I missed the chance to meet Anu Tähemaa when she visited Los Angeles in September as part of a State Department/International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange that gathered twenty-two international visual, performing, and literary arts professionals to explore using the arts as a platform for social change and inter-cultural understanding.
Expecting to see her at an IVCLA reception at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, where she was scheduled to perform a few Estonian songs, I was sad to learn she couldn’t attend because, she told me later, she was observing the fine work of doctors in one of LA’s emergency rooms (she’s fine, thankfully!). Fortunately for me, her effervescence shines through her email correspondence, and she very graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Ms. Tähemaa is the Project Manager of the Kumu Auditorium, which presents public programs for the impressive Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia. The Kumu (in Estonian, Kunstimuuseum) opened in 2006. It was built to conserve and exhibit the world’s largest collection (over 60,000 works) of Estonian art. Its website features a lovely virtual tour of the inside of the building, which I highly recommend.
Ms. Tähemaa has been involved with the Estonian Art Museum system (of which the Kumu is the largest and best known of five) for the past four and a half years. She organizes, among many other projects, American-themed events at the Kumu, including a film series called “Telling the American Story,” concerts by jazz ambassadors, and Native American poetry slams. I asked her recently how these programs came about:
The programming I deal with in the Kumu Auditorium is really colorful. We try to associate many of our programs with our exhibitions, but not always. We present art in different mediums. We have concerts (jazz and classical), contemporary dance performances, documentary series, TEDx conferences, theatre pieces, new circus performances, and different kinds of seminars, film series and so on.
Estonian Art is presented mainly in two halls, and the other four halls are filled with different art exhibitions from local artists or exhibitions from abroad. Those exhibitions are changed every three to four months, so there is a lot of work and worrying for this (quite small) team to deal with. But even though the museum is only six years old, we won the prize for The Best Museum in Europe 2008, which was a big honor and a surprise for us.
I also asked Ms. Tähemaa about her biggest challenges in presenting American arts programming or in working with American artists:
Estonia, where the population is 1.3 million, is quite small. (I especially feel it now that I just came back from the US!) In the capital, Tallinn, there are 500,000 people, so the town is also not so big. The size and the distance are main reasons why it is quite hard to get “big names” here. Artists and companies don’t know the country, and we don’t have too much funding. Sometimes we collaborate with neighbours (Finland and Latvia), or if we hear of somebody already coming to Europe it makes it easier to find funding because we can share costs.
The biggest challenge is the distance, which makes all this so expensive. We have to be very creative to find a way to present American artists here. If all the financial part is done, the rest is only pleasure.
Ms. Tähemaa works closely with two officers at US Embassy Tallinn: Tiiu Vitsut and Jane Susi (the three gathered for the photo below at the Kumu in September 2012). I asked her if she has a special strategy to promote American-themed events at the Kumu and about her US Embassy collaborators’ involvement in promoting those events. She said:
We have a very pleasant collaboration with the US Embassy in Tallinn. They have good ideas about what will fit on our stage and what themes from the US would interest our public.
As everywhere, all events need good marketing. The US Embassy uses their channels, and in Kumu we also have a communication department. We have our own mailing list for an e-newsletter for events in the Auditorium, and we work with the press and different target groups. Thanks to the US Embassy, a lot of events are free. We try to create many free and low-cost events to educate people and help them forget their everyday problems for a while.
The film series “Telling the American Story,” a monthly public showing of American movies at the Kumu Auditorium, is already in its fourth year. Since this series began we’ve built a steady audience of American film enthusiasts here in Tallinn. The films range from Hollywood classics to pop and urban culture and have involved various noted Estonian cultural contacts who introduce the films, amongst them USG alumni. The movies are free of charge for the audience; the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section covers the costs for the venue in cooperation with the host and buys the DVDs for the screenings.
Ms. Tähemaa and her Kumu colleagues have hosted many American performers and artists since the museum’s opening in 2006. Here she told me about a few of her favorites:
In our opening year, 2006, we had several American performers and lecturers. The Grupo Yanqui Latin Jazz Quartet from Jazz at Lincoln Center performed at Kumu for the embassy’s cultural contacts and to celebrate the museum’s opening. John H. Ruppert, Chairman of the Department of Art at the University of Maryland, was invited to install his artwork for the opening of the Kumu. While he was here he also lectured at the Estonian Art Academy.
In 2007 we hosted the International Art and Film History Conference. The US Embassy provided support for three US speakers: Professor Steven Mansbach from the University of Maryland, Professor Katarzyna Marciniak from the School of Cinema and TV at the University of Southern California, and Professor Katie Trumpener from Yale University.
We celebrated Jazz Appreciation Month in 2009, which was observed in Estonian schools with the program “Invite Jazz to Your School.” We hosted Napoleon Maddox, an American beat-box specialist, hip hop artist and music teacher, who ran workshops for high-schoolers and teachers all over Estonia, gave concerts in the framework of the annual Jazzkaar festival, and performed with a beat box choir of Russian and Estonian youth at the Kumu.
The Santa Fe Indian School Spoken Word Team, a group of indigenous youth writers who are nationally recognized for their performances of poetry that incorporates Native languages and philosophies, performed in Tallinn and Tartu in 2009 in a program called “Native Voices: Baltic Cultural Exchange.” One of their performances took place at Kumu auditorium for a 250-person audience.
Right now we are hosting an exhibition on fashion and the Cold War, which opened on September 14 and continues until January 20, 2013. This exhibition looks into dressing habits in Soviet Estonia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and the dialogue with Western fashion. Fashion was, without doubt, the most successful border-crosser in the Cold War. The exhibition studies the international influences, but also seeks to remind its audience of the important position which Estonian fashion industry had within the Soviet “universe.” The exhibition deals also with the cultural dialogue between U.S. and U.S.S.R., where one of the most important events was the U.S. national exhibition in Moscow in 1959 – a glamorous presentation of American lifestyle, and the famous Kitchen Debate. Two American films are being screened during the exhibition. U.S. Embassy Tallinn supported the events by covering the film rights fee for showing the films “Opening in Moscow” and “Eames: The Architect and the Painter.”
Not only is Ms. Tähemaa a respected arts manager, she’s also an accomplished performing artist. She has been a professional choir conductor for many years. Relating this to her work at the Kumu, she said:
All my work is very connected, if we talk about art generally. Being a musician makes it easier to communicate with artists on stage. I play many instruments, which is why I know the needs of performers in my job at Kumu.
I studied choir conducting for 8 years. This is my basic profession, and I’m proud to have worked with many excellent teachers. The level of music education has always been high in Estonia—that is because music is very popular here. (Here you can read about our traditional Singing Festival, which was founded in 1869.)
I have worked with different institutions and groups starting with the International Schools and the National Opera House of Estonia (leading a choir of 90 boys and men; we take part in operas and give professional concerts). I’ve also worked with the Estonian Railway mixed choir for the last 3 years. I love the people I work with and all this gives me so much back emotionally that I can manage the other things in my life. (By the way, I have been married for 20 years, and I have 3 kids: 19-year-old Adeele, 15-year-old Anete and Mihkel-Mattias, who is 9.)
Also a teacher of creativity in Estonian primary schools, Ms. Tähemaa uses movement, music, singing, drama, instrumental playing and poetry in her classes. She works with all kinds of children, including gifted and special needs kids, ages 7-12, providing them with a taste of many different art forms. Occasionally, her classes visit the museum, which gave her ideas for upcoming projects:
My next plan is to generate a movement class in the Kumu exhibition hall surrounded by sculptures and paintings—the idea is based on how movement can develop your musical skills.
Her recent visit to the Estonian Embassy in Washington at the end of August sparked Ms. Tähemaa’s creative and diplomatic ambition and gave her the idea for her own US tour, during which she will give workshops to adults and children using elements of her national folklore: singing, movement, visual art and instrumental playing. She hopes to realize this dream in the next year or two, and she’s already making plans, adding that she’s identified several attractive US programs for arts managers as well.
Anu, we hope you return to the US soon, and thank you for sharing your experience with us!