Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

One Percent for Art

Article about the Percent for Art scheme in Estonia for the bilingual Russian-English architectural journal Projekt Baltia no 31 (4/17; 1/18). 


One Percent for Art


One Percent for Art is a public art scheme practiced already since the early 20th century. The idea is simple: whenever the government builds, reconstructs or renovates a building at least one percent of the construction expenses has to be spent on acquiring visual art. Depending on the site it may be painting, sculpture, sound art or any other art form.

In 2011, the Commissioning of Artworks Act took effect in Estonia. This law applies to state and public agencies, but not to local government units. According to the law, an anonymous public competition is announced for commissioning the work of art. The results of the call are assessed by a jury, two-thirds of which must be composed of people who are also members of one of the arts associations. The cost of the artwork is usually between 7,500 and 65,000 euros. By the beginning of 2018, more than 60 works have been completed and more than 2 million euros have been injected into the art scene, meaning roughly 300,000 euros a year. For comparison, the annual budget for Tartu Art Museum, Estonia's second art museum employing 20 people, is around 400,000 euros. Hence, ‘percentage art’ operates with unprecedentedly large sums, which is a substantial victory for and an important recognition of the chronically under-financed art world, but also occasionally a starting point for new problems.


Until now, more than half of the artworks have been commissioned for educational establishments: primary and secondary schools, vocational educational institutions and universities. This is due to the fact that the launch of the act happened to coincide with the large-scale restructuring of Estonian school system. By now, nearly all the school and university buildings, and virtually every publicly owned structure is managed and administrated by State Real Estate Ltd, which is basically the construction department of the Ministry of Finance. The extensive neoliberal centralization process is largely financed by EU funds.


In 2013, State Real Estate Ltd, which had just renovated a high school in Haapsalu commissioned a sculptural work for the school's foyer. The jury chose sculptor Edith Karlson's – an acknowledged sculptor who has exhibited widely around Europe – figurative group Flight Zone, which also functions as a source of light (the heads of the 52 birds are replaced with light bulbs). The artist folded 52 birds from corrugated cardboard, took moulds from them and cast them in aluminium. The motif came from the school symbol, which is a swan, and the school logo, which displays a paper bird, folded in origami technique.


Compared to other ‘percentage art’ works, Karlson’s has caused the most resentment among local audiences. Besides several disappointed responses, the local newspaper Lääne Elu published an opinion piece by the school’s art teacher, who argued that the work doesn’t support the dignity of the historical building, that its style and implementation is in contrast with the building and there is no hope of its value growing in time. She argued that the problem is that a small circle of professionals decides on spending large sums of money, whereas the local people should also have a say when art is to be purchased for public buildings. In any case, the local media turned public opinion against not only against the artwork, but also against the artist and contemporary art in general. More worrying than the articles and the bewilderment instigated through online media channels, is the fact that the first and the main audience for these artworks – the pupils and the teachers – had not been ‘converted’ to positive thinking at the right time. Hence the most pressing issues related to the ‘percentage art’ are perhaps: how to mobilize the jury members, Ministry of Culture and the art circles so that they introduce works of art adequately to audiences, and how to create a ‘buffer zone’ between the draft projects and the completed works that would benefit everyone.


Fourteen projects were submitted to the competition for Viljandi State High School in 2012. The jury chose Merike Estna’s ensemble Sphere consisting of four paintings (3.6 m x 5.1 m) and four coloured concrete spheres with a diameter of 1.2 m. Her monumental paintings fit nicely with the interior and play well with the surrounding environment. One could argue that the paintings create a sense of academic freedom – notebook lines depicted on the images instruct viewers to read between the lines. In the case of Viljandi, the plans for the procurement of art reached the architects before the building itself was finished. Therefore, the architects could determine the best locations for the artworks, and see the necessary changes in the cabling for the building (additional lights, cables, etc.). The solutions submitted to the competition therefore had to take into account the locations drawn up by the Salto architecture bureau.


However, many other clients have not been so lucky, as the locations for artworks have been chosen only after the building (or its renovation) has been finished – this is due to the fact that the exact value of the percentage will be known only after construction work is finished. Due to the system in which the State Real Estate Ltd hands construction and renovation works over to companies that have won the lowest bids, taking care of art may be an annoying and unpleasant additional chore. Not pondering upon it too much, they seem to select just some disjointed walls, which means that from the very beginning artist is placed in an unfair situation from where he/she needs to find a way out. This kind of situation is ages away from the idea of the synthesis of the arts, which has been one of the underlying ideologies behind such public art schemes. (To be correct, the synthesis of the arts isn’t mentioned in the act; the purpose of the law is to ‘improve the public space aesthetically’.)


Besides high schools, the government has also invested in modernising vocational training. In 2012, the first Estonian ‘percentage art’ piece was completed in Jõhvi, in the yard of the Ida-Viru County Vocational Training Centre. There, the jury chose the sculpture Cyber-ant by Hannes Starkopf as the winner. The cyber-ant motif for the sculpture, which was first planned as a kinetic work, came from the mascot of the school which is an ant, and the fact that the school emphasized the need for state-of-the-art technology to prepare mining engineers and chemists for the major industry in the region.


Unfortunately, the project, as often happens with first trials, was a failure. Firstly because of art historical reasons: during the renovation works of the vocational training centre, a stylish sgraffito from the 1970s on the other side of the building was covered with roughcast. In addition, since the option of commissioning a work of art came as a surprise for the school, the organisation of the competition was not entirely effective. Due to a lack of experience, the percentage was initially miscalculated and the competition was announced for a larger sum than was realistic. The jury found out about this only after the selection had been made, and the author of the winning project had to replace his grandiose plans with a cost-saving ant (3 m long instead of 5, scrap iron instead of stainless steel, mirrors for eyes instead of floodlights, a static sculpture instead of a kinetic one). Instead of enriching the public space, the sculpture had a somewhat opposite effect.


In conclusion it has to be said that the Estonian Artists' Association lobbied for the introduction of public art commissions for more than ten years; the outcome has not been exactly what they strived for, as it largely reflects the neoliberal pragmatism which has dominated Estonian politics for the past two decades. However, the act has brought significant extra funding to the art field and has sent a positive message to the artists and the society at large: the state holds important to support the work and distribution of visual artists. Thanks to the act many private enterprises have decided to invest in public art, citing the Commissioning of Artworks Act as an exemplar.



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