What is the importance of art and culture in Estonian society? Answered by Margus Allikmaa

Estonian Cultural Endowment director Margus Allikmaa answers to a Finnish online publication MustRead. Eveliina Talvitie's article can be read  here

What is the importance of art and culture in Estonian society?
I believe I should start my answer with reference to our constitution. Namely, in the introductory paragraph or preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, it is stated that our country was created, among other things, to guarantee the preservation of the Estonian people, the Estonian language and the Estonian culture through the ages. Therefore, the preservation of culture is protected by the constitution, but of course, this requires the state’s continued contribution to the development of culture. Culture is an ongoing process; it cannot be preserved like the mummy of a pharaoh, and luckily, this is also quite well understood at the national level.

Whether the state can handle this task and how depends a lot on the world view of the person evaluating it and the field close to their heart or their personal values. People directly related to the fine arts and living mainly from their own creative work or interpretations of those created by other people would probably say that in Estonia the importance of culture is not sufficiently appreciated, freelance creatives are not valued enough, they lack social guarantees, and scholarships and grants are meagre and the state does not have its own cultural policy. They are partly right. In Estonia, a very large part of the money intended for culture goes to large institutions from broadcasting, the national opera, the film institute that supports film production, dozens and dozens of theatres and museums, the male choir and the national orchestra. Freelance creatives, above all writers and artists, receive a relatively modest amount of money and attention allocated by the state.

On the other hand, comparing the facts, we have several things to be happy about – and even proud of. For example, the share of general government expenditure on cultural services is one of the highest in Europe and probably in the entire world, and by adding here the subsidies of local governments and sponsors and funds earned by the cultural sector, we get the share of the gross domestic product produced by culture, which is also among the best in Europe.

In order to support the above-mentioned freelance creative persons and the art they make, a well-functioning public system independent of the central government has been established in the form of the Cultural Endowment. It is a public fund mainly intended for the support of freelance creatives and cultural projects born from private initiative, and decisions in this fund are made by experts in their field.

Is art considered an independent value and something that should be accessible to everyone?
Estonia may not have stated it so explicitly, but the cornerstone of the cultural policy that is consistently also confirmed in practice is precisely that culture must be accessible to everyone. Generous subsidies for museums, theatres, concert organisations and others make it possible to keep ticket prices low, and various support measures keep the offers in various cultural fields very high.

What is the earning logic of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia and how successfully can it finance different fields of art?
The Cultural Endowment receives its funds mainly from two sources. 3.5% of the tobacco and alcohol excise taxes collected in Estonia and 47.8% of the gambling tax are received directly into the budget of the Cultural Endowment. In 2023, this will be 40 million euros or slightly more. The final amount depends on the actual receipts, but the practice of recent years shows that we always receive slightly more than we initially dare to plan. These funds are mainly divided between eight areas, and in addition, almost a third of this amount must be directed to investment subsidies for nationally important cultural buildings. These eight areas are music, film, theatre, visual and applied arts, folk culture, sports, literature and architecture.

It is clear that there are many applications for funding and it is not possible to satisfy all of them. There is not enough money, but that in itself is not a bad thing. The experts who make the choices can, or rather must, evaluate the quality of the projects applying for support, and this helps to keep the bar high. It would be bad if all requests received a positive response, and the same amount of money as requested would be allocated. This would definitely make the quality of the projects that come to fruition quite meagre.

Each year, about half of the applications receive a positive response, and even those that receive a positive response do not receive funding for the full amount requested. Speaking in the language of numbers, the ratio of requested and allocated amounts is 100:38; that is, for every hundred euros requested, 38 euros are allocated by the Cultural Endowment. Whether the percentage of requests that receive a positive response is optimal or whether the ratio between the amounts requested and the amounts allocated should be different is a matter of preference. Personally, I am of the opinion that the percentage of requests that received a positive response could be considerably lower, around 30%, whereas the amount allocated per request could be at least 75% of what was requested. In this way, only the best of the best projects are realised, and the project participants can improve how they do this with quality and according to the original plan.

What kinds of challenges does your organisation currently have?
The Cultural Endowment pays quite a significant amount for scholarships and creative work grants to creative people. Scholarships are primarily intended for acquiring a new skill or honing existing skills, whereas creative work grants are intended for the creation of a new work. The challenge is that, according to the law, these scholarships and grants can be paid tax-free; that is, free of income tax, but this also means that the recipient of a scholarship or creative work grant does not have the obligation to buy health insurance or make payments to the pension pillars. Creative people do receive some income from the Cultural Endowment, but they do not automatically have social guarantees. The allocated amounts are also so modest that they are not even enough for voluntary payments. Together with the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Endowment is looking for ways to increase the scholarships and grants that are paid out in such a way that they are also accompanied by payments for health insurance and contributions to the pension fund. This topic has also reached the coalition agreement of the new government, and for the first time in years there is hope that the problem will find some solution. One possible solution lies in the fact that the taxes collected from excise goods are increased, and this automatically means an increase in the funds used by the Cultural Endowment. These funds could then be used to pay the social taxes of freelance creatives who receive scholarships or grants for creative activities from the Cultural Endowment.

 What kinds of expectations do you have for the cultural policies of the new Estonian government?
There are many matters in Estonian cultural life that require a clear position on the part of the state. We all know that there is never enough money in culture because creative people always want to a) do something more, b) do something better, or c) do something completely new. This is natural and no one can be blamed for that. Again, those who have to finance these desires must be more courageous and specific in order not to feed vain hopes and frustration. We either support the creation of something new or more of the old things, but there is certainly not enough funds to struggle in both directions. Doing things better must be supported in one way or another. Therefore, making clearer choices is long overdue.

And yet, in the last thirty years, the number of theatres has increased sixfold, the number of museums has increased sevenfold, several new concert halls have been built etc. All of these take quite a bite out of public funds. We expect the new government to provide individual creative people, above all freelance artists, writers, translators, editors, composers, musicians etc., considerably more attention than before. The goal should be to raise their incomes and social guarantees to a level somewhat comparable to other areas. Fortunately, as I already mentioned, this topic is also included as a goal in the coalition agreement.

Do Estonian political parties have very different ideas about the status of culture?
This topic would require a longer analysis because every political party has specific nuances in their approach to cultural policy. In general, however, everyone is of the opinion that the quoted sentence in the preamble to the constitution has a significant meaning and it determines the direction of cultural policy; that is, everyone understands that we must contribute to culture. Some people think that cultural exports should grow significantly, others consider it important to increase self-earned funds, yet others think that culture has an important impact on the tourism sector, and there are also those who think that too much money and attention goes to culture, but these are rather individual opinions deviating from the mainstream, not positions that shape policy. All the political parties are also united by the principle of the protection and prioritised development of the Estonian language as well as education and culture in the native language.