Inaugural speech of the new Rector Professor Mart Kalm

On April 29, the President of the Republic of Estonia inaugurated Professor Mart Kalm to be the Rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts.  The inaugural ceremony took place at the Fine Arts Faculty building at Toompea, Kiriku plats 1.  Approximately 200 people attended the event.  Rector Kalm gave his inaugural speech, which is brought to you below.

ESTONIA CANNOT MANAGE WITHOUT EAA

It is a great honour and responsibility to assume this role as head of the 100-year-old Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA), which through the work of its students, teachers and alumni has created the look of Estonia and its visual identity – whether we like it or not.

At this school portraits of political leaders have been painted. Alternative art seeking to undermine the authorities has been made here. This school has seen the rise of women’s handicraft to a professional level and Estonian homes were designed here, even though the coffee pots by ARS (the Soviet era art products factory) did tend to drip. The Faculty of Architecture at the Estonian State Art Institute (a former name of EAA) taught architects who produced standard designs, as well as the creators of the villas that came to symbolise Estonia’s new success. How many of us have not held our breath as the curtains rise to reveal Mari-Liis Küla’s or Ene-Liis Semper’s stage sets, or on other occasions been bored as we looked at the stage. Despite the use of tableau vivant scenes in Martti Helde’s “Risttuules” (In the Crosswind), it was not dull because the film’s art direction was part of Reet Brandt’s master thesis. Would Estonia’s landscape or public space be so unmistakably post-Soviet if the department of landscape architecture at the art institute had not been closed for being too Western?

It is possible to become a good artist without an art school diploma, but it is more sensible to get an education and it is easier for society to trust an expert or skilled practitioner. Doing a doctorate does not automatically make someone’s art better, but it does provide greater scope for creative development. What is much worse, when under the guise of democracy and freedom, attempts are made to bypass the professional in the belief that by commissioning amateurs one will benefit with great savings or even worse achieve political profit. Why do all the asphalt expanses that have swallowed millions of euros look so grey, when road construction should have employed architects, as the building of houses does, and not just be satisfied with the input of engineers. Why has the state demanded, for over 10 years now, that the high quality peer-reviewed publications of work by academics need be uploaded, for the sake of accountability, to the Estonian Research Information System (ETIS), which instead of being designed by professional graphic designers has been fairly pathetically put together by some boys in ponytails. Why is the sacred memory of the War of Independence demeaned by an amateurish column. Some claim that government procurement makes it impossible to achieve quality results, but the creation of laws is not the work of the EAA alumni.

In the Estonian Academy of Art we have a school that for years has trained specialists capable of undertaking all these tasks. Even though the school is small, all four of its clearly defined faculties provide Estonian society with all the necessary skills and a visual culture – if only the latter could be seen as a necessary separate entity. 

The role of art today has changed radically. Many people long for previous centuries when art was one of the few public venues and places of highbrow entertainment and when it enjoyed widespread attention. No longer is music mainly opera or piano music, sport running and wrestling, and art is no longer just painting. Exhibition formats have, like performance art, become event-centred. We could discuss whether there is any point in an art which has lost favour with the public, and continues throwing the gauntlet down before its few dedicated friends, but I cannot fail to mention that the armchair role of art in Matisse’s time has been replaced with art that intervenes in the here and now, and has great intellectual ambitions. It is no bad thing that exhibitions have changed from places that provide an airing to places where you get shaken up. Instead of voluptuous female nudes by Yaroslavl celebrities we see dissected minorities. The image of the artist as a harmless fool living in an ivory tower no longer applies. Instead we meet a sharp scalpel about to cut into the core of contemporary life. If the visual part of the exhibitions in Tallinn’s galleries, which seem to be overrun with shows by students, do not always match the pretentious theoretically ambitious texts that accompany the exhibitions, then give the young artists time to mature. The fact that the EAA Gallery, which according to education bureaucracy is “the practice venue” for the Fine Art faculty, opened its doors in the courtyard of the Estonian Art Fund building indicates that today’s EAA is providing a future generation for Estonian art.

While the structure of the Fine Art Faculty is slowly adjusting to post-media art practices, similar debates are continuing in the Design Faculty. Should the material-centred approach continue or is design something more general? Should we be making one-off art pieces or production prototypes? In the media, the rulers of beauty regard the Presidential Ball on Independence Day as an alumni exhibition of the Design Faculty, where the wearers change but the fashion and jewellery designers repeat. The international success of the department of Jewellery and Blacksmithing led by Prof. Kadri Mälk continues, while Red Dot design awards continue to come in and HUUM, the work of 3rd year product design student Mihkel Masso, continues to be one of the most popular original designs by an Estonian. The joint Design and Engineering curriculum at EAA and Tallinn University of Technology led by designer Prof. Martin Pärn is a sensible initiative. On the one hand, EAA’s success is waiting for the Estonian economy to emerge from the current subcontracting phase and add more value to its products. Our trained designers are ready. On the other hand, no one is going to build porcelain factories in Europe anymore, although the production of designer footwear, bags, clothing, jewellery, fabric and so on, for the hipster market, will increase. 

The art school’s Faculty of Architecture was founded when the Tallinn Polytechnical Institute stopped their intake of architecture students in 1948. Now, Tallinn University of Technology has reopened architecture studies and has become EAA’s competitor. The Estonian Union of Architects does not think this justified, but the Ministry of Education and Research does. Around one hundred students who want to study architecture are split between the two schools and both schools receive a weaker group students. On the plus side, this competition has made our architecture faculty establish clearer goals for itself. EAA’s aim is to educate socially responsible architects who don’t work to help property developers erect the cheapest boxes, but work on ensuring people get a quality living environment – for good money you must get good honest quality in return – both inside and outside the house. Considering the prevalence of corruption in local government and the reigning culture of fraud in the construction world, because of the nature of capitalism, the creation of user-friendly instead of developer-friendly architecture is a difficult task, but unless we educate people who can improve the world, Estonia will never get any better. Active international cooperation, whether in the form of visiting critics, students selected from the many that apply to take part in foreign exchanges, involvement in the Adapt-r consortium of doctoral schools or the open lecture series, indicates that we are in step with Europe’s leading architecture schools. The open lecture series that started in 2012 has brought to Tallinn many rising stars of the architecture world, and of a calibre to make Europe’s leading schools jealous. Since these are open lectures, we have been happy to see large numbers of students from Tallinn University of Technology and also Tallinn University of Applied Sciences, who seem to be hungry for a more open viewpoint.

EAAs fourth faculty, the Faculty of Art Culture, works with what is created by the rest. This does not mean that art theorists are the mouthpieces for artists, but as independent arts researchers they select areas of study from a broad scope. For example, Prof. Krista Kodres was awarded a national research award in humanities this year for her monograph on self-representation reflected in the merchant homes in Tallinn during the early modern period. For many art theorists being educated side-by-side with artists has infected them with a desire to organise, and therefore, they are considering a master’s in curating. And it is hardly likely that the Heritage Conservation Act, which by the way is one of Estonia’s best acts, could work without the graduates of the department of Cultural Heritage and Conservation. It is astonishing how effective the work by conservators has been, especially their work in the education of Estonia’s elite with the popular courses that they run. If you recall in the 1990s how the media ridiculed those who protected old things, but now quite a number of people live in restored manor houses or villas from Estonia’s first period of independence. In cooperation with Tallinn University, we hope to raise teacher education to a completely new level, because at some point Estonian schools must stop misleading young people that art history ends with impressionism and teach them how to engage with contemporary art. In light of the recent school shooting, it pays to consider where it is best for young people to play out their stress, whether to let children tramp about in trenches or do a performance in an art class.

In its 100th year the Estonian Art Academy is faced with many challenges. We are nourished by the expectation of all moving in together into our new building, which should take place in the spring of the academic year after next. Even though EAA has not been hit by a shortage of candidates like many of the larger universities have, we too are thinking about an English language master level curriculum to make up for the shortage of young Estonians born in the 1990s and those who have left Estonia. Our task is to build as exciting a cultural life and attractive living environment in Estonia as possible – a place there is no point leaving and to which there is always a reason to return. At the same time there is not point just being restricted to an education here at home, because we all live in a globally competitive world. Of course, there is competition between artists, but this is a word that is usually avoided in this school. After all, one of EAAs primary aims is to be one of the last islands of freedom in a world where those whose brains are limited by standard measures try to measure our immeasurable work. In a world ruled by Excel tables, as long as EAA manages to fulfil its role as a centre of resistance there is still hope that Estonia can be a place worth living in.