The University of Tartu has over 18,000 students and is one of the oldest universities in Northern and Eastern Europe. Founded in 1632, it is the national University of Estonia with departments in Arts, Estonian and Comparative Folklore, Ethnology and Literature, and Theatre Studies. The University of Tartu Press also publishes journals in various disciplines, furthering the reach of the written word both in academic and public circles.
The city of Tartu is the second is the largest city of Estonia, with a population of 97,000. It is is widely considered the country’s intellectual capital city – vitally significant in developing the educational system, culture, science and literature in the Estonian language. Throughout the centuries, the versatile artistic and academic communities of Tartu have intellectually benefited from the country’s geopolitical position between the Nordic and Southern Baltic countries on one hand and between Russia and the West on the other.
In 2016 the City Writer scholarship was approved by the city council. The scholarship is funded by the city in cooperation with Tartu Cultural Endowment and it will be given to a local writer for one year. The scholarship and the title are not accompanied by specific obligations but in practice the City Writer usually participates in the major public events related to the literary scene as well as the city in general and cooperates closely with the City of Literature office.
Tartu’s literary organisations work to bring the question of literature to the city, by encouraging active involvement and discourse. Since opening in 1927, the Tartu branch of Estonian Writers Union is a professional association made up of writers and literary critics, of approximately 80 members, with a broader membership of 302 members in the whole organisation. Other literary organisations include The Estonian Literary Society, which, founded in 1907, serves as Estonia’s oldest literary association. The society, associated with the Estonian Academy of Sciences, supports literary research, organises various literary events and projects and since 2015 also fulfills the role of Tartu City of Literature Office. Tartu is also home to the Estonian Literary Museum, a national research institute administrated by the Ministry of Education and Research. The museum carries out work and research in the fields of folklore, religion, literature, art and culture, cultural history, life writing, ethnomusicology and bibliography, housing a number of archives within the very impressive building.
Tartu University Library is Estonia’s oldest and biggest scientific library that was established in 1802, holding 3.7 million books and attracting 2000 visitors every day. As well as its broad collection of books, the library also hosts exhibitions and conferences, being an important centre for historical and cultural research and discussion. Tartu public library serves daily nearly 2500 visitors and also functions as a social and cultural centre offering an extensive programme of public events as well as compiling the large and growing web archive “Tartu in Fiction”, comprising literary references to Tartu across the decades.
In 2015 Estonian Literary Society launched the Bus Poetry project—poetry stickers in Tartu city buses. Bus Poetry is a long-term project with the selection of texts changing every year. The second selection, prepared during summer and autumn of 2016 and displayed in the buses during 2017 introduced works by authors from 12 UNESCO Cities of Literature: Baghdad, Barcelona, Dublin, Dunedin, Heidelberg, Kraków, Ljubljana, Lviv, Melbourne, Prague, Reykjavík, and Ulyanovsk.
Each city was asked to to propose a poem (maximum 20 lines) by a writer related to their city and arrange a license agreement with the author. The translations into Estonian were made by Estonian translators (all translations from the original language). Translations, design and printing of the poetry stickers was funded by the City of Tartu and the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.
Tartu International Literary Festival Prima Vista is the largest international literary event in Estonia. Initiated in 2004 as a joint venture of literary organisations in Tartu, the festival has expanded yearly, presenting the leading authors from Estonia and abroad, and currently attracting the audience of about 10,000 people of all walks of life and age groups. The festival features readings, presentations, lectures, workshops, and family events, aiming to bring together writers and readers and introduce various forms of literature from different cultures. Above all Prima Vista is dedicated to literature, to the written as well as the spoken word, but the festival programme also includes concerts and film nights, exhibitions and other forms of art which have connections with literature.
The interdisciplinary festival Hullunud Tartu ("Crazy Tartu" in English) is organised by the Estonian Literary Society and the Estonian Writers’ Union, and brings together writers, poets, musicians and artists from all over Estonia and abroad. The festival, born from the initiative of the poet Jaan ‘Luulur’ Malin in 2010, offers a two-day intensive programme where the shows vary from simple readings to full performances. One of the aims of the festival is to offer the audience as many unseen or unheard things as possible and every year some musical pieces and works of art are presented for the first time. This is also one of the reasons the festival has a different venue every year: it has taken place at the former psycho-neurological hospital, in the old anatomical theatre, at the former church of the University of Tartu etc.
Tartu Festival of Children’s and Youth Literature launched in 2017 as one of the strategic activities of Tartu City of Literature to promote books and reading among children and youth and enhance the inclusion and active participation of children and youth in the literary scene.
Launched in 2017, the Tartu City of Literature International Residency Program is open to all writers and translators (translating from Estonian to other languages) from across the world, who meet the criteria. Since 2018 the program is organised twice - in spring and in autumn. The calls are announced respectively in February and July. The program offers a 2-month stay at the house of the former Karl Ristikivi Museum, a scholarship of 600 euros per month, compensation of travel costs to and from Tartu up to 350 euros, an opportunity to visit places and perform at venues in other cities and a contact person who is responsible for making arrangements for performances, meetings and tours and helps to make engage in the local literary scene. In spring the resident is invited to participate and perform at Tartu International Literary Festival Prima Vista; in autumn the central partner festival of the program is the Interdisciplinary Festival Crazy Tartu.