“How can you ask me if I’m well? Why would I be?” Dr Angelos Delivorias has no time for formalities on what promises to be another difficult day at the office. The director of the Benaki Museum is bitter and very, very angry. “I have to fire another 30 people by the end of December,” he practically spits.
In the three years since the onset of the crisis, it has all come tumbling down for the most dynamic museum in the Greek capital. During the boom of 2000 the Benaki opened its Pireos Street annex, the Museum of Islamic Art and the Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika Gallery, but now it has had to reduce its opening hours, let personnel go, put the remaining staff on a four-day rather than a five-day week to reduce costs, and cut salaries by 40 percent.
“While I’m still feeling a modicum of optimism, I have just one goal: to keep the door open,” says Delivorias, letting out a long, troubled sigh.
Kathimerini spoke to Delivorias ahead of the upcoming publication of a book in which he lets all the skeletons out of the closet, fearlessly exposing politicians and providing a plausible answer for how the Benaki reached its current situation.
Titled, “An Account and an Apology,” the book, which is in Greek, goes over his own career as director of the Benaki for the last 40 years. The apology refers to “the degree of responsibility that lies with me and which I am not trying to shirk,” with him admitting that his biggest mistake was probably being overoptimistic.
Despite the sorry state of the Benaki today, Delivorias says that he would not take back some of his most important decisions if he had to do it all over again: not the huge boost to the preservation and research work carried out by the museum, not the main concept governing it, not the move to open new departments in other parts of the capital, not the independence of each individual department, and not the way he chose to administrate it.
“I never wanted to be the top dog; it is a matter of idiosyncrasy, family tradition and ideology,” Delivorias says.
“I have a very particular view on what Greece represents,” he continues. “A Greece that should not be just about its ancient past, if only in words… not just about Byzantium, nor the periods of foreign occupation. It should be about all this and about the present.”
Today, Delivorias has been accused of hiring when it was not absolutely necessary back when the museum was doing well. He doesn’t deny it. “I may not have needed all of them, but not hiring them wouldn’t have saved me,” he says. “And being kindhearted has never hurt.”
The worst part of his job today is having to go down lists of people who are up for the ax. “I just can’t take it,” says Delivorias. “I’m almost 80 after all.”
The Benaki’s financial woes are essentially due to the reduction of state subsidies, which went down from just over 2 million euros in 2010 to 842,000 last year. The changes this dramatic drop in funding caused sent shock waves through the institution that it may not be able to recover from, especially given that it is servicing a 15.3-million-euro bank loan worth.
“By law, the Benaki belongs to the state but it retains its administrative independence. The state has a legal obligation to cover the payroll as well as the museum’s operational costs. If you consider the payments we make in taxes and social security contributions, meanwhile, the state gets back what it gives and then some,” says Delivorias.
The Benaki Museum’s payroll currently stands at 5.3 million euros. State subsidies cover 6 percent of its expenses and the rest comes from sponsorships, ticket sales, the gift shop and bequests. The latter does not always go straight into the museum’s coffers as relations often contest the terms of bequests and drag the issue through the courts, a process that can take as long as 10 years, according to Delivorias.
As clouds continue to gather over the Benaki’s flagship in Kolonaki, Delivorias and his associates are now busy banging on doors asking for help. In one of his most recent initiatives, he asked a major charitable foundation to adopt one of the museum’s buildings for at least one year. He has also set up a committee of volunteers to try and drum up interest in sponsorships from Greeks in the US and Australia, though such initiatives normally take time to get results.
As far as private or corporate sponsorships are concerned, the crisis has seen many of them dry up.
“New money in Greece has never been renowned for its cultural and intellectual pursuits. There used to be a middle class that had a vision of modernization and of a different kind of Greece. This class is now gone,” says Delivorias. “What exceptions we have seen normally come with an unbearable quid pro quo.”
According to Delivorias, the Benaki desperately needs 2 million euros to stay afloat.
“I just a call from the accountant, who said we can cover the cost of November’s salaries from the gift shop revenues. But we can’t continue to operate this way,” explains an exasperated Delivorias, adding that he would like to see the institution change its legal status to that of a private entity that receives state funding.
“This is not a museum or an organization that expects everything from the state. I would say that a 50-50 split would be ideal, because this institution has potential,” he argues.
Despite its financial troubles, the Benaki is trying to stay active. It has several exhibitions organized and is planning to expand into new buildings with funding from the European Commission-backed National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF).
“Unfortunately, the NSRF can’t give me money to pay my staff’s salaries,” says Delivorias.