Triin Metsla interviews members of the Foto Tallinn team: Kadi-Ell Tähiste and Helen Melesk
How did you start organizing the Estonian Photographic Art Fair? What was the initial impulse behind it?
Since 2010, the Estonian Photographic Art Fair, now called Foto Tallinn, has been organized by the Estonian Union of Photography Artists (Foku). The initial aim of the fair was to provide members of the Union with an alternative outlet besides the more typical exhibition making and organizing – and we decided in favour of the art fair format.
Why a fair focusing on photographic art? Is the fair curated?
The fair’s focus on photography is primarily due to the fact that it was born as an initiative of the Estonian Union of Photography Artists. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that contemporary photography and photographic artists are no longer strictly confined to the medium – therefore, the fair can be considered a contemporary art fair in the wider sense. The fair is not curated as such, but the participants are selected by a professional international jury which this year also includes several curators.
Which fairs have you participated in yourself?
The Estonian Union of Photography Artists has taken part in international fairs since 2017. Foku has introduced the work of the Union’s artists at the ArtVilnius fair in 2017 and 2018, we participated at the POPPOSITIONS alternative art fair in Brussels in 2017, and at The Others art fair in Turin in the fall of 2018.
How do you choose what to show (both when organizing the fair and attending one)?
For Foto Tallinn there is an open call and the participants are selected by an international jury. When we take part in fairs ourselves, the artist to be presented will be selected from among the members of Foku considering the profile and focus of the particular fair. The artists participating in foreign fairs will be selected by Foku’s board members who are also actively involved with other projects in the field of contemporary art. Considering foreign art fairs, priority will be given to Foku members who are not actively represented by a gallery.
Have you noticed which displays have been more successful?
As a rule, Foku has done well at international fairs. The displays have mostly caught the attention of professional audiences. For example, the exhibition jury selected Foku’s presentations at ArtVilnius among the best displays in both years, and Laura Kuusk, who was represented by Foku, also received the title of Best Female Artist in 2018. At The Others art fair, Foku’s booth with Mari-Leen Kiipli’s works was selected the best in the “Expanded Screen” section in 2018.
What do you think of the art fair format and representing artists and selling their works on a relatively commercial platform? Or is it more about aiming to popularize the buying of art?
The sales aspect is of course an important part of the format, but one must not overemphasize this (at least in the Estonian context). When thinking about the fair, we consider three major target groups and trends: art lovers, art professionals and art buyers/collectors. The fair could serve as a meeting place for all of them in the broadest sense, useful and informative for all parties, even without emphasizing the commercial aspect. Of course, the fair also introduces the option of buying and collecting art. For example, in 2017, for the first time, we offered a personalized advisory service to people interested in buying and people made quite extensive use of this option – several visitors to the fair found a suitable work to buy or left the event with new ideas. People like to have someone to discuss their ideas and thoughts with and ask for advice. In an ideal case, of course, this role is managed by the gallerist, even at fairs, but as long as the tradition of gallery representation is still in its developmental phase in Estonia, our fair will try to fill this gap in the best possible way and introduce art lovers to local artists.
It is also important to provide a platform for professionals to exchange contacts and ideas. We can see that the art fair format is also going through rapid change internationally, as there are very commercial, but also more alternative fairs, where in the case of the latter the focus is mostly on professional exchange.
What makes organizing and following through with an art fair in Estonia difficult? And what makes it easy?
In Estonia, the biggest challenge might be that the fair as a format is not so familiar to artists, gallerists or art audiences. So, for us, one of the main tasks is definitely to work hard at pointing out, for example, how a fair is different from an exhibition. It is important to highlight the fair as an opportunity to actively and intensively (contrary to the more typical “passive” format) present one’s work and to manage multiple (professional) contacts during a single weekend.
What makes it easy is the substantial interest in the fair from gallerists and artists and their willingness to present exciting solutions in the context of the fair, which in turn opens up the many possibilities of photography as a medium.
How ready is Estonia for an art fair? How do you estimate the relationship between selling-buying/collecting art in Estonia? How can you encourage this?
In our opinion, Estonia is becoming more ready for an art fair with each year. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to help people feel more familiar with the format, but general awareness has grown a lot since stories about the participation of Estonian galleries in international fairs have been published in newspapers and the general awareness of the topic among journalists has risen.
Of course, there is still room for improvement regarding the issue of buying and collecting art. When it comes to enlivening the scene, we think it is important to dispel some of the myths associated with the art market. For example, it is important to spread the idea that you don’t need to be loaded with money to buy art, and that there are many art works on the market that are also affordable for people on average salaries. This is backed by the statistics – the Art Index Database , launched by the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center, mapping the Estonian art market, shows that the price of most art related transactions in Estonia is around 1,000 euros or less. Another myth that is also quite actively reproduced is that there is no art market in Estonia. Yet again, according to the statistics, in 2018 alone, over 700 transactions worth 1.7 million euros were registered in the Art Index. And this is only a portion of all the art transactions made in Estonia.
One can read on your webpage that Foto Tallinn will take place for the ninth time this year. What have been the biggest changes since the early years of the Estonian Photographic Art Fair?
For example, the profile of the participants has changed compared to earlier years. At the beginning, the fair was exclusively aimed at the members of the Estonian Union of Photography Artists; since 2012, it opened its doors to all Estonian photographers and since 2015, we have also targeted international participants. Also, compared to the early years, we now have galleries and project spaces participating in addition to artists. In terms of the selection of works, this year we decided to focus on showing newer works by the participating artists, so the criteria was added that only works from the last three years will be exhibited.
What are the future plans, perspectives, biggest challenges for Foto Tallinn in the coming years? How do mean to bring the fair format (and buying art) closer to people and make it more popular?
For this year’s Foto Tallinn we went through a thorough internal renewal process – we changed the fair’s name, redesigned the visual identity, created a new separate webpage and Facebook page for the fair, updated the application documents and thoroughly reformed the processes of the fair behind the scenes. We hope that thanks to this, this time, as well as in the future, there is less need to start rebuilding things from scratch every time, and this will enable us to concentrate even more on developing the content and communications concerning the fair.
We would be happy to see the fair become even more international in the future and for Foto Tallinn to diversify the local art scene, and boost cooperation and meaningful professional discussions. The context of the fair has brought about new arrangements for representation and collaboration in the past few years, as well as this year – new galleries or other art institutions (for example this year the Narva Art Residency and the Juhan Kuus Documentary Photo Centre) will take on the role of representing artists. We certainly hope this positive development will continue.
When it comes to the audience, we believe that the key is really communication – the fair indeed presents a wonderful opportunity to familiarize oneself with what is happening in the contemporary (photographic) art scene all in one take. Considering the relative popularity of photographic art and the accessibility of the media, the fair might be of interest to many people and it is our job to inform the audience of this event.
SHORT INTRODUCTION TO THE FAIR
As the only art fair in Estonia, Foto Tallinn offers professional photographic artists a platform for collaboration, meetings and discussions, along with the opportunity to present their work to a diverse audience. Art audiences are presented with an overview of the latest contemporary photographic art in an environment that is different from the usual exhibition format. The fair includes meetings with artists, panel discussions, lectures, seminars, book presentations, guided tours and curated excursions. Foto Tallinn is also a good opportunity to get acquainted with the options for buying and collecting (photographic) art: the art fair team offers special events and a personalized advisory service to those interested.
Foto Tallinn presents works from over 30 different artists, the range of displays varies from traditional photographic art to more experimental works using video or spatial installations. The art fair will introduce works from artists, galleries and project spaces from Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United Kingdom, selected by an international jury consisting of Bruno Barsanti (IT), Evita Goze (LT), Kati Ilves (EE), Karin Laansoo (EE) and Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk (NL).
Foto Tallinn 2019 will take place from 27 to 29 September and is one of the events associated with the opening of the Kai Art Center located in the Port Noblessner area, as well as being part of the main programme of the Tallinn Photomonth contemporary art biennial. The fair, formerly known as the Estonian Photographic Art Fair, will be held this year for the ninth time.
 Online database listing art transactions in the Estonian art market since 1998. https://kunstiindeks.ee