Uncertainty surrounds a controversial renovation plan for Georgia’s main art museum as political upheaval grips the South Caucasus country. According to former and current staff at the Shalva Amiranashvili Fine Arts Museum in Tbilisi, its collection of 139,000 ancient and modern works could be threatened by a move proposed by Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani. Meanwhile, advocates of architecture have raised concerns over the rumored demolition of the 1838 museum’s classical-style building, a former seminary in which Joseph Stalin once studied.
The turmoil in the museum coincided with the return in cloak and dagger to Georgia of exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili ahead of the October 2 municipal elections. He was arrested and has been on a hunger strike for over a month, leading to his transfer this week to a prison hospital, as thousands gathered in Tbilisi to demand his release and treatment medical in a civilian clinic. Mass protests followed the election, when the ruling Georgian Dream party swept municipal elections in Tbilisi and other major cities amid widespread allegations of vote-buying. Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Tsulukiani is an ally of Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Kremlin-linked billionaire who bought Picasso Dora Maar with cat for $ 95.2 million in 2006 and was Prime Minister of Georgia in 2012-13. She became Minister of Culture in March, having served as Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2020. Shortly after her appointment, Tsulukiani announced the renovation of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum as “a major generational undertaking” that will require “an effort” very important human and financial ”. In July, she said urgent action needed to be taken as Unesco experts determined that the valuable icons in the museum’s collection were badly damaged and needed to be moved.
Meanwhile, opposition politicians and opposition-affiliated media have linked Tsulukiani’s redesign of the museum building to the real estate interests of Ivanishvili, the main investor behind the $ 500 million Panorama urban development project. Tbilisi, which includes a newly built hotel next to the museum.
Eka Kiknadze, the former director of the museum, tells The arts journal that she was abruptly demoted to the rank of lab assistant in a reshuffle after asking for details of Tsulukiani’s plans. New director Nika Akhalbedashvili, a former Justice Ministry official appointed by Tsulukiani, told staff in July that the collection is expected to be moved within months. Museum workers and curators protested the plan was reckless, fearing the collection would never return to the building. According to Kiknadze, a long-term strategy to move the museum’s collection to climate-regulated temporary storage in adjacent buildings has been ignored.
The collection includes “the main artefacts of Georgian culture, from medieval icons to modern Georgian art,” Kiknadze says, with the most valuable medieval works known as the Treasury. These were “supposed to be temporarily [relocated] while the historic building was being rehabilitated “as part of a” multi-stage “plan developed by specialists from the National Museum of Georgia, an umbrella organization that oversees a dozen institutions including the National Museum of Fine Arts Shalva Amiranashvili. This would have provided an appropriate space of 3,500 m² “equipped to all modern standards to store museum collections in terms of climate and humidity, with the most modern microclimate, fire and physical security systems”, explains Kiknadze. .
The abandoned strategy, still visible on the website of the National Museum, was established after the organization partnered with the German Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage in 2010-12 as part of a cultural “twinning” program funded by the European Union. He was referring to a design concept for the renovation of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum by French architect Jean-François Milou, who also proposed a master plan for an “avenue of the arts” to unify various buildings of the Georgian National Museum.
The current situation “is quite alarming and very shocking because many years of work have gone down the drain,” says George Partskhaladze, research board member of the Georgian National Museum who worked on the twinning project and the restoration strategy. .
Irina Koshoridze, chief curator of oriental collections, confirmed to The arts journal that “the transfer of the collections has not yet started” at the Shalva Amiranashvili museum but she warns that “no temperature and climate conditions” are in place if the objects are moved. In contrast, a decade ago the 5,000 works in the Oriental collection were carefully moved to the nearby Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia, including 25 early Persian paintings which Koshoridze described as his “most important and most important works.” best known in the world ”.
Supporters of the museum recently sounded the alarm on the fate of another precious object, the medieval icon Ancha of the Savior, which dates from the 6th or 7th century. In August, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, asked Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to hand over the icon to the Anchiskhati Church from which it is named, for use in religious services.
“The historic building of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bidzina Ivanishvili, the treasures of the museum in the Patriarchate, this is the goal for which Tsulukiani, who is capable of anything, has been appointed Minister of Culture”, commented Roman Gotsiridze , a united national movement. opposition MP, according to local information.
Neither the Georgian Ministry of Culture nor the National Museum responded to The arts journalrequests for comments. A ministry statement posted on Facebook this summer denounced the poor condition of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum, which it said “does not meet basic standards of earthquake resistance.” The statement refuted claims that the building could be demolished, adding, however, “the ministry intends to save the unique pieces kept in the museum”. Tsulukiani also claimed that works had disappeared under the museum’s previous management.
At the end of September, Akhalbedashvili, the new director of the museum, accused the local media of spreading lies and declared: “the building of the art museum will be definitively restored to where it is now”.