Based in Talinn, Temnikova & Kasela is the only real commercial art gallery in Estonia. As in the whole country. How is that possible? “It’s some kind of post-Soviet weirdness,” explains the Russian-born dealer Olga Temnikova. Because the government provides some funding for artists to make ends meet without relying on sales, other so-called galleries in Estonia essentially function as showrooms or auction floors, charging artists rent for the duration of an exhibition and not getting involved with any sort of representation. Given that several of the country’s artists had still managed to make international careers, winning spots in illustrious foreign collections, Temnikova, who had experience working in the traditional gallery sphere, saw an obvious opportunity.
To launch the gallery in 2010, she found a perfect partner in crime: Indrek Kasela, an Estonian culture-industry maverick and patron—he founded the private Sõprus cinema—with roots in the finance industry. (For a time he was managing director of the Tallinn Stock Exchange.) “Crazy entrepreneur” is Temnikova’s shorthand for her partner, saying, “He’s a magnet—he has his own energy, and people just come up to him with ideas.”
Together, as a Russian and an Estonian, the two embody the “continual drama going on” in the region, she adds. During the Soviet era, Estonia was the westernmost precinct of the U.S.S.R., and as a result was a hotbed for nonconformist art and the interchange of ideas that could slip in and out at the edges of the Iron Curtain. (The first semiotics department in the Soviet Union was opened in Estonia, for instance.) As a result of that history, Estonia has become “somehow a very good region” for the arts, says Temnikova, who describes the cultural vibe as “Scandinavian good taste plus the Moscow Conceptualists.”
Today, Temnikova & Kasela is dedicated not only to representing talented emerging artists in Estonia—like the painter Inga Meldere and the sculptor Kris Lemsalu, both of whom were on offer at the gallery’s LISTE booth this year—but also to putting the region in conversation with the international art scene. “It’s not enough to go out there and say Estonia is great,” Temnikova says. “Eastern European and Western art codes are still very different, and it's important to put them in dialogue so you can understand what's going on.” To that end, the gallery works with several artists who live abroad (some in nearby Helsinki) and is in the process of bringing on two new names from Russia.
In the end, however, Temnikova & Kasela is very much devoted to nurturing and growing the local Estonian art community—something they continue to receive “creative industry” funding from the government to do, with the hope of generating positive news for the tiny country’s culture. “We are this classical 20th-century small gallery, in that we are all friends and we want to do the best we can and do it together,” Temnikova says. “It’s a very natural way to do a program, and I think it's the only way to survive the cynicism of the 21st century.”
The Estonian cultural scene has certainly embraced their efforts—the two founders have become bona fide celebrities within the country. And now they are being recognized internationally, too: last Wednesday, the Federation of European Art Galleries Association awarded Temnikova & Kasela this year’s innovation and creativity award, a prize that was instituted by the legendary late Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler, and which was bestowed by Art Basel director Marc Spiegler.
So, with such success, is the gallery ever tempted to venture abroad? Not really. “I really love being in Estonia,” says Temnikova. “It’s a great context to work with, so I don’t have a choice.”