‘Cultural event by virtue of its own existence’

A new building, reorganization and a national strategy are what the National Gallery needs in the 21st century. So say artist Panayiotis Tetsis, chairman of the gallery’s board, and Antonis Makrydimitris, Athens University professor and board member, just a few months after the government’s promise of Community Support Framework IV (CSF IV) funding for an extension to the existing building on Vassileos Constantinou Avenue. Do you think the 6,000-square-meter addition is inadequate? Panayiotis Tetsis: I would ask you what impression the National Gallery makes today. Look, it’s the way the exhibits are displayed, and I think that in this respect it looks like a third-rate provincial museum. Look at the exhibition of works by Nikos Hadzikyriakos-Ghikas, an important Greek painter. The way they are presented in a long, narrow corridor, they cannot captivate the spectator, which is what a National Gallery must do. I think we agree that needs have changed, there are many more artworks, and the collections cannot be presented as they should. The National Gallery is what it is; it’s too small. There’s no future for it as it is. The extension will be temporary, makeshift. We have to see the museum in the long term, in 150 years, not 20. Antonis Makrydimitris: With paintings it is not only the content, it is what Mr Tetsis pointed out – how you display them. A national gallery should be a cultural event by virtue of its own existence. And the addition of another floor won’t get us very far. I’m afraid it will take us 10 years to build it and in five years’ time it will have outlived its usefulness. Personally I think that we should ask ourselves whether, even with the extension, the National Gallery can fulfill its national role. Or do we perhaps need a cultural leap forward, a new space that will convey the prospects of artistic creation in 21st century Greece? Where might this new space be? AM: We have come down to two potential areas that demand courageous decisions: the War Museum site and Ambelokipi, near the Panathainaikos stadium, the refugee apartment blocks and Elpis Hospital. PT: The most suitable site is the refugee apartment blocks. If we keep two of the eight on Alexandra Avenue, behind them we could build a new, ultramodern National Gallery. The building is one issue that is holding the gallery back. It is not the only one. «The organization of the foundation is based on a restrictive 1979 text,» said Makrydimitris, who heads the team that is working on changes to the legal framework. «We propose converting the National Gallery into a legal person governed by private law, a view which may encounter opposition but which is advisable. We also lack a national strategy for the arts. A definitive event occurred in 2004, with the Olympic Games, when we proposed an exhibition presenting the European tradition of sculpture, and Greek sculpture was absent.» That point brings attention to the paucity of Greek painting in the regular temporary exhibitions of works from the gallery’s permanent collection. Most major museums around the world mount small exhibitions based on their own treasures, with new approaches and daring, inventive combinations. Tetsis raised his voice: «We should present not only the greats but other voices as well, who are important artists that Greeks don’t know because they haven’t seen them. The gallery must execute its national mission. In recent years we discovered Papaloukas, but who knows Fanourakis, or Niki Karagatsi, or Flora Karavia?» Makrydimitris sees the new building and the change in the legal framework as part of a more general concern with mapping a national strategy for the 21st century. «As the National Gallery is today, it looks like a remnant of the past, as if it has exhausted its historical course. We won’t achieve much by extending it. We need daring decisions.» And, he added, «in the 19th century, the national vision was to unite the Greeks, in the 20th for the state to progress, and, since 1974, to consolidate democracy. «What is the great idea nowadays? In my opinion, we should put culture at the center of our thinking, giving priority to universities and the arts. It is precisely this new reality you must symbolize and endow with an identity.»