National Gallery’s blooming ambition

When she first became director of the National Gallery in Athens, Marina Lambraki-Plaka said she wished to turn the museum into a meeting place for all the Greeks. In the past 12 years that she has been directing the National Gallery – Alexandros Soutzos Museum, she has indeed brought a broad public to the museum and has made the visit there seem an attractive recreational option. Her pursuit of public and media exposure together with her warm personality have helped her attain her goal but so have the large exhibitions of Western art’s old masters that she has organized. Many of them were blockbuster shows: «From Theotokopoulos to Cezanne,» held in 1992, marked the record attendance of 600,000 people. There followed a retrospective on El Greco and an exhibition on Cretan icons, both among the most popular exhibitions organized by the National Gallery. The past year has marked another milestone for the museum. The Olympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad provided the occasion for ambitious programming. At the start of 2004 the National Gallery, in cooperation with the Longhi Foundation, organized «The Light of Apollo: The Italian Renaissance and Greece,» an important exhibition that included masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and showed their connection with Greek antiquity. To coincide with the period of the Olympic Games, Marina Lambraki-Plaka had originally thought of an exhibition that traced the depiction of the human body in art from prehistoric times to the present. Lack of time altered the plans and Lambraki then thought of presenting a sculpture exhibition on Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Brancusi, Giacometti and Moore as a tribute to a form of art that was held in great esteem in ancient Greece. As with the Renaissance exhibition, the choice also reflected her personal interest and field of research. (She recently published a book on Rodin and another on the connection of Bourdelle with Greece. Furthermore, she teaches those areas as an art history professor at the Athens School of Fine Arts.) Meanwhile, the newly opened «Glyptotheque» in Goudi, a branch of the National Gallery dedicated to sculpture, hosted a retrospective of Henry Moore and an exhibition on Christos Capralos. Also shown at the same premises are sculptures by Takis. Another exhibition, consisting of «Imperial Treasures from China,» honored the civilization of a country that will host the next Olympic Games. The exhibitions have all enjoyed high attendance figures and were among the cultural highlights of the city during the Olympic Games. However, now that the Games are over and, most probably, so is ambitious funding for large projects, new challenges await the National Gallery. Marina Lambraki-Plaka, who just a few days ago was given a prestigious award (the Golden Cross of the League of Honor) by the President of the Greek Republic (she has also received awards from Spain, Italy and France), spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her plans for the future and the work that has been done thus far. Asked about her buying policy and new acquisitions, Lambraki-Plaka said that she is currently looking for funds in order to buy two bronze sculptures by Rodin and Bourdelle that are being offered for sale by the related French museums for 300,000 and 450,000 euros respectively. (The National Gallery already has one sculpture by Rodin.) Each sculpture is one of the remaining out of an exclusive series of eight copies allowed in total (in France) for each work. The purchase is still pending and so are other decisions to be made and debts to be paid. A huge, scholarly catalog on the exhibition «The Light of Apollo: The Italian Renaissance and Greece,» for example, has been printed but not released yet. Besides the scarce funding (in general, half the National Gallery’s funds come from the Ministry of Culture and half from private sponsorships, while the Alexandros Soutzos bequest covers a large part of operational activities and acquisitions of new works), one of the reasons for the delay is the fact that the National Gallery has had no executive board for the past five-and-a-half months. Although the main decisions are made by Lambraki-Plaka, the supervisory role of the board and its authority in approving funding has to be filled in. Lambraki-Plaka states the facts but in general has a positive, well-meaning outlook. She also has perseverance and will work not just in her own field but toward finding the right sponsor and securing the funds. Although this is not customarily the task of a director, Lambraki-Plaka has taken it upon herself because of the lack of a highly specialized staff. Her resourceful thinking helped the National Gallery acquire two important works by El Greco: «The Burial of Christ,» which was bought through public utilities and the sales of a record of Vangelis Papathanasiou (the composer provided the National Gallery with a large number of his records), and «St Peter,» which, apart from a donation from the Lilian Voudouris Foundation, was bought through donations of the Greek public to an account that the National Gallery had opened for that purpose as well as gifts of artists’ works. The works were bought by companies and banks and then donated to the Municipality of Florina for the collections of its newly established Gallery of Art. «Thanks to the El Greco work, Florina acquired its own Gallery of Art. I think this is very important and I also believe that an institution such as the National Gallery should act as a catalyst, should create a chain-reaction situation and open up new possibilities,» Lambraki-Plaka told Kathimerini English Edition. Had the National Gallery a stronger budget, Lambraki-Plaka also said that she would like to build a collection around El Greco and his mentors. «A Titian is unreachable. But this is not so with a Tintoretto or a Veronese,» she said. Of course, the National Gallery is primarily a museum on the history of Greek art. This is where its director would like to fill in the existing gaps. «I would like to have more works of the so-called historical avant-garde, works made after the 1960s. For example more works by artists such as Caniaris, Tsoclis or Kessanlis. The collection is a bit uneven. It has a good sampling of the work of Spyropoulos or Kontopoulos but is lacking elsewhere,» she said. The National Gallery’s collection is constantly being enriched. Acquisitions include a painting by Giorgos Iakovidis and more recently, works by Nikolaos Lytras and Constantinos Volanakis. Besides the acquisition of artworks, Lambraki-Plaka is also busy planning out her upcoming exhibition program. The exhibitions scheduled for this year are mostly focused on Greek art. Lambraki-Plaka also said that she would like to organize exhibitions that are joint collaborations with other museums. «It is common practice for museums to work together in organizing an exhibition, and one of the reasons for this is that it cuts down on the costs, which have increased significantly in the past few years. After the September 11 attack, the cost of insurance and transportation have escalated,» explained Marina Lambraki-Plaka. As well as the exhibitions held at the National Gallery, Lambraki-Plaka is also in charge of the exhibition program of the newly opened Glyptotheque. The National Gallery’s new branch, it consists of a 2,000-square-meter, closed exhibition hall (divided between two separate buildings) and an open-air sculpture park. «One of my programming policies is aimed at turning the Glyptotheque into an international center for sculpture. In one of the buildings we will present our permanent sculpture collection, a collection that traces the course of Greek sculpture from the decorative, popular carved marbles of Tinos to neoclassical sculpture and up to the present. The other building will host exhibitions on the work of the great, international names of sculpture. I believe that sculpture is a neglected domain in Greece and I would like the Glyptotheque to motivate young artists to work in sculpture and to also help them evaluate good and bad sculpture,» Lambraki-Plaka said. The Glyptotheque is one feature of the recent expansion of the National Gallery. Another is the newly opened National Gallery branch in Nafplion, which together with the older branches in Sparta and Corfu show a concern for the country’s periphery. «We are greatly interested in the periphery on the condition that the State provides the necessary funds for the operational prerequisites of these buildings, the staff and all the necessary expenses. For while it is true that we are constantly expanding and adding new activities to our programs our budget has not grown. It needs to be doubled, at the least,» said Lambraki-Plaka. In view of the expansion of the National Gallery’s premises, this need becomes even more pressing. As planned, 6,000 extra square meters will be added to the building of the National Gallery. Approval from the Third Community Support Framework is pending for the works to begin. When the expansion is concluded, more works from the National Gallery’s permanent collection will be accessible to the public. It is possible that the exhibition program will also expand. Even in the constricted current premises, Marina Lambraki-Plaka is working toward securing a large part of the National Gallery for the display of the permanent collection – more than half of it – and organizing interesting and ambitious exhibitions in the rest of the premises. An institution with an academic orientation, the National Gallery follows the history of Greek art and presents some of the most important artists in the history of Western art. As its director, Marina Lambraki-Plaka has kept this balance, offering quality exhibitions while also expanding the activities of the museum and enticing a greater number of people to visit the National Gallery. It is not an easy accomplishment. Future exhibitions Scheduled for Christmas is a retrospective of the artist Alekos Fasianos, followed in early spring by a large exhibition on the work of Lucas Samaras. Also scheduled for the following months is an exhibition on the early 20th century Greek artistic group «Omada Technis» (it was founded in 1917), which helped to promote modern, avant-garde painters of the time, among them Parthenis, Maleas and Nikolaos Lytras. The National Gallery will also host exhibitions on artists Giorgos Iakovidis, Nikiforos Lytras, Nikolaos Lytras, Michalis Economou and Theofrastos Triantafyllidis. Another future exhibition will show the connection between the work of 20th century Greek artists and the artistic scene in Paris. Also pending is an exhibition on the expressionist group Cobra, which was founded in 1948 and consisted of Dutch and Scandinavian artists. At the Glyptotheque, a forthcoming large exhibition on Marino Marini will be followed, in the next three years, by an exhibition on Julio Gonzalez and Yiannoulis Halepas.

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