate for the position as director of the Art Hall, as we saw from his statements in the press at the time. Yet thereafter you employed Tamara Luuk as the coordinator of exhibitions. Doesn't she in fact fulfil the same role as the curators did earlier? Or in other words, what is different now when there have been no permanent curators in the Art Hall for a couple of years? The exhibitions are still being held...

The structure is different. Tamara is not working as a curator, she deals with the exhibition programme in general, and only every now and then when someone can talk her into it, does she take on a curating project. There's much to learn from how she curated of the "ANK '64" jubilee exhibition. Organising retrospectives of art groups seems to be one of the most difficult tasks. It involves the history of the group but also the individuals, who may be quite different, and all of whom have their own history and opinions about themselves and others. Making such an exhibition wouldn't have been possible without the curator's exceptionally good ability for empathy.

In terms of the rest of the exhibitions, Tamara is not a curator, but a gallerist (I don't think I have to define the difference here). She also helps with advice when artists need their choices to be confirmed, but this doesn't make her a curator who puts together an exhibition with a certain concept.

So, there are currently no curators in the Art Hall staff doing the job of a gallerist, yet taking the salary of a curator. By the way, Tamara is not employed full time; this was her own choice. Nowadays, the artist or a group who plans an exhibition (e.g Tallinn Photography Month, Tallinn Print Triennial, Manfred MIM, etc) select their own curator and designer, which is only logical and natural. Why should the Estonian Sculptors' Union have to use Reet Varblane as their curator every second year only because the Art Hall prefers it since otherwise its full-time curator wouldn't have enough work? I have already explained it all, and it seems that I am repeating the same story of two years ago. But at that time no one wanted to listen, it was more important to have one's own opinion, and preferably a negative one. Tamara's job at the Art Hall and the profile of her job was already planned at the time I took part in the competition, but due to our mutual agreement, I couldn't reveal her name at the time.

The unbefitting lamentation of Anders Härm who lost the competition; should we bring it up again? His signature gathering action was aimed mostly at the people who didn't know me personally and to whom a horror picture could be painted of me. From my perspective, it was sad that young artists and students whom you'd think are above the average independent in their thinking, were so easily manipulated.

You have now held this position for over two years. Do you also plan to run for this office for the next term? And if not, then who would you support for this position? An architecture department was recently created at Tallinn University of Technology. You joined it in 2013 as the Head of the Chair of History and Theory of Art and Architecture and as a guest professor. Isn't this workload too much for you? The history of architecture is clearly your main vocation, which every reader of KUNST.EE can see when they read your CV.

I hope this question wasn't the reason for the whole interview. I have never considered staying indefinitely in the Art Hall. It is a place where change is only welcome. Many of the Art Hall's problems have been solved, the audience has been brought back to it and the artworks have been organised into a collection again. When selecting a new director, we should keep in mind who we want to see in this role, whether an art historian-curator or a leader who runs the institution and wouldn't be curating the exhibitions. It is the same question of the director and art director tandem that the theatres face. An art historian, who may be a very good curator, is not necessarily a good leader nor economist, and if he or she doesn't possess these qualities, things may go wrong (think about what has recently happened to Tartu Art Museum and why...).

Architecture has indeed played an essential role in my life and has now again become important. Until the end of the spring semester of 2014, I will be working in the Art Hall part-time and on a reduced salary. The future decisions, however, will depend on circumstances and will be made in due time.


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



Office of the director of Tallinn Art Hall in the beginning of 2014.
Photo: Archive of EAA.

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