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Olga Temnikova: gallery owner and startupper

The Estonian art world figure with the most international exposure by far

11 min read
© Stan Ryszkiewicz

‘Art tends to be a national phenomenon,’ claims Olga Temnikova, by far the most internationally-exposed person on Estonian art scene. ‘Once you’ve made it at the national level, you’re likely to make it elsewhere,’ she says. As if to prove this statement, Olga was presented with the Federation of European Art Galleries Association award for inspiration and innovation (FEAGA Award) in June 2016.

In the parlance of startup people – and a gallery is definitely a startup in its own right – Olga is the cofounder and CEO of one of the most successful private galleries in Estonia, Temnikova & Kasela. The names obviously derive from both founders, complementing each other’s individual skill sets: Olga bringing in her deep knowledge of art and impeccable manners to charm potential customers, while her business partner Indrek Kasela adds his entrepreneurial skills.

Having recently celebrated their 5th anniversary, Temnikova & Kasela have had numerous exhibitions in their gallery in Tallinn and elsewhere, but more importantly, they operate as promoters of Estonian art and artists all around the world.

You can always walk into the gallery, located in a Stalinist-era building just across the street from the Tallinn Central Market, and currently displaying paintings on digital prints and silk-screens on canvas by Latvian artist Inga Meldere, but it’s unlikely you will meet Olga in person. You have to call her first and it might take a few days or even weeks to sync your calendars since she’s most likely to be at some trendy art fair in Hong Kong, attending an opening in Paris or organizing an exhibition by an up and coming artist at a posh New York gallery.

Being a fastrider on the roller coaster of the international art scene might seem like a glamorous lifestyle for those who look at it from outside, but to make our artists visible on international scale actually means a lot of hard work.

‘As I’ve witnessed on many occasions, in both New York and Moscow, that she takes this task very seriously,’ says former correspondent to the National Public Broadcasting in New York and Moscow and good friend of Olga’s, Neeme Raud. ‘She will cut no corners to participate in the world class fairs and exhibitions. While others are resting from the long night out the night before, she will be in her booth as work always comes first.’

Neeme also points out that making it to the Art section of the New York Times in a fair that has hundreds of participants, is a big deal.

Art for art’s sake!

‘Temnikova & Kasela are showcasing one of the stranger solo projects at the fair,’ New York Times art critics Ken Johnson and Martha Schwenderer wrote of Kris Lemsalu’s performance at Frieze Art Fair a year ago. ‘A comment on luxury and exotic animal parts, the project gains in visual weirdness by the sight of the artist’s long red-blond hair flowing out from the head-end of the turtle shell,’ the article continues.

A short paragraph like that can have a major impact on a single artist as well as the country he or she represents. Getting people to talk about you is a huge deal in a big city like New York, a city that boasts more artists than there are even the lawyers which the Big Apple is so notorious for. There are more artists today than there ever were throughout the entire Renaissance period. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem, nurtured by enormous amounts of synthetic money created by our neoliberal system that perpetuates inequality and keeps making new highs on art auctions, as Olga puts it.

Kris Lemsalu, naturally, found a buyer for all her pieces. This June she’s listed for the Liste Art Fair in Basel, Switzerland, the trendy and intellectual version of the main fair ArtBasel, one of the biggest art events in Europe and ‘almost impossible to enter’. In Estonia, she was also selected to be one of only five artists to be on the ‘state payroll’ until 2018.

This may seem as if Estonia is showering money on its talent, while actually we are just mirroring what is happening on a bigger scale in Europe in general (with a slight reverse, Olga would claim). She recalls a recent conference voicing the concerns of the ever-growing number of artists who some of the European states have stopped funding on the scale they used to. The post-capitalist/apocalyptic situation in Europe is undoubtedly raising the right question: how do you make a living while also making something meaningful to make an impact on other people’s lives.

‘It’s a huge challenge to be an artist in the 21st century – everything has already been done and you have to be aware of that but be able to move past that point,’ Olga declares.

It’s not just the artists who have to be on top of things – first and foremost it’s the job of the gallery owner to constantly push the limits and challenge the artist. But once Olga has fixed her razor sharp gaze on an artist, she will take care of her almost as much as a lioness does with her cub.

‘The first time I met Olga must have been about 10 years ago, when I was in the process of completing my BA studies, at the Young Artist’s Prize ceremony at ArtDepoo,’ remembers sculptor Edith Karlson, now one of the artists represented by Temnikova & Kasela. Edith remembers being completely baffled because she had never seen a person in white gloves touching paintings as if they were something really precious.

‘You could tell she really considered them to be treasures. And this is what she does: make people appreciate art and look at the artefacts as treasures. Olga can do things I could never do. She will work towards her goal no matter what and she’s doing the job the artists cannot or wouldn’t choose to do – talking about money, setting the price etc. Thanks to her, many artists (in Estonia) can ask for a fairer rate of pay.’

This is obviously about so much more than just the money. It’s primarily about the connections, the networks, the knowhow: ‘If you want to help your artists on to the next level, you have to keep yourself updated,’ is Olga’s motto. That means reading a lot, and the texts tend to be rather ‘thick’ since modern art is intertwined with modern philosophy. In fact when not in a conversation with someone, Olga digs into her constant companion, an iPad.

Edith seconds that: ‘While I was an artist-in-residence in New York, she took me along to the Frieze Fair and I could see up close how she works. The moment she opens her eyes in the morning, she already has her iPad in her hands and she’s checking up on Who’s Who about the person she will have to talk to the following day. This is obviously not a job for those who are prone to a sense of false shame. She’s a true fan and a professional.’

Edith got to know the true mercurial character of Olga when they were officially introduced before the opening event of Temnikova & Kasela.

‘Olga approached me as she normally does: talking really fast about some cool performance she wanted me to do but I did not really grasp at all what she expected of me. Indrek and Olga are very similar in this respect – they both think and act extremely fast. Their energy levels are completely different from mine. I hardly ever understand what they want from me as my brain simply works on another level’.

Edith goes on: ‘The very same day that we had been officially introduced, she told me she needed to go shopping for jeans and asked me to come along. So I go to the store with her and she suddenly tells me: “Edith, I’ll buy a pair for you too!” I normally hate shopping for jeans and trying on new clothes but she made me go into the fitting room and try the jeans on and ended up buying identical jeans for me and herself. I was completely in awe as to why someone I hardly knew would buy me a pair of jeans, but she insisted: “Because you are helping me!”’

Her hard work has not been in vain, since there’s been a ‘shower of gold’ – as Kasela terms it – recently. At the end of last year, she was awarded the Order of Merit by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and the title of ‘Cultural Locomotive’ by Estonian daily Postimees for her work on promoting Estonian art. She also recently narrowly lost the title of ‘Cultural Sun’, awarded by National Public Broadcasting culture channel OP, to the current rector of the Academy of Arts, Mart Kalm.

‘Come on, he deserves this title much more than I do,’ Olga speaks in support of her former professor.

A journalist lost is a gallery-owner found

Olga studied graphic design at both BA and MA-levels at the Estonian Academy of Arts and sometimes feels the urge of returning to academia. Then she brings herself back down to earth by acknowledging that all that hard work would mostly be useful for the network she already has anyway.

Olga also started working towards a masters degree in painting but never completed it. Having already started a successful career as a painter and having had a few personal exhibitions, she had to admit her dad had been right.

Her father had wanted her to become a dentist but she did not do well enough at chemistry finals. Vladimir Temnikov, a former metrologist-engineer at the Soviet machine factory Dvigatel and a professional model ship maker, had raised her by himself from the age 11 and really wanted Olga to learn something practical. So obviously he was not too keen on the idea of his only daughter going to study painting at Estonian Academy of Arts either. Graphic design was obviously a nice compromise.

But that’s not all. Olga is full of surprises and announces that after graduating from high school she actually wanted to become a journalist because, as she says, she loves to interact with people.

I then share a story of my own: Professor Marju Lauristin notoriously told everyone she interviewed for Tartu University Media department that if a person likes to interact with people, they should go work in a store as a salesperson!

‘But that’s exactly what I am – a salesperson!’ Olga happily exclaims. On a more serious note, she explains: ‘I don’t have clients, I have customers. And it’s my job to help them make their choices among the multitude out there. I’m in this 24/7 but how does a collector make up his or her mind?’

Neeme Raud completely agrees with those people who always turn to Olga when they need a second opinion on art. ‘Thanks to her advice I myself have obtained a few photographs – as I’ve decided to only put up photographs on my walls.’

In that respect, Neeme is an exception to the rule. Olga points out that while internationally, art collectors tend to be men, in Estonia, it’s mostly the women who buy art. ‘Women have a more systematic approach,’ Olga observes. ‘And men will not buy art without discussing it with their spouses first,’ she says.

Being Estonians, we are obviously always concerned of how to ‘become more European’ and how to bring more of that international atmosphere here.

‘The greater part of the world will only partake in the Estonian art scene via pdf-s,’ Olga bluntly admits but adds that things are not too different in Paris or London since there is just too much going on and it’s not physically possible to be everywhere. It’s obviously easier to take our artists to big international fairs to an audience that’s already there rather than vice versa. But doing things the easy way is evidently not Olga’s cup of tea.

Asking Olga if there is anything big left for her to get done, she admits that she would love to play a part in organizing one of the big nomadic events like Manifesta, the European biennial of contemporary art, responding to the new social, cultural and political reality that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War. This would cost 3-4 million Euros and the hosting city would have to support it. This year’s event will be hosted by Zürich but for some reason, I’m sure, Olga will make it happen in Tallinn soon enough.

Source: Life in Estonia

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