Most prestigious art museum in political turmoil Uncertainty surrounds a controversial renovation proposal for Georgia’s top art museum, as political turmoil affects the South Caucasus country. Staff members, both current and former, of the Shalva Amiranashvili museum of fine arts in Tbilisi believe that the proposed relocation by Tea Tsulukiani, the culture minister, could put at risk the collection of 139,000 of contemporary and historical works. Architectural preservationists are concerned about the potential demolishment of the museum’s 1838 structure in classical style, which was once a school where Joseph Stalin studied.

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The chaos at the museum was in conjunction with the return to Georgia of the exiled president Mikheil Sakashvili in advance of municipal elections scheduled for the 2nd of October. His arrest led to him being on hunger strike for over one month, which culminated in his deportation to a prison hospital last week. A large number of people took to the streets in Tbilisi to support his release and his treatment at a civil clinic. In the aftermath of the elections, the ruling Georgian Dream party won the mayoral elections in Tbilisi. There were many reports of voting fraud. Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party during the 2012 in parliamentary elections.

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Tsulukiani is an ally of BidzinaIvanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream (a Kremlin-connected billionaire who purchased Picasso’s Dora Maar With Cat for $95.2m) and was Georgia’s premier minister from 2012-13. She became Culture Minister in March after having served as minister of justice from 2012 to 2020. Tsulukiani, soon after her appointment, declared that the reconstruction of Shalva Amiranashvili’s museum would be the “major generational undertaking” that will require an “very massive effort in terms of both human and financial resources.” In July, she announced that urgent action would have to be taken as Unesco experts had found that precious icons in the collection of the museum are badly 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 was the museum’s previous manager. She revealed to The Art Newspaper that she was suddenly promoted to laboratory assistant after she inquired about Tsulukiani’s plans. In July, Nika Akhalbedashvili (the new director) who was previously a justice minister, was informed staff that the collection needed to be relocated within a couple of months. The plan was not well-considered by preservationists and museum staff who are concerned that the collection won’t be returned to the building. According to Kiknadze long-term strategy to move the collection of the museum to climate-controlled temporary storage in adjacent structures has been unnoticed.

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The collection contains “the most important artefacts of Georgian culture, from medieval icons to contemporary Georgian art”, Kiknadze says, with the most important medieval pieces being referred to as the Treasury. These items were to be “relocated temporarily” while the historic building was being renovated as part of an elaborate plan of work by experts from Georgia’s National Museum. This umbrella organization oversees 12 institutions that include the Shalva Amiranashvili museum for Fine Arts. The building would have been suitable for 3500 square feet. Kiknadze declares that the 3,500 sq. meters area is “equipped in accordance with all current standards for the storage of collections in museums in terms of climate, humidity and also with the latest microclimates as well as fire and physical safety systems”.

After the National Museum partnered with Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2010and 2012 as part of a cultural “twinning” programme funded by EU. The abandoned plan remains on their site. It was the result of a concept design for the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum’s renovation by the French architect Jean-Francois Milou, who also suggested a masterplan for the creation of an “Avenue of Arts” to unify various buildings that comprise the Georgian National Museum.

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

Irina Koshoridze who is the head curator of Oriental collections She has informed The Art Newspaper that “the transfer of collections hasn’t started at this point” at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum but she warns that “no temperatures and climate conditions” are in place when objects are relocated.In contrast, a decade ago, the 5,000 objects from the Oriental collection were carefully relocated to the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia close by, which included 25 early Persian paintings described by Koshoridze as the collection’s “most important and world-renowned” works.

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Museum supporters recently raised the alarm over the fate of a prized artefact that is the medieval Ancha Icon of the Saviour that dates back to the sixth or seventh century. 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 for worship services.

“The historic building of the Museum of Fine Arts to Bidzina Ivanishvili and the museum’s treasures to the Patriarchate – this is the aim for which Tsulukiani, who is capable of everything, was chosen minister of culture,” commented Roman Gotsiridze, a United National Movement opposition MP, according to local news reports.

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The Georgian culture ministry nor the National Museum responded to The Art Newspaper’s request for comments. The state of Shalva Amiranashvili’s Museum was decried in a statement issued by the ministry published on Facebook in the summer of. It stated that it “doesn’t comply with the minimum standards in seismic resistance”. The statement, however, said that the building would not be demolished and stated that “the ministry is planning” to protect the museum’s unique exhibits. Tsulukiani claims that works went missing under previous museum administration.

In September, Akhalbedashvili was the director of the museum, accuse local media outlets of spreading false information. He stated: “The art museum building will definitely be restored in the same place it is in now.”