Maria Arusoo – The New Director of the Center for Contemporary Art, Estonia 0

Interviewed by Anna Iltnere

Since the beginning of October, the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA), Estonia has been under the directorship of Maria Arusoo (1983). The Center was established in 1992 (originally titled the Soros Center of Contemporary Art, Estonia), and has been operating as an independent, non-governmental institution since 1999. Johannes Saar, who became the Center's director in 2005, handed in his resignation in the spring of this year. For the sake of comparison, the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art was founded in 1993 (at first, it was called the Soros Center of Contemporary Art, Riga), and became an independent institution in 2000; ever since then, it has been headed by Solvita Krese. The Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), Vilnius was established in 1992, and has been headed by Kęstutis Kuizinas since its inception.

Maria Arusoo is an artist (aka Marusoo) and curator, and has studied Contemporary Art Theory at the Department of Visual and Aural Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London. Having finished her studies, she returned to Tallinn, and in the summer of 2011, organized the extensive group show “Continuum_The Perception Zone”, at Tallinn's Art Room – Kunstihoone. The exhibition featured both local artists and world-famous ones, such as Martins Creed and Olafur Eliason, among others. Arusoo had not planned on staying in Tallinn for long, but things turned out differently. Having put her artistic and curatorial work aside for the present moment, Arusoo is actively bringing to life all of her ideas concerning what CCA, Estonia – and its mission – should be.

On an interesting side note, the city of Tartu has undergone changes of its own this autumn. The Tartu Art Museum also boasts a new director – the curator Rael Artel – a contemporary of Arusoo. As Arusoo herself says, this is a notable occurrence because “not long ago, no one could have imagined that that position could be filled by someone from the new generation.”

When I arrive at CCA, Estonia (which is located right next to Tallinn's Freedom Square), Maria Arusoo is by herself (usually, there are two people there. That's right – just two employees!) and is wearing a white sweatshirt with the world “FAKE” emblazoned on it. Maria shows me around, adding that they're not going to put in a couch, since then it would be too tempting to not go home but just spend the night there. I accept a cup of coffee (black), while Maria sips her green tea from a mug with “Documenta(13)” printed on it.

Why was there a change of directors for CCA, Estonia?

The director of CCA, Estonia is elected for a five-year term. Johannes Saar had the position for almost two full terms – he was just one and a half years away from a full ten years as director. He resigned because he had decided to focus more on research and wished to finish his doctoral work. Why now? Maybe because he felt confident that a suitable replacement could be found to take over the reigns. Major changes have happened at the Center over the last year and a half. Rebeka Põldsam and I had been hired as curators, and we changed the Center's direction of operations more towards organizing activities, and not just being an institution that amasses an archive.

When I met you in the summer of 2012, you had just begun working here as a curator, and you said that you had thought long and hard over the decision of accepting the job. You had just returned from your studies at Goldsmiths in London, and were straddling the fence in terms of either working as an artist and curator without being tied to a certain city, or, applying for a position at the CCA, Estonia offices in Tallinn. Not two years have passed since then, and you're already the director of the Center – and “tied down” to the position for at least five years.

Yes, I gave much though to my decision back then. It was a moment at which I could finally have begun to work independently. But it was exactly at that time that CCA, Estonia announced that they were accepting applications for a curatorial position. I knew that if I were to stay in Tallinn, then the only place that I'd want to work is at CCA, Estonia. So, I changed my game plan and applied for the position.

I was also swayed by the fact that I had tons of ideas on what the CCA, Estonia should be like, and what it could truly become. It was a tempting challenge to bring to life. I must add that the Center's team – just like many cultural institutions in Estonia – is so small that you actually get to work as an independent curator, and are in no way just a small screw in some huge machine. I doubt that this could even be called a real office job.

The opening for the position of director was announced in the spring of this year. It just seemed logical for me to apply, since I had just spent a year and a half intensively working on changing the direction in which the Center operated – which was a possible thing to do while working under Johannes Saar. If the directorship were to change, I would have left, most likely. So, the only other option was to apply for the position myself.

What is this direction in which you'd like to see CCA, Estonia develop towards?

Everything new is the well-forgotten old. The work of CCA, Estonia has developed spirally. In the 90s, when the Center was established, it had a large role in creating the discourse on contemporary art. The Center was the so-called leader in the forming of a standpoint. A lot of work was also put into supporting local artists; back then, in the 90s, an acute issue was finding opportunities for sending them abroad and organizing exhibitions in foreign countries for them. Then came a long period during which the Center's activities were directed inwards – becoming an archive and information center. My wish is to return to the Center's initial sphere of operations, in which CCA, Estonia was actively working on the local discourse, developing an understanding of contemporary art, and organizing various related activities. I also believe that today it is no longer necessary to only send our artists abroad, and that we can, instead, invite foreign artists and curators to work here, in Tallinn; we can make the local contemporary art scene more international in nature. Of course, our budget is limited, but there are, nevertheless, many opportunities for doing this. And nothing that I've mentioned isn't something that hasn't been done before; I'm talking about lectures, film evenings and exhibitions, as well as supporting the career development of local artists. This sort of conscious, regular and intensive activity is acutely lacking in Estonia right now.

The CCA, Estonia team is quite small...

That's true; there is Rebeka, with whom I started to work here as a curator, and I. Also our intern Sten Ojavee, who is a great help. A year and a half ago, we were four people. Right now I really feel a need for one more person who would take care of administrative issues and writing up projects. Although Rebeka and I are not at a loss for coming up with excellent content and program development, I do know that we have to become more realistic if we want to find funding sources to bring them all about. So, beginning with 2014, we are looking to hire a permanent employee who has both feet on the ground (laughs). But in terms of individual projects, we're planning on hiring a team of different people for each one. Looking ahead three or four years, we'd like to specifically invite foreign curators.

What are your plans for the coming year?

In January of 2014 we are going to show at KUMU the exposition that Dénes Farkas created for Estonia's national pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. We're planning several exhibitions in Tartu and Tallinn: Rebeka will have her curatorial project in at Estonian Contemporary Art Museum and I will curate and exhibition at Tartu Art Museum, but I'd rather not delve into those right now. We've also started working with the European contemporary art festival Manifesta, which will be held in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2014. Consequently, next year's summer and autumn events in Tallinn will also be tied in to Manifesta. The same holds for the monthly lectures, which will be led by foreign curators. In 2014 we're also planning on working out a new system of how the Center can support itself financially; I want to find a more flexible approach.

What sort of financial model is CCA, Estonia following currently?

The bulk of our budget comes from the Ministry of Culture, which covers our rent, wages and daily expenditures. We must reapply for this financing every year, as well as compete with other institutions in doing so. Projects, on the other hand, are financed by international and locally-based grants.

And how is the Center planning on changing this model?

By developing more stable and long-term relationships with our funding sources, as well as bringing in private investors for certain projects. So that we wouldn't have to start from the beginning every time, and we would already have long-term partnerships for activities that concern a certain sector. For instance, for supporting interns, or just for lectures, and so on. That way, we could plan our activities in advance.

Are private investors in Estonia keen on supporting the visual arts? What is the situation like?

Compared to Latvia, I think that you have a better situation. Although they aren't many in number, Latvia does have several active art collectors who support art and culture. In Estonia, interest in collecting and philanthropy is growing slowly. I think it's also a question of education, because only in the last few years have art galleries and other institutions been actively working at changing the public's perception of contemporary art, as well as the perception held by potential buyers and collectors.

An example is this year's Venice Art Biennale, where we succeeded in getting the financial support for Estonia's national pavilion from an Estonian Attorneys at law Borenius. The effect was two-way: we received funding for a part of our expenses, while the contemporary art scene found a new audience – one that is actively interested in it now.

Finding this sort of support for contemporary art is a very slow process and hard work. That's because it is much easier to convince someone that financial support is needed for something like children's healthcare. And the reasons why private money should be donated to contemporary art projects is also not as obvious.

CCA, Estonia oversees the competition concerning who gets to participate in the Venice Art Biennale from Estonia. As the new director, do you plan on making any changes to the status quo?

Yes; we're hoping to open up the competition much earlier than usual for the 56th Venice Art Biennale, which will take place in 2015. Our advantage is that CCA, Estonia gets to decide when to begin accepting applications; if I'm not mistaken, the situation is a bit different in Latvia.

We will be announcing the open call already in November of this year, and we will keep to the same conditions that were assigned to this year's 55th Venice Biennale – namely, that the project's team can contain representatives from both Estonia and any other country. This is not an obligatory, but we are open to receive proposals from international teams. This time we will also actively work at getting the news of the open call out and beyond Estonia's borders, so that the initiative for projects could even come from abroad. This will be a good learning opportunity even for all of the teams that don't get chosen, since local artists and/or curators will have the impetus to work together with professionals outside of Estonia.

Can a generational change be sensed in Estonia's cultural scene?

Yes and no. The fact that I have become the Center's director is largely due to a string of chance occurrences. However, I can safely say that the environment in Tallinn has recently become interesting to the younger generation. For instance, Anu Vahtra and Indrek Sirkel – the creators and owners of the Lugemik Bookshop – recently told me that when they left Estonia to study abroad, they really didn't want to return to Estonia. But when they returned to Tallinn, they saw that just over a few short years the environment had changed and become fertile for cultural initiatives like, for instance, a bookstore on art and design. It's intriguing to stay and be active here.

In a sense, I could say the same thing about myself. I went to London because I wanted to experience an art world that already possesed a long tradition. I didn't think I'd return to Estonia so soon. But when I came back, I felt a change in the air; a change that has already started to turn the wheels of real, albeit small, processes. Several cultural fields now have people from the younger generation in leading positions – people who have a similar way of thinking. And the fact that the Baltic States don't have a developed art market, or system, is attractively challenging to a young person; to be the ones who get to work on creating a system. There is so much that still has to be done, and you have every opportunity to do it your way. This may seem frightening to some, but to others, it's exciting.

This does not mean, however, that the older generation has been pushed aside. I always refer to the curator Eha Komissarov (1947), who is currently working at KUMU, as an extremely inspiring example of how one person, regardless of age, can have a more contemporary way of thinking than most young people. So it is not the question of age or generation but more of the ways of contemporary thinking.

In your opinion, what is currently most lacking in Estonia's contemporary art scene?

Mutual agreement of what our relationship to contemporary art is – on a local level. All of the cells on the local art stage must have an understanding of a, more or less, unified direction in which the contemporary art environment should develop. So that we can combine our strengths and have greater power to show ourselves on a larger scale. One must be able to articulate what it is that we are doing, and why we are doing it. What do we want to achieve? Because, as I already mentioned, most cultural institutions are headed by one, two or three people. And if each one tries to pave their own road, that's a waste of energy that won't lead to any real results.

How can this be done in practice? By everyone agreeing on something similar?

This may sound really naïve, but I believe that the most important thing is that we must trust each other, and not try to “divide the pie” – even though we all are competing for financing from the Ministry of Culture and Cultural Endowment. We must learn to cooperate so that everyone can develop their strong suit. I am also convinced that one must circulate from one position to another; no one should be tied down to one “chair”. You must work for some time as a freelancer, as a curator, as the head of an institution, and then go on. This is also the way to gain a better understanding of how the art environment functions.

An important aspect is student internships. At the Estonian Academy of Arts, a very short amount of time is devoted to getting practice working in the field. But that's the best way of finding out what it is that you want to do after your studies. That is something that CCA, Estonia will try to advance. Students can already apply for an internship with us, but we're going to expand our cooperation with other cultural institutions as well.

In London, you gained experience by working at Martin Creed Limited for three years, as an artist's assistant. Are there any specific examples from that time that inspired you, and perhaps still motivate you, as you now work in Estonia and attempt to better the situation?

Mostly the attitude. To take your job very seriously. To believe in what you are doing. To whine less and do more real work. It was specifically this attitude, as well as the overall level of professionalism in the contemporary art world there, that still inspire me to forge ahead and continue to develop. And I always try to keep this at eye level, otherwise here in Estonia, it's very easy to get bogged down in the feeling that no one needs your work. It's currently hard to get feedback here in Estonia because a large part of the public has a very conservative understanding of what contemporary art is. It is perceived as something negative, and rarely does anybody ever consider that contemporary art is something greater – that it really is a way of thinking. At the same time, I don't think that some kind of London example should be copied, because you have to figure out how to develop the contemporary art environment specifically here, in Estonia.

That all sounds nice and inspiring, but as you mentioned before, there are only two of you here at the Center. Neither of you is superhuman... How do you recharge yourself so you don't burn out?

(Laughs) It's important to communicate with like-minded people. You can't be alone, because that is the least inspiring. And a team doesn't have to be large for the members to gain energy from one another. I also get energized by having the opportunity to go to internationally-recognized art events such as such as the Documenta, Manifesta, Venice Biennale, Bergen Assembly and other maybe not so established but highly international, because it's the chance to see those professionals for whom contemporary art is not only a hobby or weekend diversion, but a reason for hard and persistent work. Talking about work only between the hours of 9 to 5 is something that needs to be forgotten. If there ever comes a day when at five PM, all I want to do is go home and do nothing all evening, then I'd better resign and give my job to someone who does have the power and energy to bring big ideas to life.