Networking between Nordic and Baltic

Four women sitting in a seminar audicene, one of them speaking in a microphone.

While Estonia is considered to be one of the three Baltic countries, it was our former president Toomas-Hendrik Ilves who said out loud for the first time that we have more of a face of the Nordic region. And while many were offended because of that back then – should we abandon our shared fate and history with Latvia and Lithuania now? –, for today it is clear that those boundaries are blurred more and more. One way or another, to talk about the Nordic-Baltic region as a whole seems quite natural.

The Nordic-Baltic Network Meeting this time took place in Estonia. The meeting was arranged as a part of the Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme for Culture and the aim of the meeting was to bring together granted long-term networks in order to share experiences and knowledge and to develop best practices together. This year’s topics were sustainability and regional dynamics, Nordic-Baltic, urban-rural.

To apply for funding, all countries within the Nordic-Baltic region can apply with any combination of three participating countries. Then the evaluation phase begins – the main criteria is equal partnership, genuine collaboration within the project, no matter which countries they represent. Moderator Daniel Urey introduces the aim of the day: „We have seen many good networks, but we do not often see a Baltic country as a leading partner in a Nordic-Baltic network. Why is this important? Because we also want Baltic countries to visualize common futures for whole region.”

Networks par excellence

At first, twelve representatives from granted projects that have recently been funded introduce themselves and become the examples of the relevant networks. Amongst them are networks related to the fields of circus, film, visual arts, dance, museums, architecture, music, theatre, textile, higher education and research. All of them involve Nordic or Baltic countries, equally and practically. 

Ambitions of those networks overlay largely: to extend the circle of collaborators and contacts, build a strong community and provide opportunities for the field, innovate the quality and competencies of it, deepen the knowledge of partnering countries, share and develop new perspectives, promote research work, create dialogues and address complex issues, increase both national and international engagement, help new artists and emerging talents to get funding and experience, inspire younger generation, but also to give more opportunities to female authors. Many of the networks outlined how they strive for relationships that actually last in the future, not only during the funding period.

Beautiful ideas need practical steps. Activities of the networks are, once again, quite similar: summer camps and -schools, mentoring programs and sessions, kick-off and wrap-up days, masterclasses and workshops, online discussions and digital assemblies, meetings and seminars, residencies and mobility stipendiums, catalogues and exhibitions, events and festivals, research tripping and job shadowing. During the isolation years the networkers, like all of us, have found new ways to use all the online-tools for meeting and brainstorming, but for now many of them admit that seeing each other face-to-face and being in real physical contact is so much more refreshing!

Sustainable networks

Physical contacts include travelling that is also a necessary activity for the networks, but at the same time maybe not so necessary for the environment – a paradox that became clear during the discussion round later on. One of the keywords of the meeting was sustainability in the cultural sector and some of the networks pointed out how they have kept their eyes on that. For example: sets standards for making productions and theatre buildings sustainable, green museum certificate follows the model for sustainable exhibition. Exploring the nexus between urban culture, urban form and urban leadership was also mentioned and this leads us to another keyword of the day, or I would say to the next big question in the agenda: is non-urban culture life possible at all?

Miina Kaartinen from Mustarinda Association, Finland is invited as a guest speaker to talk about artistic sustainability in a place that is pretty much cut out of everything. The place for Mustarinda was chosen using Google Maps, to find an area where there would still be enough primeval or old-growth forest left. It is located in an old school building from the 50’s and maintaining it is part of cultural sustainability. Its energy system is based on wind power and solar panels, compost and geothermal heating; its own garden and extensive library are also part of the concept. „Usually people think that progress is good and everything new is better than old, but in ecological perspective we have to think about it as a cycle and see what we can learn from older generations,“ Kaartinen explains.

Mustarinda’s goal is to promote the ecological rebuilding of society, the diversity of culture and nature, and the connection between art and science. Residency is a key way of working for them and it is meant not only for artists, but people from different fields which they believe is needed for sustainable living. „We all live in a society that needs to be changed, both from the technological and cultural side. Arts and culture are in the center of ecological transformation. Art is a sphere of human life where we can go to unknown places.“ Mustarinda was founded in 2010 when no one was speaking about sustainability in art education and back then it sounded weird. It has changed a lot since then, which is good but still not enough, as Kaartinen reflects. When it comes to travelling, Kaartinen always makes plans and tries to connect her trips to other things.

Marketing the networks

During the day all the participants were welcomed to discuss. „Seeing the networks actually functioning is great after you have felt quite lonely with your mission and asked yourself why are you doing this at all,“ shared one of the participants. „We still see ourselves as smaller partners, we still need to position ourselves as equals,“ admits the other.  Many subquestions arise. How to „sell“ your idea and why should someone „buy“ it? Why is it easier to export the Nordic-Baltic „brands“ to other countries out of the region rather than inside of it? How much reason do we have to move back and forth between two countries? If people are not interacting, then who is interacting?

What I – as a current journalist and former marketer – noticed is that only few of the participants mentioned broader audiences as a keyword in their network presentations. So, my own question would be – what actually happens after the Baltic networkers have sold their ideas to Nordic ones and vice versa? As the organizers say, the granted networks actually contribute a great deal to the art and culture fields in general and in the long-term, by capacity building and sharing of competencies as examples.

Final thoughts

Baltic countries have a long history of belonging to the Soviet Union where most of the areas, including cultural activities, were funded by the state – and directed by the state at the same time. Since the independence of the Baltic countries we have got back our artistic freedom of expression, and together with that the duty to take care of the financing of this freedom. The financial side does not come by default. Of course, our ministries of culture have means to keep running the state and local institutions, culture foundations and enterprise centers help to finance the projects based on private initiative, sponsors from the business sector are wisely involved, donating campaigns are organized etc etc. But still, one needs to write down a proper project and fill in different applications.

The Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme is no different in that sense. What is different, or at least essential, is that it urges the applicants to look for the options to cooperate between the Nordic-Baltic countries as well to create and keep a functioning network. So, the core purpose of the programme is that all the collaborations funded by this means are really not so much as projects but rather networks based on shared knowledge, experiences – and audiences. 

Triinu Soikmets
is a freelance journalist based in Tallinn, Estonia