History of the Cultural Endowment

The discussion of the idea of supporting culture at the national level started in 1919, when the first Congress of Estonian Writers took place. Estonian writers demanded support from the state on the condition that the beneficiary would not be bound by obligations to the state.

1919–1925

In the early years of the fledgling republic, no regulation existed for the support of creative individuals at the national level and there was no Cultural Endowment. Creative individuals therefore often went abroad in search of support. Any grants that were awarded through the Ministry of Education were done so in an ad hoc manner. Literary awards were paid to writers by the Association of Estonian Writers. Issues related to art and cultural policy were handled by the Department of Art and Heritage Conservation at the Ministry of Education, which was divided into working groups for literature, fine arts, music and dramatic arts, and the Heritage Board. The professional interests of writers were actively advocated by Friedebert Tuglas, who is considered to have instigated the idea of establishing the Cultural Endowment.
Participants of the first Congress of Estonian Writers. Photo: Estonian Literary Museum

Participants of the first Congress of Estonian Writers. Photo: Estonian Literary Museum

As a result of the Congress of Estonian Writers, a draft Writers, Artists and Scientists Support Act was prepared for the Constituent Assembly, which proposed two types of support: scholarships and pensions. Scholarships were intended for people that did not hold specific positions, and pensions would have been awarded in the case of old age or prolonged illness.

At the III Congress held on 8 October 1921, the establishment of a cultural foundation was demanded more specifically. In addition, the preliminary Cultural Endowment Act was drafted, which was rather general and consisted of 5 clauses.

Based on that Act, the order of the Minister of Economic Affairs “On spirits and vodka sold for personal consumption” entered into force, whereby local governments recovered 2.5% on every permit issued for the sale of half a stoup of spirit and vodka in the favour of the Cultural Endowment.

Until the establishment of the Cultural Endowment, grants were awarded by the Arts Department of the Ministry of Education.

1925–1934

On 5 February 1925, the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament) passed the Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act. The first endowment meetings were held in April and May. The supervisory board of the Cultural Endowment held its first meeting on 3 June 1926. Scholarships were awarded twice a year: on 1 April and 1 October.

The principles behind the distribution of funds caused lengthy disputes. The Ministry of Education and the new supervisory board attempted in 1926 to force through the practice that funding be distributed according to the achievements of the creative person. The idea of distributing money between endowments, the procedural rules of the supervisory body and the expediency of awarding support were all subsequently discussed in 1927. The supervisory board of the Cultural Endowment now included Members of Parliament, mainly ministers. There was also talk of establishing an agricultural endowment and even a forestry and pig-farming endowment. These proposals were not realised, but as a compromise, the Minister of Agriculture became a member of the supervisory board of the Cultural Endowment for a time.

On 1 November 1927, a new Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act was passed, whereby 50% of the distributed funds were managed by the government. Two standing committees were established under the supervisory board: a cultural-political committee and a budgetary committee.

1934–1941

In 1934, President Konstantin Päts stressed the importance of promoting a national and patriotic frame of mind. To achieve that, the State Propaganda Department was established. In the 1930s, the state increased its control over the Cultural Endowment. As a result of strong-arming by the state authorities, the activity of the cultural committee of the supervisory board of the Endowment stopped. In 1939, 50% of state support for the arts was brought under the personal control of the President. In principle, President Päts allocated the funds of the Cultural Endowment as a benevolent dictator, distributing money to the applicants he favoured.

In the late 1930s, it became a priority of the Cultural Endowment to support young talent. In this period, the Endowment also initiated events in support of creative individuals.

Attempts were made to continue the activities of the Cultural Endowment in the Soviet era, but with no success. The Endowment was officially abolished by order of the Council of People’s Commissars on 24 April 1941.

Towards reinstatement and a cultural policy

The Cultural Endowment was reinstated in the newly independent Republic of Estonia when the new Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act was passed on 1 June 1994, but as in 1925, a long and difficult process had been undertaken to reach that point.

At the beginning of 1988, discussions about the need for a cultural policy began. Discontent and confusion became evident among both cultural workers and leaders. The changes occurring in many sectors of society suggested that cultural management also needed change, but decisions were still being made by the Central Committee of the Party and in Moscow. 

The leadership at the ministry had deemed its main task to be buffering, letting things run their course on the one hand, and trying to soften some decisions passed down from Moscow and the Central Committee on the other. Decision-making power in the ministry had increased, but there was also greater confusion about how to move forward. The developments in the field of public governance were focused elsewhere, and there was little talk of principles and the devolution of power in the cultural field.

In 1989, the Ministry of Economic Affairs developed provisional articles of association for several foundations. This was the beginning of the Estonian Science Foundation and the Estonian Social Fund. The provisional articles of association for the Cultural Endowment were also submitted to the government, but the encumbent leaders in the field of culture did not embrace them, stating that they would cause cultural figures to fall out completely. 

The preliminary articles proposed that the administration of the whole Cultural Endowment become the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture. However, the articles saw the Endowment merely as a support system for financing culture, similarly to the original Endowment under the 1925 act, which had been responsible for providing 20% of the total funding for culture. The Ministry of Economic Affairs was relatively certain that the new articles of association would enter into force, although the economic situation was dire.

A new Cultural Endowment

The early 1990s were dramatic times for culture in terms of funding. Cultural figures sensed the growing technocratic pressure, the objective of which was to reorganise the economy first and only then pay attention to culture. To counter this tendency, they sought increasing budgetary expenditure on culture to the extent that would guarantee the preservation of existing cultural establishments and ability to produce cultural content. Representatives of 14 cultural institutions, including 9 theatres, signed an official request. At the conference of the Estonian Theatre Union held in October 1990, Tõnis Rätsep proposed restoring the Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act. This idea was welcomed at the conference and an address was made to the Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR.

The concept of a new cultural endowment was developed at the Estonian Committee, where a special working group was formed for that purpose. In 1991, the editorial board of the weekly culture newspaper Sirp played an important role in developing the culture-political discussion. This already started in the first issue of the year, when the Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act of 1925 was published on the front page.

Although Estonia had not yet regained its independence from the Soviet Union, which would happen in August 1991, there was a desperate need to organise the financing of culture. In January 1991, the Estonian Committee and the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia jointly decided to restore the Cultural Endowment. However, it was realised that implementing the 1925 act was impossible, because it would involve several issues that were yet unresolved, such as the constitution and Soviet military bases in Estonia. In addition, many new areas of culture had developed, which created the need for more endowments.

In conclusion

The Cultural Endowment benefited from the long wait. By the time the new Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act was passed in 1994, not only had the Soviet Union collapsed, but many issues in the original act of 1925 had been resolved. For example, according to the old act, the main source of budget was the alcohol and tobacco excise duty, while the Riigikogu now added funds from the national lottery. In addition, the Cultural Endowment was allowed to develop its own economic activity. 

Unlike the old act, an optimal solution was found to the conflict between politics and culture. The Minister of Culture became the head of the supervisory board of the Endowment and the Ministry of Finance was also represented on the board; the other members were representatives of the specific endowments, which were probably also improved under the new act. While the original act had included six specific endowments, the draft act submitted to the Riigikogu in 1994 envisaged nine. After disputes arose, the endowments for journalism and physical fitness were abandoned and the free education endowment became the endowment of folk culture.

The strength of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia Act probably is its power to change. Before 1940, no other similar law in Estonia was so heavily criticised or so often amended. The original act underwent amendments in 1925, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1934, 1935 and 1938. The most recent amendment to the new act was in 2015. The Estonian Cultural Endowment’s system for supporting culture and sports is unique in the world. While the Cultural Endowment Act has undergone repeated amendments, its essence remains the same: to support culture and sports from excise revenue.

Used materials:

Jüri Ujas "Eesti Kultuurkapital 1921-1941"

Jüri Uljas. Kultuurkapitali uus tulemine. Sirp, 24.07.2009. 

Supporting Estonian culture