Robert Zeidler (at right) and Marko Mäetamm, first artist to participate from Estonia.
Friday, 17 December 2021 19:00
Estonian Life No. 50 2021
1. For 12 years now the Estonian Foreign Ministry has awarded letters of appreciation “to citizen diplomats and NGOs for their significant contribution to advancing Estonian language, culture and business in the world… thus contributing to raising Estonia’s profile in their country of origin” on Citizen’s Day, November 26. Congratulations for being awarded this year “for supporting and promoting Estonian artists in Canada and for [your] cooperation with the Estonian community in Ontario”! To say it is well-deserved is a huge understatement. Robert, I happen to know you are not of Estonian descent. How did you come to be so involved in promoting Estonia here in Canada?
It started when I was shocked to hear then-candidate Trump suggest that he might not provide military assistance to the Baltics should Russia invade. Having served in Germany in the 80s and patrolled the Berlin Wall with the British Army, I was aware of how this could flare into a full-scale conflict. I felt that I could either complain about how awful this was or do something about it. I was in the middle of re-imagining the former Imperial Cotton complex in Hamilton into a creative arts complex, so the logical thing was to promote the culture of one of the Baltic counties to the general Canadian population. The question was: which nation?
When I lived in Berlin, I joined a German fraternity, Wingolf. At that time, they had restarted their Tartu University chapter that the Soviets had closed, korp! Arminia Dorpatensis. (http://www.arminia.ee/
) So I decided on Estonia. When I went to meet the Hamilton Estonian community at the Independence celebrations in February 2017, I heard the then-Estonian Ambassador, Gita Kalmet speak and was impressed by her description of Estonia, her people and culture. I decided then that I had chosen the right partner to work with.
2. Four artists from Estonia, Marko Mäetamm, Peeter Laurits, Kai Kaljo and very recently Britta Benno, have completed residencies at the Cotton Factory. Tor Lukasik-Foss and Tyler Tekatch from Hamilton have had a residency in Tallinn and Vanessa Crosbie Ramsay is there right now. How did the artist exchange come to be?
Originally my intention was to have the artist exchange take place in Paris, but when I decided to promote Estonian culture, I thought that this was the perfect vehicle for introducing Estonian culture to Canada. Not only would it provide an annual opportunity to meet new Estonian artists and introduce another Canadian artist to the Estonian arts scene, it has built a culture bridge between the two nations. There is an Estonian-Canadian community of artists who know each other and supported the exchange. With every year, the impact of the Estonian artist expands and this community grows organically.
3. The studio space for the artists from Estonia is at The Cotton Factory, which started life as the Imperial Cotton Company in 1900 and has been repurposed for small manufacturing and office space for creative professionals. How did this come about?
My sister, Margie Zeidler, was my inspiration for starting the Cotton Factory. First, she founded 401 Richmond in Toronto, which proved that her arts-centric building concept could work. Second, it was she who was originally offered the Cotton Factory, but instead encouraged me to buy it. Finally, she has been an amazing support along this very circuitous and bumpy path I have been taking over the past 6 years. I may have transformed the Cotton Factory, but I couldn’t have done it without her.
4. You have served in the army but, fascinatingly, are now managing partner of a huge former industrial complex which provides space for artists. Can you tell our readers a bit more about yourself.
I come from a very creative family. My father was an architect and my mother an arts consultant. My sisters Margie, Kate and Christina have run 401 Richmond, a successful interior design practice and the Gladstone Hotel respectively. So most of my life, the dining room conversations have resolved around the arts. After university, I chose another path and joined the British Army. So it is full circle to return to the cultural sector. One of the things that attracted me to the Estonians is how closely connected to the arts most families are, whether it is singing, playing an instrument, painting, sculpting or simply appreciating the arts. Estonians have a deep connection to their culture. It is part of what makes me feel at home with my Estonian friends.
5. You have hosted many events at The Cotton Factory which promote Estonian culture. The SALT dinner, EMW concerts (Kristjan Randalu, Puuluup) and We the Nordic spring to mind. You have also promoted Estonian films through sponsorships. Please elaborate.
Most Canadians know vaguely about Estonia, but don’t know its history nor could they locate it on the map. My goal is to introduce them to Estonia through its culture. The key is to find partners such as the Hamilton Arts Council, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, local music producers and others who have an audience that are looking for the best in the arts regardless of where it comes from. A good example was the Kristjan Randalu jazz concert that was to have happened just after the COVID pandemic started. Kristjan is a world-class pianist who would draw in the Hamilton and Toronto Estonian community. I had partnered him with three Canadian jazz greats who would draw their own audience. This would allow us to introduce the local ‘jazzers’ to Estonian culture and her artists. We are planning to do the same next year with Estonian Music Week and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Hamilton Estonian Society is also planning to add events that will appeal to all the Nordic nations, such as midsummer’s eve or Jõulu celebrations. To make it more inclusive, these are being branded ‘We The Nordic’. By using Estonian culture as the bedrock of these events, but reaching out to the greater community, we are increasing the general population’s knowledge of Estonia and its culture. As an example, almost half the people who attended the SALT dinner were not of Estonian heritage.
6. What are your future plans/goals for promoting Estonian culture?
I am working with Leila Hess from the Hamilton Estonian Society to create a student exchange. The Toronto School Board isn’t allowing exchanges this year, so we are going to have a summer exchange that will involve the children from Estonia experiencing Seedrioru and Jõekääru, as well as time with their host families. Hopefully the year after the Toronto School Board will allow us to start the 9-week school year exchange. The goal of this is to improve the Canadian children’s fluency in Estonian while building personal connections in Estonia that spread beyond family. Once this starts, I will be offering a student artist exchange through the Hamilton Arts Council. I hope to use this to attract children from outside the Estonian community.
I don’t know what will come after that. I have a lot of ideas. One is to scale up the projects so that they are province-wide or national. The other is tying Estonia into existing Canadian programs, such as taking the very successful St John Ambulance therapy dog program to Estonia. I don’t know where we will go, but I know that it will be interesting.
Finally, this may sound as though I am doing a lot, but all of these projects are team efforts. I couldn’t have done it without so many friends in the Esto community both here and in Estonia. There were organisations such Eesti Kunstnike Liit and the Hamilton Estonian Society, but more importantly it was the people who introduced me to others, gave advice or pitched in to turn my ideas into reality. Without them, I doubt that much would have been accomplished.