Interview with the founders of Fotografiska Tallinn: Maarja Loorents and Margit Aasmäe

The field of photography is quite active in Estonia. There is the international biennial Tallinn Photomonth, which has been held since 2011, the Museum of Photography in the old town, the Juhan Kuus Documentary Photo Centre in the Telliskivi Creative City, Gallery Positiiv in Pelgulinn, and photography has become a natural part of the field of contemporary art in Estonia. How was the idea of bringing Fotografiska to Tallinn born? And what is its role or what gap does it fill in the local cultural and art field?

MA: Fotografiska is not a typical museum. It is a meeting place where world-class photography, sustainable cooking and consumption, music, design and open-minded and engaging attitudes towards the world come together. We are open practically all the time: seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm and sometimes also until 1am. Our aim is to be inclusive and open, to address as many people as possible and to create an environment where visitors feel comfortable. We think that photography is a good medium for telling stories in an engaging and understandable way.

Since the opening, the first months have already shown that the audience has embraced Fotografiska – some of the visitors have described our exhibitions as soul-stirring experiences. The way that photography is presented here – the special lighting solutions, music and context – turn the exhibition into a special experience.

ML: I have visited many art museums and exhibitions around the world and I was saddened by the thought of not being able to see the work of world-class artists in our own little country. That’s where the idea of ​​bringing Fotografiska to Tallinn stemmed from – we wanted to make the work of the world’s best photographic artists available to the local audience.

You mentioned that Fotografiska aims to engage with wider audiences. But who would you consider your target audience? How do you envision the ratio between the local audience and foreign visitors?

MA: We want to be intelligible and engaging for both local and foreign visitors. Our ambition is to become a regionally significant centre. There will be no Fotografiska in Riga and probably neither in Helsinki – so, we would like to be the number one place for photography for these cities as well. It is important for us that everybody feels good and comfortable in our building, whether they have come to see an exhibition or to spend time in the restaurant or at a music event.

ML: The exhibition program has been conceived following the idea that people with different interests can find something appealing and inspiring for them. We want to engage the widest range of audiences and also to offer attractive content to professional art audiences.

For example, Pentti Sammallahti’s exhibition was our initiative, mostly targeted at Finnish visitors, but it also addresses the local audience in a special way.

How important is it for you to engage with your audience and what kind of event programmes do you plan to offer?

MA: Building a local community is definitely one of our key activities. Along with the exhibition programme, we plan to provide educational programmes aimed at different target groups.

ML: We also have regular exhibition tours and different formats for meeting and engaging with the artists. In addition, there is also a weekly music club.

What is the criteria for deciding on your exhibition programme? To what extent is the selection determined from Stockholm and to what extent do you have a say in it?

ML: Our exhibition programme has a two-year cycle and most of the exhibitions for the next two years have been decided upon already. We make the selection with our Stockholm colleagues, but the local team has the final say in what we feel is best suited to our market. There are exhibitions that we initiate locally and bring to Tallinn ourselves, but there are also imported exhibitions that arrive in Tallinn through the Fotografiska network.

Fotografiska’s principle is to exhibit big names, either historic or contemporary, alongside emerging talent and artists who are not yet so well known.

When you decide upon exhibitions, do you take photography as a medium as your basis or is it more like a starting point that can also lead to spatial installations, moving images and the wider field of visual culture?

ML: For example video art is also very important to us, and in the autumn, we will have one especially exciting video art project taking place – however, the main focus will remain on photography.

Photo: Tiina-Liina Udam

What is your approach to presenting local art? Will you always have one local artist on show?

MA: Our main mission is to bring world photography to Tallinn, but also to keep an eye out for Estonian or other regional artists to exhibit at Fotografiska.

ML: There is no plan to always have one local artist on show. The most important thing for us is the combination of exhibitions and the synergy they create taking into account the wide spectrum of our audience. We definitely wanted to have one local artist among the opening round of exhibitions, therefore we are very grateful that Anna-Stina Treumund’s exhibition took place in our house. 

Fotografiska Stockholm calls itself a museum, despite the fact that it does not have a collection. What is your vision of the institutional model for Fotografiska Tallinn?

ML: We are indeed a photographic art centre, not a museum. A museum stores, collects and conducts scientific research. Our ambition is to be a vibrant and organic meeting place where world-class photography, music, food and design come together.
You have described Fotografiska as a modern cultural and leisure centre where “art, good food, music, design and open-minded visions come together”. This kind of a modern lifestyle centre has become a widespread model for cultural centres in global cities. It seems that one of Fotografiska’s main ambitions is to reach the widest audience possible. But how will you maintain a good balance between the higher artistic value and the commercial and entertaining side of your venture?

MA: We do not see a distinct line between “higher art” and anything else. The line is about reaching people. We want to exhibit world-class photography and emotionally moving stories that touch people. Fotografiska’s role is to be inclusive, but also stimulating, thought and discussion provoking. For example, we have an exhibition series called Fotografiska for Life, which deliberately addresses difficult social issues. 

ML: Fotografiska is not simply a stunning exhibition space, we also want it to play an important role in society, where it is expected of us to raise important subjects and to stir things up, to shed light on sometimes beautiful, but sometimes painful topics. 

How is the centre funded? Do you operate entirely on private capital or do you also seek support from public sources? And is it possible to buy the works on display?
ML: The centre was initiated solely with the support of private Estonian entrepreneurs, without any additional support from the Swedes nor the state. It is based on a franchise model: Fotografiska’s brand gives us the opportunity to host this exciting hub and to showcase international exhibitions. It is indeed possible to buy the works on display, but we have not yet fully developed this service.

Why did you choose Telliskivi as your location? Did you have any other alternatives?

ML: We also considered the Noblessner and the Rotermann quarters, but we finally decided on this location for the atmosphere of the Telliskivi Creative City. This is the kind of atmosphere that suits Fotografiska. When the owner from Sweden came to see the locations, it was a kind of mutual recognition, like pieces of the puzzle falling into the right place at the right moment. What also played a role was that the Telliskivi Creative City themselves were also interested in bringing Fotografiska to the Red House which had almost been waiting for this kind of tenant.

The renovation of the building was designed by Salto Architects and the interior by Toomas Korb. What was your vision for the architectural outcome and atmosphere at Fotografiska?

MA: A great inspiration for the Salto Architects was Brooklyn, where a fascinating creative environment has also been built in an existing even industrial environment. The inspiration for the rooftop restaurant also stemmed from there. The main goal was to renovate the building as authentically as possible, preserving the existing materials and construction and the industrial image. Finding a good solution for the interior design was quite a challenge, as the surrounding environment is very eclectic. Fotografiska’s brand itself is also a symbiosis – on one hand, it represents the world photography and quality, and on the other hand sustainability – the reuse of materials and a sustainable attitude. We wanted to bring these ideas into the space and therefore the restaurant features many products made from recycled materials. Toomas Korb thus sought to reconcile the Telliskivi Creative City atmosphere with a world-class vibe while retaining the retro touch typical to the industrial architecture of the Soviet era.

Maarja, you have a lot of experience working in the field of communications. What are the advantages of your background in managing this kind of institution in Estonian society, where contemporary art plays a secondary role in people’s lives?

ML: I do not know if this is an advantage or not, but having worked in the field of communication for a while, I could probably sense that there was something in the Fotografiska model that was missing from the Tallinn leisure industry field.

Photo: Tiina-Liina Udam

What do you consider your greatest challenges in managing this kind of institution? And how do Estonian audiences feel about contemporary photography in your opinion?

MA: Our main challenge is to create a centre that engages people and provides value to their daily lives throughout the year. One question is indeed the attitude of the audience towards photography and another is that Fotografiska as a brand has been relatively unknown in Estonia until now. For example, at first the news of the arrival of Fotografiska in Tallinn was much bigger in Finland than in Estonia, because Fotografiska in Stockholm was so well known there. Yet, the reception has been a rather positive surprise: the locals have accepted us quickly, as most visitors during the summer and the holiday season have been locals, which is an indication that Fotografiska engages with them and that this kind of a centre was really missing from the local field.
To sum up, I would like to ask what kind of a cultural impact do you imagine Fotografiska to have on local audiences? What change in attitude might emerge among Estonian audiences towards photographic art as such?

MA: We do not expect people to have much prior knowledge of photography nor an understanding of why an artist was or was not selected to be part of the programme. It is our task to guarantee a world-class exhibition programme. But considering the large number of visitors we are having, we will definitely raise local awareness of photography as an art form, introducing the artists and the power of photography. Hopefully, we will also contribute to changing people’s behavioural and lifestyle habits. When it becomes a habit that people consider visiting an exhibition as part of their leisure activities – in addition to theatre, cinema or sports – then that is already a great achievement.