What shall we do with the culture magazines?

Mikk Salu
, reporter
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Photo: Kristan Teedema

Two months ago, in the early days of September, a dinner was held at the Scottish Club, Tallinn. Diners present included culture minister Rein Lang, chancellor at the same ministry Paavo Nõgene, Riigikogu member and Foundation Kultuurileht chairman Urmas Klaas (the trio listed belonging to Reform Party – edit), CEO of the Foundation Toomas Väljataga, editor-in-chief of magazine Akadeemia Toomas Kiho, and magazine Looming editor-in-chief Mihkel Mutt. Now, to the backdrop of the Sirp tomfoolery (as expressed by Mr Kiho – M. S.) the get-together has come to look a bit mystical: what did the coterie divide and decide?

In reality, as recalled by the parties, nothing exiting happened. The talk being kind of round, nothing new thrown up. Digitalisation, role of culture magazines... the usual things discussed.

«A couple of times, Mr Lang has said the culture magazines ought to be ‘tweaked’ a bit, but nothing definite,» says Toomas Väljataga.

They did touch upon Sirp; the culture minister raised the topic of whether, as franchise, Sirp could be handed to some grouping. Back then, the idea was rejected.

As recalled by Mr Mutt, the only thing somewhat definite was Mr Lang asking how much the honorariums ought to be raised, at culture magazines – later, this formulated into a suggestion that recalls that by 40 per cent – and Mr Kiho specified that should this begin to be the case, honorariums ought to be raised not in fictional texts only, but with disquisition also.

To sum it up: editor-in-chief seats were not distributed; no close-down-magazine decisions; no revolution envisioned. Even so, ideas were exchanged.

Changes for the positive

So: the future of Estonia’s culture publications. For years, silent stability. Still, issues have slowly heated up, requiring answers. And, probably, Mr Lang wasn’t the only one who got to thinking about it. The same can be said about the culture editors-in-chief themselves.

Or, to put it even more broadly, as stated by magazine Vikerkaar editor-in-chief Märt Väljataga – the topic is not only actual in Estonia, it’s a pan-European thing. As, on the most fundamental level, two great powers converge. On the one hand, there’s the economic crisis and its cuts, compounded with the long-term erosion of the European wellbeing model – requiring, and also «justifying» structural changes, culture policy included. And, on the other hand, we are seeing the weakening of national identity, a pillar for culture policy. 

Here, culture personalities share the blame: cosmopolitan above average, rather sceptical towards national mythology... Yet, as things get more personal (my salary, my budget, my application, my museum), clause 1 of the Constitution is good enough, to quote. To sum it up, again: the big processes; the minister’s «tweaking» desire; the Sirp scandal; whence the money?; who’s in charge?; who will decide? And, the overall question: what about the future of Estonia’s culture publications?

Foundation Kultuurileht covers 11 state-financed publications, «circulation of Estonian culture», in their own words. Prints runs thereof range from 700 to 7,000 – which is not bad at all, glancing at data presented by European culture magazines network Eurozine regarding various countries.

Also: Estonian culture magazines have a history of stable and slowly rising financing. Sure, there have been the crises and one may always claim that money is scarce; overall, however, to the international backdrop, Estonian system has been stable.

Foundation Kultuurileht chief Toomas Väljataga, recently critical for Sirp’s sake of culture minister Rein Lang, has at least two positive changes to list during «Lang-time». Firstly, culture magazines did get extra money. Secondly: financing thereof went straight into the ministry budget – no longer will they have to depend on project-based distributions via Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

All want clarity

So, in a way, one may say all’s well: there’s no problems, no-one needs reforms. «Broadly speaking the system is in place, it is working. The thing with Sirp war rather an occupational accident, desired by no-one,» says Looming editor-in-chief Mr Mutt.

Still, culture magazines’ editors-in-chief, Mr Mutt included, have signed a joint address. Basically they are saying that changes are needed with how Foundation Kultuurileht council is formed. Nothing overly forceful here. Still, it points out a direction.

The reason, as explained by Vikerkaar editor-in-chief Märt Väljataga, being: right now, culture magazines’ management is plagued by lack of a proper visionary body. A body which would spur them on, require things, provide direction, take decisions.

A body that would answer the question «what do we want?». Do we want more readers, larger print-runs i.e. investments into marketing? Or, do we want quality and will pour money into honorariums? Or, do we want to follow the online-trend?

Or, who would take such unpleasant decisions as closing down a magazine? Not that they would wish to close some down tomorrow, by, as says Akadeemia editor-in-chief Mr Kiho: «No sense in thinking that everything ought to be eternal.»

In the same context, Märt Väljataga brings out one-time sister publication to Vikerkaar – Raduga (the same «rainbow», in Russian – edit). «The print-run fell, and let’s be honest, the quality also fell. And so Raduga disappeared,» says he.

Next to closures, the contrary is true: which new magazines could come under the Kultuurileht umbrella? In this context, a lot has been said about Müürileht and the literature magazine Värske Rõhk; both have regularly been appearing for a longer period of time, yet still project based i.e. financed by Cultural Endowment.

Värske Rõhk editor-in-chief Carolina Pihelgas says they have, for a couple of times, officially applied for Foundation Kultuurileht cover; at meetings in foundation and ministry, they have been told «you are really doing a great job», yet no decisions have followed.

According to Toomas Väljataga, the ministry is afraid of setting a precedent in such matters. Still, sometimes precedents do happen. From New Year, Kultuurileht embraces the magazine Hea Laps, its editor-in-chief Leelo Tungal having succeeded in convincing culture minister.

Overall, however, everything points to the problem admitted by the Vikerkaar chief: lack of a body making systemic decisions. Thus, randomness sets in. Personal relations come into play. Personal initiatives became determining factors, conflicts of interests appear.

Says Mr Kiho: «The council plays no essential role, but this ought to be the place for strategic decisions.»

Right now, decisions are born (or appear to be born) arbitrarily. Like, at the start of November, as the Foundation Kultuurileht council gathered to discuss ways to raise salaries, somehow ending up discussing the possible closure of magazine Muusika.

Talking to the culture magazine makers, they do not expect the minister to pick editors-in-chief; they do not expect the council to intervene in definite texts. The reasons being obvious. What they do desire is clarity and strategy.

Indeed, a couple of days ago the outgoing culture minister Mr Lang announced: artistic associations are getting two extra seats at Foundation Kultuurileht council. This would be a small step in the right direction; still not enough, probably. The council’s role, its formation and tasks, should be reviewed.

Of course, no system will be perfect and – according to current Foundation Kultuurileht chief Toomas Väljataga – we should not hope for a utopia. The occasional conflicts, differences, competition (as, for instance, between state-financed and non-state-financed magazines à la who takes whose place) and even scandals; even so, all think something needs to change.

Foundation Kultuurileht publications

•    Akadeemia – established in 1989, editor-in-chief Toomas Kiho

•    Keel ja Kirjandus – established in 1958, editor-in-chief Joel Sang

•    Kunst.ee – established in 2000, editor-in-chief Andreas Trossek

•    Looming – established in 1923, editor-in-chief Mihkel Mutt

•    Loomingu Raamatukogu – established in 1957, editor-in-chief Triinu Tamm

•    Muusika – established in 2002, editor-in-chief Ia Remmel

•    Sirp – established in 1940, editor-in-chief’s post vacant

•    Teater. Muusika. Kino – established in 1982, editor-in-chief Madis Kolk

•    Täheke – established in 1960, editor-in-chief Ilona Martson

•    Vikerkaar – established in 1986, editor-in-chief Märt Väljataga

•    Õpetajate Leht – established in 1930, editor-in-chief Kalle Muuli