More art, less art collectors

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

The number of artworks also increased. One critic in the 1980s commented that people “are painting more than ever”, and of course the paintings were not created just for one’s own ateliers. “So twenty-seven out of thirty-two oil paintings exhibited in the first hall belong to lucky owners and three to state collections,” was reported about an exhibition of work by one top artist in the 1980s. Yet this comment cannot be taken as evidence of art collecting by the well-to-do. What was happening was instead the so-called communal art collecting that used paintings to decorate apartments, and the group of buyers was not limited to very wealthy people (in fact, there were virtually none at that time) or party nomenklatura. It was a far broader group that was able to buy works of art. But if we take art collection to mean a collection built systematically, with certain focus points and enough pieces to reach a critical mass, so that generalizations could be made about it, then these kinds of art collections were not established during the Soviet era. Or rather, if any existed, they remain unknown, aside from the three or four already mentioned.

State collections, however, grew all the more intensely. In addition to state museums, art was also collected by the Art Foundation, the Ministry of Culture, and other institutions. This in turn directly affected the daily life of artists, because the vast majority of them now enjoyed various forms of support, and quite a few of the top artists could confine themselves to producing only one or two paintings per year, because the money they got was enough to support their families, and they could be certain their works would be sold. A good number of Estonian artists earned the attention of Soviet state museums in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere, and many of those artists sold a great many pieces in those cities. However, none of the tensions between the postwar avant-garde and the art market that were typical in the United States and Western Europe arose here (notwithstanding occasional complaints about one or another artist being “too commercial”). It may have been precisely the lack of such tensions that led to the slow stagnation of Estonian art, which was most severe in the second half of the 1980s.