It has been 11 years since the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens has been planning to open, but its doors remain shut. The museum’s director, Katerina Koskina—a former art critic—is the only one who really knows why. So we asked her: What’s going on?
The National Museum's new building—a 12 acre site which looks like a wafer bar—was finished in 2013 with a budget of 33.7 million euro, co-financed by Greece and the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund. The space boasts 5,800 square meters of exhibition space in a blocky concrete and glass structure in the heart of Athens. It is home to 450 artworks by 100 artists from 1960 to the present, including many well-known Greek artists (such as Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Bia Davou and Theodoros Stamos) and renowned international contemporary artists (among them Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle, and Marina Abramovic). But today, these artworks remain in storage. The building is empty. No art. No visitors.
Inside EMST © Ermina Dimitiou
Though Koskina and her team announced at a press conference on May 18 this year (International Museum Day) that the museum would open its doors "by the end of the year" that opening date is looking very unlikely.
What's halting the museum building is hardly a big surprise: bureaucracy and funding. Pushing back the inauguration, dubbed the “18 years of procrastination,” the museum is starting to get a bad reputation among locals. It has been noted in the press that the museum has taken 11 years of work, 12 different boards, as well as the assistance of five ministers and two directors. Yet the May 18 press conference was the institution's first public statement since the construction work on the building was completed in 2014. Some refer to the museum as “an empty treasury.” Despite this, Koskina remains reticent in her ambition to bring contemporary art to the mosaic of Greek culture.
“We have been working very hard to overcome all the administrative issues in order to be ready from our side to open the museum to the public the soonest,” Koskina said in an interview with ArtSlant. She continued:
There are some issues that do not depend on us, which are related to the crisis. We will cooperate with the Ministry of Culture in order to examine and overcome the obstacles so that the museum opens within the next coming months. I am optimistic that in 2016, the public will get the joy to visit a very beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art.
What about the finances? The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is donating 3 million, but the museum’s president George Papanastasiou said they will need an ongoing annual budget of 2 million euro to run the museum, and though they have received an annual grant of 500,000 euro to pay the salaries of 14 employees, they still need funds for a total of 70 employees required to run the museum efficiently. With a remaining budget of only 20,000 euro, they will hardly have enough to pay security, invigilators, and curators. There is a program contract of 4 million euro in place for 2015–2017, but no money has yet been handed out. On top of all this, the museum is still in debt from previous years, in part due to the way it was run by a former director.
“The cuts have affected the arts and culture deeply, but we try to find alternative ways of funding: donations, sponsorships, collaborations, synergies,” said Koskina. “Hard work and cooperation are the only answers to every difficulty.”
Other museums have crowdfunded successfully (the Tesla Museum raised $1.3 million in a month, while the Rubin Museum expanded their Tibetan shrine room with the help of $52,000), yet despite the dire financial straits the museum is facing, they haven't explored such possibilites.
A collaboration with the forthcoming Documenta 14, which kicks off in Athens and in Kassel in 2017, is still planned. Koskina says they have an “unknown art scene” in Greece, and that Documenta will help bring new attention to the arts there. She adds:
We try to be rational and optimistic, although the sociopolitical and financial reality in our region is not brilliant... I am sure Greece will be adapted to the demands of its the new reality and that the state and the citizens will be on our side, because culture allows us to breathe and give us hope and vision, necessary elements for humanity, especially when the problems are big and the surroundings quite dark.
(Image at the top: Inside EMST © Spiros Rekounas)