A Tale Of Two Museums: Why Greece’s Newest Art Museum Sits Empty
A visitor-less art museum in Athens is symptomatic of Greece's modern-day malaise
Even on a cold day in Athens, the New Acropolis Museum at the base of the ancient citadel is abuzz. A guide is animatedly telling the stories behind the friezes of gods, giants and centaurs to groups of Greek and Italian schoolchildren; another explaining to German and Chinese tourists that the bleached-white marble statues were once painted deep red, green, gold and blue.
The top floor offers a view across modern-day Athens: the 2,400-year-old Parthenon temple surrounded by cranes on one side and the rooftops of apartment buildings. Nestled among them, just minutes away from the cafes and restaurants that have sprung up around the museum, is a poor cousin: the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
No one is clicking through the turnstiles at this museum, a renovated former brewery built in 1957, because it has never opened. The entrance is surrounded by corrugated fencing. A sign warns pedestrians to take care. Spanning an entire city block, the imposing seven-story building sits amid the city’s busiest avenues, next to a bustling Metro stop, silent among the activity of the city.
Galleries and cafes sprout up hopefully around the museum, waiting for a repeat of the business the other museum has brought Athenians suffering from six years of austerity, tax hikes and unemployment. But bickering, red tape and a lack of funds is making the new modern art museum a testament to the troubles that still bedevil the modern Greek state. The mute museum is even more of a symbol now, as the Greek capital prepares to host one of the world’s most prestigious modern art exhibitions.
“It’s the usual Greek tragedy,” says Yiannis Livas, 48, who has watched the museum take shape from the doorway of his stationery store for the past eight years. “They don’t have the money for staff, they don’t have the money for guards. In the meantime, we wait.”
Greek and European Union taxpayers have paid 34 million euros for this retooled museum but while an 11-year renovation ended in Feb. 2014 a combination of Greece’s financial troubles and red tape have kept it from opening. In April 2014, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, one of the world’s biggest philanthropic organizations, provided a cash-strapped Greek state with a 3-million euro grant for staffing and final work. In November last year, the grant was withdrawn for technical reasons, leaving the museum in limbo.
Now, attention is turning back to the silent museum. Next year, Athens will co-host one of the biggest international modern art exhibitions, Documenta. Aware of the irony that the capital still doesn’t have a functioning contemporary art museum, Culture Minister Aristides Baltas said in February he was confident the foundation would re-award the funds and that the museum will open this year.
Delays in completing projects aren’t unusual in Greece but the six-year financial crisis and budget cuts required to keep Greece in the euro has magnified the problems. The culture ministry budget has been cut by about half since 2010.
“The fact that it hasn’t opened just illustrates the dozens of problems facing culture in Greece. Culture is the area that this crisis and the cutbacks has affected the most,” said Elena Mavromichali, a consultant on cultural policy and art historian. “But culture is a significant lever for economic development. When a museum works properly it puts an entire area to work. The Acropolis museum has helped illustrate that.”
A total of 1.5 million people visited the Acropolis Museum last year, a 10 percent increase from a year earlier. Close to the city center and next to a Metro stop, it has become the biggest draw among its peers in Greece, with adjacent pedestrianized roads luring tourists and locals alike to new restaurants and bars. The much bigger National Archaeological Museum, which lacks a convenient train stop, was a distant second, with just 476,000 visitors.
The knock-on effect of the museum’s success is apparent in the adjacent Athens neighbourhood of Koukaki, called one of the top 16 trendiest neighborhoods in the world in January by Air BnB as Greeks farmed out their apartments to visitors as record numbers of tourists visited the country.
Olga Manetta, 45, an actress and furniture maker, chose to open her light, airy restaurant-café-bar Kinono in Koukaki, a street behind the new museum. Her minimalist establishment, housed in a former supermarket, has a huge basement she plans to use for live performances and her mezzanine floor is to be used for exhibitions. Documenta, the festival next year, “is a great reason to open the museum,” she says.
“I chose this location because of the museum,” she said. “But with the political situation in Greece I just don’t see how or when it will open. The state doesn’t have the money. They are ready but they can’t staff it. They said January—it didn’t happen.”
The story of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, or EMST, isn’t dissimilar to that of its more successful cousin. It took 33 years to complete the Acropolis Museum after a site was chosen in 1976 as the project wound through court challenges by residents, the discovery of archaeological ruins and political disputes.
It opened in June 2009, just months before a new government revealed the deficit was four times larger than it should be, sparking a crisis that shaved a quarter off national output, put one million Greeks out of work and called into question the survival of the euro.
Greece’s economy is still sputtering and the leash on budget spending as tight as before. European funds have helped plug the hole in funding for the arts as have benefactors like the Niarchos Foundation, named for the late Greek shipowner. Corporate sponsorships that helped tighter culture budgets in France, Italy and Spain are still unpopular in Greece.
And one problem may be that contemporary art lacks the national heft that spurred the completion of the Acropolis Museum, built to press the country’s case for the return of sculptures taken from the Parthenon and now housed in the British Museum. The EMST was only established by law in 1997, started operating in 2000, and has kept up a presence by holding exhibitions in temporary premises.
One thing that may prove that new art is as important as old is Documenta. Held every five years, Documenta drew over 900,000 visitors in 2012 and will be held concurrently in Kassel, Germany and Athens next year, in a nod to the country’s unique European position, both due to the tense relations with Germany, which has led the call for crisis budget cuts in return for bailout funds, and, now, as the gateway for Europe’s biggest refugee influx since World War II. The theme of Documenta 14 is “Learning from Athens.”
Documenta is “a major event not just for Athens but for all of Greece,” Athens Mayor George Kaminis said. “I hope indeed that this big moment for Athens can be combined with the operation of the new National Museum of Contemporary Art.”
Documenta has put the German provincial town of Kassel, where it was first held in 1955, on the map, indicating that Germany, Europe’s powerhouse of industry, is also smart about the impact of the arts on the economy, something that others have been pressing Greek officials to acknowledge.
“The very fact that this museum will open at some time, even though it hasn’t yet, has people hopeful. You see new shops opening in the area, new galleries being planned,” said Mavromichali. “Greece isn’t known for its heavy industry but for its cultural and creative industries. This is the future for Greece.”