Few people in Georgia doubt that country’s Fine Arts Museum needs urgent renovation. But there are increasing concerns among civil society that it could be demolished entirely.
The Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Art in Tbilisi is home to more than 90 per cent of Georgia’s material cultural heritage.
For how much longer is increasingly unclear.
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The museum’s collection centres on around 40,000 pieces, from medieval icons to avant-garde paintings, which were saved by Georgian historian Ekvtime Takaishvili, who during the Red Army’s occupation of Georgia in 1921 took the precious works of art to France.
This treasury, filling 39 immense boxes, was shipped to Marseille and placed in a bank depository, and later moved to Paris. It was not returned to Georgia until after the end of World War II.
The museum building, which dates from 1835, is one of the oldest neoclassical constructions in Tbilisi, and previously functioned as a hotel and even hosted a theological academy, where Joseph Stalin himself was enrolled to become a priest.
However, the almost 200-year-old building now requires restoration as parts of it are severely damaged.
For several years curators have been working on a plan to store the collections prior to renovations commencing.
But since July the fate of the entire building has been placed in question.
Repairs or demolition?
On July 4, a newly established Ministry of Culture, Sport and Youth announced that since March it had been “taking care” of the museum and had conducted an initial expert study to evaluate the state of the museum and its collections.
The expert study, which was conducted by a company named Caryatid, stated that the exhibitions had to be moved as the building required immediate rehabilitation.
While the ministry did not include any plans for the restoration of the building in its announcement, it nevertheless started to empty the museum.
This appeared to confirm some fears that the state had no willingness to save the building, viewing its restoration as not technologically viable and nowhere near financially “profitable”.
Prior to that, rumours circulated in the media that the newly appointed manager of the museum, Nikoloz Akhalbedashvili, had announced an emergency assembly of staff who were told that the collections had to be relocated as the current building could not be repaired.
In the meantime, the newly established ministry demoted the museum’s director, Eka Kiknadze, who for years had been working on the evacuation plan with her team of experts.
Her team has been pushed out of the relocation process, now led by a lawyer, journalist and an art critic.
The ambiguous announcements of the ministry and the museum’s new management created new public fears about the fate of the museum building and led to public outrage.
Civil activists, cultural experts and even museum employees made a human chain to “physically protect the museum” and demand the restoration of the building and the return of the museum’s collection as soon as work was complete.
According to Sophia Kilasonia, a researcher of cultural politics, the ministry’s announcement indirectly hinted at the possibility of demolishing the historic building.
“Twenty years have passed since discussions about the museum’s reconstruction were initiated. Several international companies were working on a rehabilitation project, and it was not news that the museum needed to be reconstructed. It merely required financial support and the intellectual resources to evacuate the exhibits”, she says.
The politicisation of culture
Some civil society representatives believe that the building could be of interest to Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and former chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
In recent years, Ivanishvili financed the construction of the multifunctional Panorama Tbilisi project in the heart of the city. The modern glass building is located right next to the art museum, and for many, contrasts unsympathetically with the architecture of the old town.
“Panorama Tbilisi lacks sufficient space for infrastructural development,” says Kilasonia. “This project was approved by the ministry and Tbilisi City Council through a breach in the law and regulations on protected areas of the city. They rewrote the regulations and adjusted them to Ivanishvili’s project. That is why Georgian society is concerned that the government could sacrifice [the art museum] to the project,” she tells Emerging Europe.
Amid the protests, the ministry issued a new statement, which completely contradicted its previous comments.
It pledged to renovate the building in its entirety and underlined that it would remain under the ownership of the museum.
Despite this positive turn, the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church asked the ministry to relocate the Ancha Icon of the Saviour, known in Georgia as Anchiskhati, to the city’s cathedral.
Experts fear that the religious artefact will be damaged in the cathedral, which does not have the necessary conditions to display or store an icon dated to the 6th century.
With local elections due in October, however, some believe that despite this, the government might be happy to let the Patriarchate relocate the icon in order to placate religious voters.
“We should expect a traditional pre-election deal between the government and church,” says Kilasonia. “The ministry [of culture] – rather than upholding democratic cultural values – speaks a populistic language and with quasi-nationalistic narratives tries to appease the parish to obtain votes.”
Appeasing the Patriarchate could be beneficial for the ruling party as the Georgian Orthodox Church enjoys immense support in Georgian society. The institution remains one of the country’s key opinion-formers.
Minister of Culture, Sport and Youth Thea Tsulukiani has made the museum’s fate additionally political by accusing the previous government of allowing the museum to “deteriorate” and labelling civil society protests “opposition provocations”.
She has also questioned the professionalism of the museum’s protesting employees.
This is not the first time that Tsulukiani has allegedly tried to make Georgia’s cultural scene political.
In July, Tsulukiani appointed Ioseb Tchumburidze, a publicist known for his anti-western attitudes, as a member of the jury for a prestigious writing competition, Litera.
Other jury members and participants deemed the government’s appointment of its “representative” as a tool to gain control over an independent cultural project and boycotted the contest.
“These developments are alarming as they demonstrate that the ruling party is trying to politicise the cultural sphere and utilise it to propagate its political ideology in society,” concludes Kilasonia.
Photo: The museum building circa 1900. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).
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