The job of curator was imported to Estonia in the early 1990s by the Soros Center of Contemporary Art, and annual curator exhibitions began. Significant contributors to domesticating and developing this institution in the mid-1990s were Eha Komissarov, Peeter and Eve Linnap and Mari Sobolev, plus several fairly open art people with art history backgrounds from the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA). Now, 20 years later, curatorial projects are daily occurrences in the exhibition programmes of art institutions, although Estonia does not offer the relevant education. Most curators operating in Estonia have developed their abilities by trial and error. Where, then, do the curators come from who organise exhibitions? What should we do to ensure that we have more diverse and responsible curators? How to train people who can arrange art communication on as professional level as possible, so that it considers the wishes of the masses and meets the expectations of professionals?
A few months ago I saw in a mail list a job offer from the Tallinn Art Hall for a curator. I immediately thought “oh, if I were still an unemployed freelance curator of contemporary art, I would certainly apply!” At the same time I grasped the fact that the criteria declared in the announcement could be met by barely a dozen people in Estonia, who are all too busy already, so that the Art Hall faced a real challenge in getting a suitable employee … It turned out that indeed the competition to attract a qualified applicant failed. As an employer I know myself how difficult it is to find an art professional for a job with very specific demands, often also requiring some international experience, whereas the salary would be a meagre 700—800 euros. Besides, the curator possessing interesting ideas must find the resources for exhibitions himself/herself. I also doubt whether suitable people could be found even if the salary were doubled, as there are very few people in Estonia with the required professional preparation and experience.
Where should curators come from? From art history fields specifically or instead from the context of more general culture? Dozens of young people graduate each year from both the Academy of Arts and the art history department at the University of Tartu. The majority of them do not focus on organising exhibitions, because they get no preparation at the BA level or at the Academy’s Art History Institute; an introductory course on curatorial work happens only during the first MA year. The course consists of about 20 contact lessons and a prelim, when students learn a little about the history of the exhibition format and idea possibilities, plus put together a project themselves. The art history department at Tartu University focuses on academic research, supervised by local professors who do not pay attention to the problems of contemporary art. The world of art and museums has increasingly moved towards offering mediation, educational activities and intellectual entertainment, whereas university curricula are still training art historians for the ivory tower. Alas, art historians are not likely to get jobs anywhere except at the academy, as the area needs people with different, more open and practical profiles. A curator should most definitely have excellent knowledge of art history, but s/he must also be able to write, calculate, introduce art to viewers at all levels, communicate with different interest groups and manage everything.
The need to educate curators has been a topic of conversation for years, but specific study plans have yet to be compiled. I am not at all sure whether Estonia needs special curatorial courses in the same academic environment. It would be too expensive. Our culture is so narrow and diminishing that I doubt if we can manage to fully develop through local resources the specialities that bigger and richer cultural contexts can afford. Is there any point in keeping our expensive homespun curriculum, or should we give grants to the few people keen on curating and send them out into the wide world to learn the trade? The university should realise that curatorial work in its modern sense does not mean lecturing on art history in an art hall; instead, it is a highly complex intellectual practice, which in recent decades has exploded against the background of global art life.
Another problem hindering the activities of young curators is the fact that those interested in curating obviously need artists to work with. The Academy of Arts is scattered all over town, and the students of the Institute of Art History hardly come into contact with students from the Department of Liberal Arts. And what should the first curatorial project of a future curator be if not showing the first artistic attempts of his or her contemporaries? The art scene should ideally be a cohesive network, where all the parties cooperate and know exactly what the others are doing. This is the only way to realise the first exhibition projects of young curators. Today’s art scene is crumbling because there is no compact academy building: no canteen in which to meet up, no smoking corner where friendships can be formed, no gallery where exhibition experience can be obtained.
How to solve this problem with limited resources and in our tiny cultural context? I suggest that curators’ courses could be offered by acting art institutions in a creative and trusting manner. Estonia has several active and internationally suitable exhibition venues, which compared with developing a curriculum (and with much less state support) would be able to train curators within a few years who would be well versed in the local art life and would get enough experience in organising exhibitions. This would be considerably cheaper and more cost effective than establishing clumsy academic curricula and finding teachers just for a few interested people. The lack of curators could perhaps also be alleviated if art institutions offered hands-on practical opportunities for young exhibition organisers, paid and fixed by contracts. Why cannot, for example, the Hobusepea Gallery, with its focus on young artists, be the place to offer, say, a two-year gallerist contract to a young promising person?
Why shouldn’t energetic future curators get direct experience (and of course responsibility) together with space and small budgets? If the Art Hall wants a curator then why can’t the Estonian Artists’ Association turn a few of its exhibition venues into platforms to deal with this shortage?
Museums also have a great potential to train curators – why not start a programme of assistants or assistant curators? Facing a desperate lack of workforce, I have myself taken a risk and employed people with backgrounds in art history and adequate contact with the existing discourse, who are keen to get things done. Organising exhibitions can best be learned by doing precisely that every day: this makes people replenish their professional knowledge and develop practical skills. There is no universal or ideal situation; exhibition contexts differ and every institution dictates its own rules. Employing young people enthusiastic about curating in museums has not been a disappointment: doing real work is how true professionals are born; they should simply be trusted and if necessary should be offered support, help and supervision. A curator’s work is above all practice: if opportunities for work are there, people who can do the work will emerge.