Word of Mouth: Tallinn, Estonia’s Contemporary Art Institutions

Five world-class destinations pushing the limits of art curation

Perhaps best known to tourists for its cobblestoned Old Town, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn stretches well beyond those beloved medieval walls. Situated on the Baltic Sea, the city—which was honored as one of Europe’s co-capitals of culture for 2011—provides more than historic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Home to global tech companies like Skype and Transferwise, Tallinn’s offerings meet the needs of its developing start-up culture and growing international influx of visitors. This includes a range of world-class art institutions and thriving artistic neighborhoods that feature both local and international artists.

During our visit to Tallinn for the opening of the expansive, experimental Kai Art Center, we took part in the city’s annual Tallinn Photomonth and explored various other art institutions. Photomonth’s extraordinary roster of programming brings many venues together, incorporates pop-ups and even includes a short-film festival. Tallinn’s Museum of Photography and Kumu Art Museum are worthy destinations, as are the Positiiv Galerii (affiliated with the magazine of the same name) and T&K Gallery (Tallinn’s only commercial contemporary art gallery). But the five venues highlighted below rank among the most enticing we’ve seen worldwide.

Courtesy of Kai Art Center

Kai Art Center

An art anchor within the waterfront Noblessner neighborhood, Kai Art Center occupies the spacious top floor of a reclaimed submarine plant in a complex dating back to 1912. Reimagined by KAOS Architects, a firm founded by two women—Margit Argus and Margit Aule—Kai includes an auditorium and education center in addition to the sprawling main exhibition space. The building’s other floors will feature a restaurant, bar and co-working space, all to open in the coming months. But it’s the center’s slate of programming, which will update quarterly, that truly shines.

Kai’s artistic director Karin Laanso worked with curator Hanna Laura Kaljo on the debut exhibition, Let the field of your attention…. soften and spread out. It runs now through 1 December 2019 and sets the venue’s standards high. Along with the projection works and sculptures, talks and film screenings complete the inaugural installation (as well as the announcement of residencies and educational programs). Laanso tells us, “What sets the Estonia art scene apart is that everyone is super-supportive here. It’s a close-knit community. People are here to help each other out. Most of the key organizations are very small with teams of only a handful of people.” And yet, Kai’s mission to blend local and international artists elevates awareness of Estonia’s scene to a whole new level.

Installation view of Mercury, an exhibition curated by Post Brothers in collaboration with Simon Dybbroe Møller at Tallin Art Hall until 17 November 2019, photo by David Graver

Tallinn Art Hall Foundation

An institution comprising three galleries in Tallinn’s Old Town, Tallinn Art Hall Foundation hosts 15 to 17 contemporary exhibitions each year, as well as talks, concerts and other performances. Unafraid to take programming risks, Tallinn Art Hall‘s exhibitions tackle topics occupying the global cultural consciousness. A dialogue between international and local artists unfolds here, whether it’s an analysis of technology and its relationship to art or the growing concerns artists have over climate change (featuring work that actually took each artist’s carbon footprint into account).

by David Graver

National Film Archive

As the name suggestions, the National Film Archive (otherwise known as Rahvusarhiivi filmiarhiiv) employs archivists and curators to sort through, categorize and preserve film, photo and audio from Estonian history. With film footage dating back to 1908 and plenty of newsreel, amateur works and more, their archive is both diverse and substantial. However, the building—which was formerly a jail—plays hosts to exhibitions of materials discovered within and re-contextualized. For instance, visual artist Aap Tepper’s 10 Photographs from Restricted Collections calls attention to serene images of nature that were once classified as sensitive material and banned by the Soviet regime.

Still from Yang Fudong’s “Moving mountains,” courtesy of Fotografiska Tallinn

Fotografiska

Opened earlier this year, Fotografiska Tallinn continues the expansion of the Stockholm-born art organization‘s mission to foster artistic communities around photography. The large Tallinn complex, which occupies many buildings and includes an exemplary rooftop restaurant and bar, rises up in the popular Telliskivi neighborhood. Curation, of course, is regarded with the utmost concern and the recent Alison Jackson and Yang Fudong exhibitions demonstrate the museum’s forward-thinking approach. As with other Fotografiska locations, the Tallinn destination maintains long opening hours, from 9AM to 11PM most days. This allows so many more people the opportunity to see the work and take in the stunning compound—and thankfully so.

Detail shot of Edith Karlson sculpture courtesy of EKKM

Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia

Home to the riveting (but now complete) Tallinn Photomonth contemporary art biennial, this year entitled When You Say We Belong To The Light We Belong To The Thunder, the multi-level Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (known as EKKM) spearheads groundbreaking seasonal exhibits. This independent venue offers free admissions to visitors and often puts Estonian artists front and center. As with Tallinn’s other institutions, it also hosts events (and parties) that seek to get people excited and talking about art.

Hero image of Raphaele Shirley’s “100 Pink Smoke Candles (twice)” by Tõnu Tunnel, courtesy Kai Art Center