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Experts are worried about the fate of Georgia’s most prestigious

Art museum amid political instability. As political tensions rage across Georgia there is some uncertainty about the controversial plan to revamp the nation’s most prestigious art museum. According to both former and current staff members of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, its 139,000-strong collection of art from the past and present could be threatened by a relocation proposed by the minister of culture, Tea Tsulukiani. Architectural preservationists have expressed concerns over the rumoured demolition of the museum’s classical-style 1838 building which was a former seminary which Joseph Stalin once studied.

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 scheduled for 2 October. Saakashvili was arrested and ended up being on hunger strike for nearly thirty days, which resulted in his deportation to a prison hospital last week. A large number of people took to the streets in Tbilisi to protest his release and his treatment at a civil clinic. Protests in large numbers have followed elections in which the government Georgian Dream party swept mayoral runoffs in Tbilisi as well as other major cities, despite widespread allegations of voting fraud. In 2012 the United National Movement party was defeated by Georgian Dream.

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Tsulukiani is a close friend of Georgian Dream’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire connected to Kremlin, who purchased Picasso’s Dora Maar with Cat for $95.2m in 2006 and later served as Georgia’s prime minister in 2012-13. She became culture minister in March after having served as justice minister from 2012 until 2020. Tsulukiani, soon after her appointment, announced the restoration of Shalva Amiranashvili’s museum would be a “major project for the entire generation” that requires a “very massive effort in terms of both human and financial resources.” In July, she said urgent action would have to be taken, as Unesco experts had determined that the precious icons in the museum’s collection are severely damaged and must be relocated.

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.

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Eka Kiknadze, the museum’s former director, tells The Art Newspaper that she was abruptly promoted to lab assistant during the reshuffle, after she asked for details about Tsulukiani’s plans. In July, Nika Akhalbedashvili (the new director), a former justice minister, was informed employees that the collection must be moved within the next few months. The idea was not considered by museum employees and preservationists who are concerned that the collection won’t be returned to the museum. Kiknadze claims that a long-term strategy of moving the museum’s collection into the climate-controlled temporary storage of nearby buildings has been ignored.

The collection comprises “the most important artefacts of Georgian culture, from medieval icons to modern Georgian art”, Kiknadze says, with the most important medieval pieces being known as the Treasury. These items were to be “relocated temporarily” as the structure was being renovated in an elaborate plan of work by experts from Georgia’s National Museum. This umbrella organization oversees 12 institutions which include the Shalva Amiranashvili museum for Fine Arts. The area could have been able to accommodate 3,500 square feet. Kiknadze states that the 3,500 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”.

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Following the National Museum partnered with Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2010and 2012 as part of a cultural “twinningprogramme that was financed by EU. The abandoned plan is still visible on their site. It was a French architect Jean-Francois Millou’s design concept to design the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum’s renovation. He also proposed the concept of an “Avenue of the Arts” to unify the various museums that comprise the Georgian National Museum.

According to George Partskhaladze (a member of the Georgian National Museum’s research council), the current situation is “very alarming” and “very offensive” due to the fact that many years of hard work have been lost. He worked on the restoration strategy and twinning project.

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Irina Koshoridze who is the chief curator of Oriental collections she has told The Art Newspaper that “the transfer of collections have not begun at this point” at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum but she warns that “no temperature and weather conditions” are in place if objects are relocated.In contrast, 10 years ago, the 5,000 pieces of the Oriental collection were carefully moved to the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia nearby, including 25 early Persian paintings described by Koshoridze as being its “most significant and internationally renowned” artworks.

The fate of the Ancha Icon of the Saviour (a medieval artifact dating to the sixth or seven century) was recently the subject of a debate expressed by those who support the museum. Ilia II, the Georgian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch, demanded that the prime minister Irakli Garibashvili hand the icon over to the Anchiskhati Church to be used to conduct religious services. 

According local media reports, Roman Gotsiridze (an opposition member of the United National Movement) stated that the Museum of Fine Arts to BidzinaIvanishvili’s historic building is the treasures of the museum for the Patriarchate.

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Neither the Georgian culture ministry nor the National Museum responded to The Art Newspaper’s requests for comment. The deteriorating condition of Shalva Amiranashvili’s museum was blasted in a ministry announcement published on Facebook in the summer of. It stated that it “doesn’t comply with the minimum standards in seismic resistance”. However, the statement did not say that the museum could be demolished and stated that “the ministry plans” to preserve the museum’s distinctive exhibits. Tsulukiani also claims that the work was cut off under the previous museum management.

Late September saw Akhalbedashvili, museum director, deny local media outlets of spreading lies. He stated: “The art museum building will definitely be restored in the exact spot it is in now.”


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