Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zoom on cultural policy

Source: Athens News

Over the last couple of years, the culture ministry has taken some positivesteps, but problems persist

CHRISTY PAPADOPOULOU

AN EVALUATION of the culture ministry's post-Olympics cultural policy runs the gamut from ambitious planning and actual conquests to pending promises and public criticism.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis had originally assumed responsibility over the culture ministry in a supervisory role (a rather symbolic gesture in view of the Olympics) and then-deputy culture minister Petros Tatoulis displayed a rather subdued profile. But it is during current Culture Minister George Voulgarakis' one-and-a-half year tenure that the ministry appears to be at its most active.

Maybe the strongest point on Voulgarakis' agenda concerns the reclaiming of Greece's cultural heritage. The repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles - removed from the 5th century BC Parthenon temple in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin and displayed at the British Museum - remains, to a great extent, a deadlocked debate. However, the systematic targeting and recovering of fragments and antiquities from abroad has raised the Greek government's hopes over what has been a long - and for decades fruitless - campaign.

Antiquities return

The first step in this direction was in September 2006 when Germany's Heidelberg University Museum of Antiquities returned Greece a palm-sized marble fragment taken from a Parthenon frieze. (Fragments from the Parthenon are also kept in the Louvre and the Vatican, as well as smaller museums in Palermo, Vienna, Copenhagen, Munich and Wurzburg.)

The sculpture, which depicts in relief the foot of a chiton-clad leaf-bearer (thalloforos), ended up in Heidelberg's collection via a traveller who took the piece to Germany in 1871 as a souvenir. The sculpture's return was first requested in 2004 by Benaki Museum director Angelos Delivorrias, who is also the president of the Hellenic Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles.

Greece's repatriation crusade was further bolstered through the acquisition of another marble fragment that was taken from the Acropolis by a Swedish naval officer over a century ago and passed down to his great-niece in 1972. Decorated with oval and floral motifs, the sculpted piece, which once adorned the 5th century BC Erechteion temple - dedicated to goddess of wisdom Athena and sea god Poseidon - was given back to Greece in November 2006 following a public appeal by a Swedish lobby group for the return of the Acropolis sculptures.

One of the culture ministry's most successful achievements involves the restitution of four ancient artefacts that, until recently, were part of the collection of Los Angeles' J Paul Getty Museum. At the heart of a major cultural heritage dispute, the illegally excavated antiquities (first claimed back in 1995) were handed over to Greece in two instalments.

August 2006 saw the homecoming of a 2,400-year-old black limestone stele (grave marker) and a marble votive relief, dating from around 490BC - both currently on display at the National Archaeological Museum. The other two artefacts - a gold wreath dating from the 4th century BC and a 6th century BC marble statue of a young woman, or Kore - were returned last March.

At the inauguration of the National Archaeological Museum's state-of-the-art giftshop in August, Voulgarakis said that two more antiquities have been added to the lot. Nevertheless, he refrained from elaborating as his announcement, he said, could be misinterpreted in view of the September 16 elections.

Voulgarakis, however, committed a major blunder in January 2007. A mere 24 hours before a Christie's auction of heirlooms that once belonged to the Greek royal family was to occur, he threatened to take legal action against the auction house, unless it agreed to withdraw the royal items from the sale on the basis that they may have been illegally exported from Greece. Despite the culture ministry's warning, Christie's carried out the auction.

Four months later the culture ministry announced that the former king's palace will be turned into a museum, its precious contents - ranging from children's toys and delicate fabrics to ancient artefacts and rare paintings - restored and displayed in their original places.

The ambitious plan is for the Tatoi estate to be turned into a green haven for future visitors.

New Acropolis Museum

Though last year was unusually productive regarding reclaiming looted antiquities, it failed to see the inauguration of the long-delayed new Acropolis Museum, meant as a home for the Parthenon Marbles (for which an empty glass hall has been reserved), as well as art treasures that are presently crammed in the outdated display rooms atop the Acropolis hill.

Originally scheduled for completion before the 2004 Olympic Games, the opening of the 129 million euro, 20,000m2 glass-and-concrete building, which was designed by French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greek architect Michalis Fotiadis, was delayed due to legal issues and archaeological discoveries on the site.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the possible demolition of two listed buildings on Dionyssiou Areopagitou Street remains unresolved. The buildings reportedly block the view of the Parthenon, even though the initial construction guidelines stated that any design must respect the existing listed buildings.

The museum is expected to open its doors to the public in early 2008. The old Acropolis museum closed down in July to facilitate the exhibits' mammoth transfer operation, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2007.

National Museum of Contemporary Art

The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), another museum that has had its share of problems, sees the light at the end of the tunnel. A wandering Museum, the EMST has been holding its shows at the Megaron Mousikis and the Athens School of Fine Arts since 2003 when its base, the run-down FIX - a former brewery on Syngrou Avenue - closed for a much-needed facelift.

Objections initiated by a construction company regarding the tender have been overruled by both the Greek court and the relevant EU committee. Part of the Third Community Support framework, the work's 40 million euro budget (at risk of reaching the deadline) was saved, and the official contract for the work's commencement was signed on 26 June 2007.

Nonetheless, the museum's 2008 opening will once more be delayed. EMST director Anna Kafetsi has pointed out in the past that construction work should not exceed two years - a somewhat optimistic assessment for a 19,000m2 museum with a glass facade, two temporary exhibition halls, an open-air sculpture display, a restaurant, an art shop and a direct connection to the metro. The museum's progress will be reported on its newly-launched blogspot www.fixit-emst.blogspot, also a platform of discussion for architects, journalists and the wider public.

National Opera

The National Opera has its own troubled past. More than seven years ago, then-prime minister Costas Simitis committed in his election campaign to the construction of a new opera house - as well as the National Gallery's expansion - and yet Athens remains the only European capital, and the only one in the Balkans, without an opera house of its own.

Olympia Theatre, the small, rented opera house on Academias St, was originally meant to be a temporary solution, but it has been operating for five decades now. The opera is currently unable to cope with the building's restoration and space issues. Technicians and performers are deprived of basic comforts such as dressing rooms, and space limitations prevent the staging of certain works like Wagner's epic operas.

The much-anticipated solution to the opera's pending problems was provided by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which has offered to finance with 300m euros the construction of a new opera building, as well as a digital library at the old hippodrome in Delta Falirou. The two buildings will be incorporated into a park almost the size of the National Gardens and will provide a much-needed environmental and sports outlet for Athenians.

The time-consuming project raises hopes, but Voulgarakis has been criticised for having robbed the National Opera of its artistic director, Stefanos Lazaridis. Though he brought a breath of fresh air to the National Opera, the internationally recognised stage and costume designer (his opera productions of Wagner works at Covent Garden are legendary) who was trusted with the opera's artistic, financial and administrative matters, was dismissed just before the announcement of the coming season's programme on the basis that "he had difficulty handling people".

Grey areas

The culture ministry still has many other issues to address. No official announcement has been made regarding the much-anticipated expansion of the National Gallery. Two years after the roof of the Akrotiri, Santorini, archaeological site collapsed, causing the death of a Welsh tourist, the site remains closed to the public.

The 2006 antiquities' looting case of two island villas on Paros and Schoinoussa - whose owners are linked with the international art trade - still remains hazy, while a draft law aimed at battling antiquity smuggling failed to be submitted to parliament as a result of the announcement of early elections.

There has been no further notice regarding the much-publicised opening of the Academy of Arts in Nea Liossia, which was to operate on a trial basis from as early as this autumn, taking in drama, cinema and dance students.

Most recently, after wildfires ravaged Ancient Olympia, among other places, many reacted with anger at Voulgarakis' comments that "a few old trees have burned down" and that the archaeological site "would not have any problems". Later on, the ministry announced that the sacred Cronion Hill had been seriously damaged and that the roof of a German Archaeological School storeroom had caved in, damaging part of a marble statue and other antiquities.

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