The Estonian Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) accommodates an archive and library of cultural and art historical significance, providing a comprehensive overview of the Estonian art scene since the early 1990s. As a centre for expert knowledge, the CCA has been mediating information about the work of local artists since 1992 and has contributed to the high level of contemporary art mainly through producing exhibitions. Consequently, a considerable amount of material has accumulated either as a physical presence on the centre’s shelves or in digital format on the centre’s web archive— including documents about past events, references to new unformulated trends, traces of the past—all to store information and form knowledge.
Even though the centre is not a memory institution like a museum is, it has a considerable cultural layer and heritage that is being preserved, researched and mediated. Therefore, the CCA is actively committed to updating the archive and library, making it more accessible to researchers, linking it to appropriate data networks as well as participating in international networks of cultural heritage, and ensuring multilingual access. The archive consists of works of art and their documentation—including digital photographic, video and audio files; exhibition materials, including artefacts, photographic documentation, books, bibliographies, administrative documents of the CCA, such as letters of application, reports, budgets, contracts, etc.
One of the instruments for making the archival materials more accessible is the Artists database, which was launched in early 2020 on the centre’s web page. The artist profiles presented on the web page contain the artist’s biography specifically edited for the database, a selection of their recent works and major exhibitions, and links to more information. This is an instrument designed for art professionals (curators, editors), researchers, universities and schools, as well as art lovers who want to get to know the most significant artists, curators and critics in Estonia. For artists, the database means increased visibility and hopefully also more opportunities; for example, to participate in international exhibitions. The CCA followed the example of similar databases of artists (e.g. the artists database on the website of the Icelandic Art Center, the database for designers on the Estonian Design Centre’s webpage, the Music Estonia database for musicians).
It takes extensive resources to ensure the adequacy of the database, especially if the aim is to be up-to-date and to provide interesting and significant content also for local audiences. The best way to get an overview of the Estonian contemporary art field is still to visit local exhibitions, yet in case this is not possible, art lovers from all corners of the world can visit the artist profiles on the centre’s web page. The CCA’s new web page was created with WWW Stuudio and the design agency AKU. The updated version is more structured and easier to use, providing a better overview of the CCA’s activities. It also accommodates an online magazine for contemporary art with weekly recommendations for events as well as stories and articles contextualizing the local art field.
It is difficult for the CCA to meet the ambitions and expectations set by themselves as well as by the contemporary art field. One of the challenges is defining the content of the archive and library—what to accept and what to exclude. This is not about speculating on future scenarios for artists, but rather about how to notice and recognize quality contemporary content— something that would be progressive and help us give meaning to the time and space we live in. Making these choices has always been a painful process for the ones not included. In order to soften the blow and balance out the responsibility, a special committee has been convened considering the database of artists to determine its priorities and preferences.
The CCA has collected information about Estonian artists and their work since the 1990s, yet a variety of methods have been applied and as a result the overview lacks continuity and is not without its gaps. Initially, collecting information was done as part of an art historical commission, which consisted of composing a bio, CV, documentations of works and a bibliography for the artist. These materials were bound together and used as a tool for guests to give them a first insight into Estonian contemporary art. During the 1990s, VHS cassettes containing video works from artists were also mailed to curators for presentation of their work. Copies of these VHSs are still available at the CCA.
From 2005 to 2009, the centre focused on documenting all contemporary art exhibitions in Tallinn, as the habit of documenting exhibitions had been almost non-existent until then. Many projects could only be revived through an article published in the newspaper. Even the documentation of the Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was irregular during that period.
As quite a unique and comprehensive collection, the CCA has an archive of art criticism containing all copies of articles published in the media from 1993 to 2006. This archive has been a great help to art theory students who wish to have an overview of the evolution of Estonian art writing and the reception of contemporary art in general.
Besides the aforementioned archive, the CCA also has a library of nearly 3,000 copies focusing on international contemporary art. The centre filters, formulates and materializes developments in the Estonian art field, and the book as a format is one of the starting and ending points of these processes, providing support for the cross-referenced activities and events organized by the centre. The CCA library could be seen as a collection of books that has been the side-product of organizing events, which brings about the question of whether we can even talk about an organized library that can ensure the accessibility of its materials or rather consider it as a collection of books, a resource that no one really knows how to use. In what circumstances can a collection of books be considered a library? These questions form the basis for a structured reorganization process that requires us also to formulate the principles for collecting—which kinds of books should we find at the CCA?
One of the principles behind the collection of the library has been the centre’s history—as it was founded by George Soros and the Open Estonia Foundation, it was part of a network of art centres that covered the entire former Soviet Union. Similar institutions that have been built on the ideological heritage of Soros can also be found in Latvia (LCCA), Georgia (CCA), Slovenia (CCA) and other countries. Therefore, the centre accommodates books that it has only received thanks to the Soros network, but with which there is little connection today. For example, books about Macedonian artists may seem like an unexpected or unjustified choice, but this is one of the features of the CCA library because of the institution’s history.
The library’s main assets include catalogues of major continuous exhibitions (documenta, Manifesta, Venice Biennale, etc.), monographs of Estonian artists and catalogues of smaller exhibitions. Self-published artist books, magazines and albums that experiment with their format can also be found on the shelves of the CCA library. These kinds of books are often not of interest for larger libraries (National Library of Estonia, Estonian Academy of Arts Library, University of Tartu Library) as they do not have ISBN codes. Since the CCA library is mostly known only to art professionals and has not been officially formulated, the limited use of the library results in books that are in a surprisingly good order— good enough to be presented at exhibitions.
The CCA archive and library function as memory storage facilities, producing and maintaining a sense of identity that renews itself over time and provides an overview not only of creative developments in the work of local contemporary artists, but also of the institutional processes in Estonia and beyond. Physical as well as virtual, the CCA archive and library serve as a public platform—a dialogue partner and a tool for artists, art researchers, curators and students to apprehend and formulate new knowledge concerning contemporary art and social developments in Estonia. It is an environment of materialized thought processes open to fresh interpretations.