We’ve got the land — but not the museums

The Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation’s projected Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens has seen repeated promises, beginnings, postponements, court appeals, political turnabouts, excavations and cancellations. Last week’s ruling by a plenary session of the Council of State that the State’s handover of the Rizareio park for the construction of the museum was illegal was yet another act in a long-running tragi- comedy about land without museums. Unlucky The Museum of Contemporary Art is probably the most unlucky museum in modern Greece. Since the 1980s, three prime ministers – Andreas Papandreou, Constantinos Mitsotakis and Costas Simitis – and a multitude of other ministers have been involved in the selection of a site and the acceptance of the Goulandris Foundation’s donation. In 1992, when Miltiades Evert was national economy minister and signed the papers handing over a plot of land on Rigillis Street for the museum, Basil Goulandris was still alive. Then came disputes with the city council of Athens and a protracted court wrangle; and in 1995 the Council of State rejected appeals against the plan to build the museum. By this time Goulandris had died, but his widow Elise kept up his vision for a brilliant museum of 20th century art in Athens. During work on the foundations for the museum, some antiquities were found, and in 1997 excavations uncovered the Classical era Lyceum. The Third Ephorate of Classical Antiquities recommended that the monument be preserved «and at the same time a solution be found for building the museum, since incorporating the ancient remains into the modern building would protect them better than outdoor exposure would.» In the end the Lyceum displaced the museum. A tense summer followed, and in August 1997 Elise Goulandri made a forceful request that the government tell her what was to become of the museum. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos responded equally forcefully, while numerous leading academics and friends of Prime Minister Costas Simitis, such as Nikiforos Diamandouros (now the ombudsman), Nikos Mouzelis and Loukas Tsoukalis came out in favor of the museum. The matter reached an impasse. Another year went by and in September 1998, Venizelos dramatically announced the availability of another prime site for the museum, the Rizareio, between Vassilisis Sofias Avenue and Vassileios Constantinou Street. Venizelos, a crucial link in a long list of postponements and cancellations, then announced that the foundation had met all the necessary requirements: It had a detailed catalog of the works in the collection, which belong to the foundation, as well as all the economic guarantees for the construction and operation of the museum. Significant collection The economic independence of the museum is ensured by money deposited in Swiss banks. The artworks are in Switzerland, Paris and New York. The catalog includes 158 works by artists such as El Greco, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Rodin, Modigliani, Klee, Chagall, Warhol and Pollock, from the famous Goulandris collection. Swiss museums, the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Louvre have all expressed interest in the collection, making special rooms available for it. Seven years ago the Louvre wrote to Mrs Goulandri asking her for the collection. There was every indication that the museum would come into being, especially in summer 1999, when it became the spearhead of a government committee’s aggressive policy on museums. But it was to be built without Mrs Goulandri, who died without seeing the results of her efforts. She missed seeing the new delay by the Council of State, to which local residents had made an appeal on environmental grounds, and the invalidation a few days ago of the Economy Ministry’s conveyance of the site (which belongs to the Public Real Estate Company). Political will Is that the end of the story? Probably not. This is firstly a political issue and not a formality. As Venizelos said last week, the Council of State’s ruling refers to the legality of the ministry’s instrument of conveyance: «This instrument was signed before the recent legislation regulating the matter was passed, and I assume that, according to Council of State precedents, this instrument will have to be reissued in accordance with the new law. Consequently, nothing of substance has changed and the agreement of the Greek State with the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation is still in force. As soon as the decision is published, we will be in a position to plan our next moves, in compliance with the law, but also furthering the goals of our culture policy.» So, as soon as there is a new, legal conveyance instrument, the reasons for the cancellation will be removed and the museum can go ahead. This is the formal aspect. The heart of the matter is whether the government can recognize the historical significance of constructing such a museum, which puts Athens on an international footing and brings Athenians into contact with the artistic legacy of the 20th century. And it is a question of whether the government can rise above the pettiness, self-interest and pressures of third parties, and can shoulder its responsibilities. Will it reject a significant collection and the gift of a museum? Unfortunately, Greece has a history of losing collections through muddling or inaction. It has already lost the renowned Niarchos, Christian Zervou and Iolas collections. Now it could lose the most important one of all, together with the museum. Now is the time for the prime minister to act.

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