Mayor Urmas Klaas has some recommendations for visitors to Tartu European Capital of Culture this year, Source: City of Tartu

Urmas Klaas: Arts can and must give people the ability and courage to dream of a future

Urmas Klaas: Arts can and must give people the ability and courage to dream of a future

Catch up with some recommendations for the 2024 European Capital of Culture programme from the mayor of Tartu

Tartu is Estonia’s second-largest city and also one of the two European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) in 2024. We caught up with Urmas Klaas, the mayor of the southern Estonian city, to talk about the way this honour is expected to affect Tartu and the message that the people of Tartu want to communicate to the world.

Mr. Mayor, Tartu is officially one of the European Capitals of Culture this year. What is the message that the city wants to deliver to Europeans?

We are organising the Capital of Culture at a very difficult time. We are only just recovering from the coronavirus crisis, the climate crisis is upon us, and there is war in Europe. As the theme of the Tartu Capital of Culture also states, what we are talking about here are the arts of survival in the literal sense.

Our message as the European Capital of Culture is that the arts still can and must give people the ability and courage to dream of a future in this difficult time, and to change themselves and the world through their choices. It is important to understand the role of small communities and ensure their viability. 

The world around us is constantly changing. One must adapt to these changes and, if possible, guide them, because this is how we can most successfully preserve diversity, heritage, idiosyncrasies and ultimately ourselves. The impact that Tartu 2024 wants to have on its city and region is long-term. This is not a one-year festival, but a strong push for change in the attitudes and actions of people, communities and the region.

‘Arts of Survival’ is the theme of the programme. How should we understand it? Is there a hint of pessimism perhaps related to the current geopolitical situation?

The theme of ‘Arts of Survival’ was born well before COVID-19 and the war in Europe and referred to the concerns of a small European town — poor accessibility, shrinking population, exodus of young people. We tended to stay on the sidelines, sticking to our own safe routine. But the intervening years have brought great crises and jolted us awake.

We have rethought the theme of the Capital of Culture in many ways because of the crises that have changed the world. This catchphrase thus now refers to the knowledge, skills and values that will help us live and cope better in the future. Such arts are very important when it comes to restoring mental balance, hope, foresight and the courage to act.

All areas of culture speak about the arts of survival in our programme: traditional and food culture, music, film, visual arts, theatre, etc. The well-known Estonian writer Valdur Mikita said that the theme of the ‘Arts of Survival’ very well summarises one of the most important keywords of our time – ‘resilience’, which marks the way people cope and adapt. I find that this is by no means a pessimistic view of the future, but rather an optimistic one.

What kind of link do you see between culture and environmentalism? Is that part of the Estonian psyche?

Environmental issues are indeed very important to Estonians. Our Capital of Culture programme ties these two themes together very well. The Tartu 2024 programme asks questions and seeks answers on how to live well in the future as a person, as a society, and as an environment – both in the city and in the countryside. We attach great importance to a sustainable cultural organisation, that is, our events and activities are organised in an environmentally friendly and accessible way for people with different needs.

One of the four pillars of our programme is ‘Life and the Environment’, which helps us understand and teach how to be more sustainable, not only as creators or experiencers of the arts but also in everyday life – whether by growing our own food, giving new life to things by repairing them or choosing sustainable ways of getting around.

Tartu has declared a mission to represent all of Southern Estonia with this accolade. What makes Southern Estonia as a region special – culturally speaking?

Indeed, we are organising the European Capital of Culture together with 19 local governments in Southern Estonia, and half of our events are taking place in unique locations outside of the city. Tartu has always been the spiritual centre of Southern Estonia, but never before have we collaborated so closely. On the scale of Estonia, this is an unprecedented example of cooperation.

Southern Estonia is a well-kept secret in Europe. Here you can enjoy a smoke sauna, walk along winding village roads to museums and farms, taste local organic food, or visit the birthplace of the Estonian national flag. Our programme includes boat trips on rivers, fishing on lakes, and great discovery trips in quaint little settlements. This is a very special region, one that is definitely worth a visit.

Are there any events from the programme that you would personally like to recommend to foreign visitors? 

The Tartu Capital of Culture programme has over a thousand events planned throughout the year, so we hope everyone will find something to enjoy. I myself would definitely recommend the concert performance ‘Kissing Tartu’, which will be held on 18 May and will bring together well-known artists from Estonia and abroad. In addition, an unprecedented joint kiss will take place on the Town Hall Square.

In 2024, we are celebrating 155 years since the first Song Festival, which took place in Tartu. Therefore, I invite everyone to attend this summer’s Song and Dance Celebration, the main concert of which will take place on 22 June, at the Tartu Song Festival Grounds.

Tartu is also known as the capital of street art. On 4–7 July, the Stencibility Street Art Festival will be taking place, where dozens of street artists from Estonia and abroad will create new works across the city during the festival. Tartu is also home to Europe’s largest sticker exhibition on wheels (or sticker bus) with 25,000 stickers from artists around the world.

So, there is a lot to discover in Tartu this year.

Find out more about the Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture programme here



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