To Georgia’s top art gallery amid political turmoil. As political turmoil grips Georgia, there is doubt about the controversial plan to revamp the country’s top art museum. According to former and current staff members of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi the museum’s collection of 139,000 of art from the past and present could be threatened by a relocation proposed by the minister of culture, Tea Tsulukiani. Architectural preservationists are concerned about the potential demolishment of the museum’s 1838 building with a classical design, which was once a school in which Joseph Stalin studied.
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The museum’s turmoil was accompanied by the cloak-and-dagger return to Georgia of the exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili ahead of municipal elections on October 2. He was arrested and on hunger strike for more than one month, leading to his transfer this week to a prison hospital–while thousands of people have gathered in Tbilisi to protest his release and to demand medical care in the civilian clinic. Following the elections in 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream party won the mayoral elections in Tbilisi. There were many accusations of vote-buying. Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party in 2012 in parliamentary elections.
Tsulukiani is an ally of Georgian Dream’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili. She is a Kremlin-connected billionaire who purchased Picasso’s Dora Maar with Cat for $95.2m in 2006 and later served as Georgia’s premier minister from 2012-13. After serving as justice minister between 2012 and 2020, she was named as culture minister in March. Tsulukiani immediately following her appointment, declared that the restoration of Shalva Amiranashvili’s Museum will be a “major project for the entire generation” which will require a “very massive human and financial effort.” In July, she announced that urgent action must be taken, as Unesco experts had found that precious icons in the museum’s collection are seriously damaged and need to be moved.
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Meanwhile, opposition politicians and opposition-affiliated media outlets have linked Tsulukiani’s overhaul of the museum building to the real-estate interests of Ivanishvili, the lead investor behind the $500m urban development project Panorama Tbilisi, which includes a newly constructed hotel next door to the museum.
Eka Kiknadze was the museum’s former manager. She told The Art Newspaper that she was suddenly promoted to laboratory assistant after she sought out details on Tsulukiani’s plans. In July, Nika Akhalbedashvili (the new director), a former justice ministry official, informed employees that the collection must be relocated within a couple of months. The idea was not considered by museum employees and preservationists who are concerned that the collection will never be returned to the building. Kiknadze has claimed that a long-term strategy for shifting the museum’s collection into climate-regulated temporary storage in adjacent buildings has been left out.
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According to Kiknadze the collection contains “the most significant artifacts from Georgian culturalheritage, ranging from medieval icons and modern Georgian art,” including the Treasury being the most valuable medieval work. The items were planned to be “relocated temporarily” while the historic structure was being renovated in the multi-stage strategy of experts from Georgia’s National Museum. This umbrella institution oversees twelve institutions that include the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts. The space could have accommodated 3,500 square feet. Kiknadze says that the 3500 sq. meters area is “equipped according to all current requirements for the storage of museum collections in terms of humidity, climate, and with the most current micro-climates, fire, and physical safety systems”.
After the National Museum partnered with Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the year 2010, through a “twinningprogramme that was financed by EU. However, the strategy that was abandoned remains on their website. It was French architect Jean-Francois Milou’s design concept to design the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum’s renovation. Milou also suggested the concept of an “Avenue of the Arts” to connect the different structures that comprise the Georgian National Museum.
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The present situation “is quite alarming and very offensive because many years of effort have been thrown away”, says George Partskhaladze, a member of the Georgian National Museum’s research council who was involved in the twinning project as well as the restoration strategies.
Irina Koshoridze, chief curator of Oriental collections She has informed The Art Newspaper that “the transfer of collections has not started at this point” at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum but she warns that “no temperatures or climate conditions” are in place when objects are relocated.In contrast, 10 years ago the 5,000 works from the Oriental collection were carefully moved to the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia close by, which included 25 early Persian paintings, which Koshoridze described as being its “most important and world-renowned” artworks.
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The fate of the Ancha Icon of the Saviour (a medieval artifact that dates back to the sixth or seventh century) was recently the subject of a debate that was raised by the supporters of the museum. Ilia II, the Georgian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch, requested that the prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili hand the icon over to the Anchiskhati Church to use to conduct religious services.
“The historical structure of the Museum of Fine Arts to Bidzina Ivanishvili and the museum’s treasures to the Patriarchate–this is the goal for which Tsulukiani has the potential of everything, was chosen minister of culture,” said Roman Gotsiridze, a United National Movement opposition MP, as per local media reports.
The Art Newspaper reached out to the Georgian Culture Ministry as well as the National Museum for comments. The state of Shalva Amiranashvili’s Museum was highlighted in a statement issued by the ministry published on Facebook in the summer of. The statement said that the building “doesn’t meet the basic standards in seismic resistance”. However, the statement said that the building would not be demolished , and added that “the ministry is planning” to safeguard the museum’s distinctive exhibits. Tsulukiani asserts that the museum was closed under the previous management.
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The end of September saw Akhalbedashvili museum director, deny local media of spreading false information. He said: “The art museum building is going to be rebuilt in the same place it is now.”