Behaving as a Museum


Almost simultaneously with the grand opening of the KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn in 2006, a rebellious group of artists decided to take over an unkempt former Tallinn Heating office building, which since then has become known as Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Muuseum (EKKM) or the Museum of Contemporary Art of Estonia.

“It was actually Marco Laimre and Neeme Külm who started it all,” recalls curator and founding member of EKKM Anders Härm. “They wanted to find a bigger studio space, but at a certain point they realised that this was too much for them. They understood that it should be turned into something public,” continues Härm, whilst searching for any possible container that could be substituted for a teapot. Soon he gives up. The one remaining teabag suggests that there is no point in looking any further. Most likely it would not be sufficient enough for four people. 

The editorial team of – Anna Iltnere, Elīna Zuzāne and Sergej Timofejev – is sitting at the illegal bar of the EKKM, which has not been in much use since last autumn. Although the contemporary museum has been actively involved in organising exhibitions and other creative events since May 2007, thus far it has only been a seasonal institution open to the public from April until October. As Anders Härm explains, it gets too cold to work there during the winter.

The curator has been actively involved in planning and arranging the museum’s exhibition programme since 2010 and is currently promoting the annual exhibition of the Köler Prize nominees. This year’s finalists are Karel Koplimets, Paul Kuimet, Kristina Norman, Jaanus Samma and Triin Tamm, but the laureate will only be announced on May 24.

On the website you have called this museum “a perverse art museum”. That is rather unusual. Could you tell us more about it?

What do you want to know – that it is an art museum, or that it is perverse? (Laughs

I think the combination of the two sounds interesting. 

It’s fair enough to say that until the end of 2009, this was, more or less, a place for students. It was completely anarchistic and based on voluntary work. Nobody got paid for doing anything and everything that happened here was accidental. All of the exhibitions were done whenever somebody had time, but most of the time it just stood empty, or there were student parties going on.

By the end of 2009, however, the voluntary, precarious, and unpaid work was wearing us all out. Everybody was running out of energy. That’s when we realised that there are only two possibilities – we should either abandon the place, or try to somehow institutionalise ourselves. As we had already named it The Museum of Contemporary Art in the summer of 2007, we decided to stick with that. We saw it as a symbolic capital that nobody seemed to want, but it was also just a name, and to put it on this house seemed like a good idea. Labelling things that were actually very far from being true was the strategy that we chose. (Laughs) Our gesture, however, pissed everybody off. Even KUMU somehow felt threatened… I don’t know how that was even possible as KUMU is so big and we were very small, but they were, nonetheless, very unhappy about us being a museum. 

The former Tallinn Heating office building, which has been transformed into the Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Muuseum (EKKM) or the Museum of Contemporary Art of Estonia

What makes an exhibition space a museum?

To be a museum there is only one thing you need to have – a collection. Around 2007, we started building our own art collection, which now consists of about 28 artworks.

When we started building the collection we didn’t have any money. We had nothing to offer the artists, so we decided to do it through shady deals. We told them to give us their work, and in return, we would either do something for them, they could ask something from us, or it would be a symbolic exchange. We purchased the first work for one kroon, which was found in the courtyard of the museum, and the second work was bought for two kroons – that were stolen from KUMU cafeteria’s tip jar. 

What were those works? 

The first artwork was by the sound artist Raul Keller. The work is called “Reflector”. It collects sounds, and after a while it, replays them. It can be installed everywhere in the city. Actually, the first time it was exhibited was during the April riots of 2007, when it was placed in front of the Kunstihoone in Vabaduse Square, which was where the main events took place. The installation collected the sounds of the protests, and two weeks later they loudly came back – during the daytime. It was a really weird soundscape, a feedback or a memory that everybody wanted to repress. It came back during a time when everybody was behaving very correctly. It was a bizarre moment.

The second piece, “Motor Girls”, was by the Estonian artist Kiwa. It is a small installation consisting of two water cans. That’s probably why it was purchased for two kroons. (Laughs)

After that, we bought the work “The More I Work, the Poorer I Am”, by Kai Kaljo, that was a documentation of how much it costs to be an artist for one week. In that one week, Kai Kaljo made a loss of 246 euros, which is why we purchased it for exactly 246 euros. We helped her to get back to zero. We bought it with our “grey” money. All of the 246 euros were made in this bar, illegally. (Laughs) That’s the type of thing that we do here.

I must say that, lately, we have been lazy in collecting art. Most of the collecting was done in the earlier years.

Do you choose which works to purchase, or does it happen naturally?

I think it is somehow connected with what we do, or with the work that we like. Every member of the board can collect works and make deals. Currently, there are negotiations going on regarding some artworks. 

In 2010, when I got more involved, we also started setting a regular exhibition programme; but so far, that only concerns the summer. It is kind of ironic that the house that used to belong to the Tallinn Heating Company, currently doesn’t have any heating. It’s next to the sea, and most of the time the wind just blows through it. 

It’s possible to heat up the first floor – so we can have parties and run a bar. This has been a big part of our activities. I think that there are many people who have no idea that there is a museum in here as well. They have been here just for the gatherings.

But is it not potentially the same audience who would visit the contemporary art exhibitions?

Yes, but it’s not identical. There are many people who have probably only been here during the parties, and then there are other people who have never attended a party here, but they regularly come to the exhibitions. 

It’s funny, but the main thing that people usually ask us is – Why do we identify ourselves with a museum? Museums have become so boring and so old-fashioned, so why would we want to identify with this mainstream, institutional framework? Actually, the idea is very simple. From the beginning onwards, we did not want to marginalise ourselves, which is always a threat to alternative institutions. They end up excluding people, but at the end of the day, they operate exactly the same as any normal institution. We wanted to avoid that. In a way, we wanted to over-identify ourselves with the museum. We liked the idea of a museum and we started questioning how we could make it work, what the museum should be, and what kind of museum is needed in Tallinn.

We are actually operating as a normal institution. Currently there is an exhibition of the Köler Prize 2013 nominees taking place throughout the building. In order to highlight this event, we have made a film which has been shown on national television and in cinemas. There is also a catalogue and a prize. This is a method for attracting crowds, but we are also employing other mechanisms – seminars, conferences and screenings – that are rather exclusive and not meant for larger audiences. You have to have a balance; otherwise, you will end up on the margins of society and no one will give a shit about whether you live or die.

The catalogue for the Köler Prize 2013. Photo: Lugemik

You said that you didn’t want to exclude groups of people, and that that’s why you decided to become a “museum”; but is it actually as simple as that? Do people believe you are a museum? 

It works perfectly. (Laughs) If we had put on the label, “extremely alternative art space”, nobody would have ever come. If you call yourself a museum, however, people are interested in it and, when they get here, they think that they might as well see what’s inside. We have, of course, had visitors – two German businessmen in extremely expensive suits once came and asked the guard where the museum was – once they saw it, they turned around and left. It has happened. But we have never lied to anybody. We have never said that this is a big entertainment centre. Everything that we are, is written in our booklet, or on the website.

Do similar museums exist elsewhere in the world?

We have been looking, but as far as I know, curator- or artist-run museums are quite rare. Today you can mostly find artist-run exhibition spaces, which don’t necessarily work with the concept of a museum. I think that it’s a performance thing. In the beginning, you don’t have anything, but slowly you start to behave as if you are a museum… and after a while, everyone else starts to believe in you as well. (Laughs) It’s making it true by doing it. That’s the way it works. That’s how it has worked for us.

At one point, we also realised that we needed to get funding from the state to maintain our activities. As a hobby museum, it just didn’t work anymore. We needed to make it a job, and we managed that.

And what is your current relationship with KUMU? You said that in the beginning, they saw you as a threat.

I think it is a big misunderstanding. There really is no problem. The current director has some wild ideas that all that we do is aimed towards them. We are not opposing them. We are not in a position to oppose them. They are a big institution with a multi-million budget and we are exactly missing those multi-millions. (Laughs) It’s not a fair competition. Of course, sometimes we are barking, because it is part of a radical shake. Sometimes we do want to feel like we are against everybody, but I think that in reality, the relationship between us is good. Of course, KUMU would not lend us any artworks if we needed to exhibit them here. They would never lend us anything, but it’s probably because of the mildew, which covers all of our exhibition spaces. (Laughs) Otherwise, I think that everything is good. 

What do artists in Estonia think about this place?

The opinions differ. There is a generation of artists who have grown up here. They studied at the Estonian Academy of Arts during the early years of EKKM. But there are also people who think that we are too mainstream. (Laughs) If you are doing four or five exhibitions per year, it’s very hard to make a statement with the exhibition programme. Our idea is to be international, to be as open to different artistic positions as possible, and to not be narrow-minded.

I used to work at Kunstihoone (for ten years), which involved extensive programming for three galleries. There, I followed a very direct line of curating. Now, however, we are doing only a certain type of exhibition, which we are organising as an institution. People have been wondering about why have I changed my curatorial language, and some even say that the change has not been for the best. (Laughs) I believe that if you want to be a museum, things have to be done in a certain way. When an institution becomes identified through you, you have to look carefully at what you do and how you do it. That’s also why I felt a necessity to change my handwriting. It’s funny, but at the small, mainstream institution that is Kunstihoone, I was doing more radical exhibitions, but here I am putting together things that are considered not that radical.

What do you think society expects from a contemporary art museum?

They don’t expect anything. You can do whatever you want. As far as I have observed, there are no expectations. They don’t know what to expect.

To get something to think about…

Yes. That is, basically, what we try to offer here – something to think about. (Laughs)

But do you, as a museum, have a plan for the future? 

We have an annual plan. We have an exhibition schedule for the next year, which we will start to prepare in July. Each year we do about four or five exhibitions. Of course, the aim is that, at some point, we can renovate the building and become an annual exhibition space, presenting exhibitions from January to December.

 Do you have any long-term goals, aside from the yearly exhibition programme? 

At one point, I assume that we will want to get out… so the institution should somehow become independent from us. It needs to be autonomous so that one-day, we can pack up and let other people continue the work. That’s the general idea. I don’t want to be here forever. The museum constantly has to change, and I think that at some point, everyone runs out of ideas how to keep changing it. Usually, that’s the time for other people to step in. Basically, we are preparing the crowd for the future, for things to happen.

Do you feel like you are running out of ideas?

Not yet. (Laughs) I am planning to run out of ideas by the end of 2015. (Laughs)