Behind the Scenes at the Museums: Disarray in Athens and Belgrade

29 JAN 16 originally published at


The saga behind a much-delayed showcase for contemporary art reflects many of modern Greece’s woes — and has parallels with a troubled project in Serbia.

by Fotini Barka, Athens and Belgrade

A night view of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, which is still not open to the public. Photo: National Museum of Contemporary Art.
Athenians were taken by surprise one sunny day in September 2013. Scaffolding came down to reveal the facade of Greece’s new contemporary art museum. The long awaited renovation of a 1950s brewery building offered a welcome breath of optimism in a country enduring its third year of severe austerity measures.

Yet, not for the first time, hopes that the museum would soon open proved premature. It was once envisioned that the project would be complete in 2004, the year of the Athens Olympics. Various deadlines have come and gone since then. Some €35 million of EU and Greek funds have been spent. But still no artworks occupy the clean-cut, spacious white interiors behind the walls of stone-clad concrete and glass.

The saga of the National Museum of Contemporary Art features many of the elements of Greece’s current economic and political crisis — chaotic stewardship of public and EU money, political twists and turns, larger-than-life personalities, legal battles and controversial deals between the public and private sectors.

Vangelis Stylianidis, the architect responsible for the project, laments “the Greek state’s inability to complete something”. In his central Athens office, he lights a cigarette and describes the empty building as a “ghost in the city”.

It will soon need substantial maintenance because it has been left unoccupied for so long, Stylianidis says. Above all he blames museum board members and politicians. Over the years, eight Greek governments and more than a dozen culture ministers have been involved in the project.

“If there were a strong political will, the museum would be open by now,” he says.

I have been able to observe this drama from both outside and inside. As a cultural journalist for one of Greece’s leading newspapers, I wrote many stories over more than a decade about the project. Then, in November 2012, I went to work for the museum to prepare the communications strategy for its opening. When my contract expired at the end of 2014, there was still no sign of that happening.

The official reason for the museum remaining closed, some two years after the renovation of the building was finally completed, is lack of money. However, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, can reveal that millions of euros have been potentially available to the museum — but remained frustratingly out of reach due to legal, political and bureaucratic obstacles.

A concept takes concrete form

The idea of a national contemporary art museum was discussed in Greece for decades. The museum — now often known simply by the acronym EMST, from its name in Greek —was finally established by law in 1997 but existed only on paper until its first director, Anna Kafetsi, was appointed in January 2000.

Kafetsi, a renowned curator who had been working in the National Gallery of Greece since 1983, was among the first to introduce big exhibitions of Greek and international contemporary art in Athens during the 1990s.
Architect Vangelis Stylianidis and Anna Kafetsi, founding director of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art, on the museum’s rooftop in April 2013. Photo: Fotini Barka
Daring and uncompromising, this 60-year-old woman was the driving force behind the decision to house the museum in the prestigious but derelict Fix building, named after the brand of beer once brewed there. Soon after her appointment, Kafetsi, who uses a wheelchair as she suffers from a muscular disease, was lifted into the building and ‘occupied’ part of the ground floor without even requesting authorisation.

“I had nothing. Just an office inside a half-ruined building. An isle of tidiness amidst the chaos. Every time it rained, my heart would start trembling, because the ceiling leaked and threatened the artworks,” she recalls in her seaside home outside Athens with what sounds like nostalgia. This is no surprise, as those rough beginnings were actually a time of innocence. Kafetsi had no idea then of what was to follow.

The building, a few minutes away from the Acropolis, had been standing abandoned and derelict on Andrea Sygrou Avenue for more than two decades — an open wound in the heart of the city. With its long, clean lines and glass-walled ground floor, the 1957 concrete building by the pioneering architect Takis Zenetos was one of the finest examples of post-war industrial architecture in Greece.
The iconic 1957 Fix brewery building, in its heyday. Half of the building was later demolished. Photo: National Museum of Contemporary Art.
With a wreck of a building, no staff and no collection of its own, the museum’s opening seemed like a distant dream. But Kafetsi was undaunted. She began immediately to exhibit contemporary Greek and international art, having created an exhibition space of 1,800 square meters on the ground floor.

She started to create a permanent collection from scratch and to organise educational programmes. The collection now consists of more than 1,000 works by Greek and foreign artists including Bill Viola, Mona Hatoum, Wolfgang Laib, Kendell Geers, Shirin Neshat, Gary Hill, Nan Goldin, and Spencer Tunick. Yet, to this day, it has never been exhibited in its entirety.

In 2003, the museum moved out of the Fix building so that reconstruction could begin. For the following 11 years, it moved from one interim venue to the next. But even those temporary exhibitions came to an end in December 2014.

“I created a museum and assembled a collection of contemporary art. I proved how the impossible can be possible. How to offer something when you have nothing. It (the museum) doesn’t deserve this ending,” Kafetsi says, her voice rising a little.

Delay after delay

The renovation did at least have a straightforward beginning. A project manager was chosen and the architects, led by 3SK Stylianidis, one of the biggest architectural practices in Athens, were selected by international competition.

Then came a delay. Greece elected a new government in the spring of 2004, leading to a change of personnel at the top of the Culture Ministry. It took another 18 months before the international tender for the contractor to carry out the renovation was finally announced.

In June 2006, the museum awarded the contract to Bioter SA, a construction company responsible at that time for big projects including an annexe for the private Benaki Museum in Athens. It submitted the lowest bid of €24.43 million — 31 per cent below the cost estimated by the project manager.

More delays followed as another bidder, Aktor SA, one of Greece’s biggest construction firms, the third-lowest bidder in the tender process, appealed against the decision to the Greek courts and the European Commission.

Its arguments were rejected and finally, in June 2007, Bioter’s contract was signed at a ceremony in the Fix building. The contract stipulated that the work should be complete in two years — by June 2009.

The poor museum with millions of euros

But two years later, less than 10 per cent of the project had been completed, according to the museum’s board. It declared the contract void — a very rare occurrence in the Greek public sector.

When Bioter was awarded the contract, it provided letters of guarantee from various banks — in effect, undertakings from the banks that they would pay out substantial sums if the contractor did not do its job.

According to a law suit filed by Bioter with the aim of overturning the museum’s decision, the largest guarantees came from Piraeus Bank — for a total of nearly €9.16 million.

These funds were transferred to an account in the museum’s name, the law suit states. At the end of 2014, the total amount of all the guarantees plus interest was more than €13 million, according to museum officials.

But the museum has not touched that money due to the legal dispute with Bioter. The company claims it was working at a disadvantage because the museum’s studies of the work to be carried out bore no resemblance to reality. For example, it says in its law suit, it unexpectedly had to spend 14 months clearing asbestos.

In May 2015, a court dismissed Bioter’s claim but the company is expected to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Nikos Kalogeras, a former president of the museum’s board who is also a professor of architecture, sums up the irony of the situation: “We have a poor museum with millions.”

Kalogeras also expresses dissatisfaction with the contract awarded to the company that manages the project, Hellinotechniki SA, which did not have a fixed price.

Kalogeras stresses the company is well qualified to carry out the work but adds that “there was a general lack of clarity on fees”.

Lina Mendoni, a former top official in the Culture Ministry who has been closely involved in the museum saga, describes Hellinotechniki’s contract as “outrageous”.

The firm, according to Mendoni, invoices the state for all the work it says is necessary as part of the renovation.

“There are constant demands. It’s wholly problematic that the contract allows the project manager, Hellinotechniki, to demand extra money,” she says.

For its part, Hellinotechniki told BIRN that the contract forbade the firm from talking about its work on the museum but added: “All the contracts, including our company’s, with EMST have been approved by all the legal entities of the Greek State (Greek Supreme Court of Audits etc.) and are entirely legal.”

Can they Fix it?

Through the years, many strong characters have featured in the museum’s story. One of them is Sophia Staikou, a member of the board from 2006 to 2014 who served twice as its vice president for a total of three years.

Staikou is the head of the cultural foundation of Piraeus Bank. She is also the wife of the bank’s chairman, Michael Sallas.

Some former board members and museum officials have suggested Staikou had a potential conflict of interest, given the museum’s legal dispute with Bioter over money guaranteed by Piraeus and other banks.

At a court hearing in January 2010, a representative of Piraeus Bank argued in favour of Bioter’s action against the museum, noting the bank had a legal interest in the case as it would have to pay out if the construction firm lost, according to the court’s written decision.

Asked to comment on the case, Piraeus Bank said: “The bank cannot provide information on banking activities, because it is bound by banking secrecy.”

Staikou declined to be interviewed for this article. But Mendoni, who served two five-year terms as the Culture Ministry’s secretary general, dismisses any concerns about her role.

“I do not think there is a moral issue or a conflict here. Mr. Sallas does not own the bank. The bank has shareholders. Mr. Sallas does not simply do as he likes, never mind Ms. Staikou,” Mendoni says.

“I think that she has been too active in the arts — as the president of the cultural foundation of the bank — to raise doubts as to the sincerity of her interest in Greek museums.”

Staikou has, however, openly been at odds with other members of the museum board.
In October 2011, while she was its vice-president, she published an article in the Kathimerini newspaper suggesting the museum should be housed in one of the unused venues left over from the 2004 Olympics.

“Athens does not need any new buildings, it needs open spaces,” she wrote.
Perhaps many would agree with her. But her suggestion came as most of the board was trying to get the Fix project going again with a new contractor.

In the event, the museum continued on that path. The month after her intervention, the museum signed a new contract for the renovation of the brewery building with Aktor SA, the company that came third in the original tender process.

This time, the work went much more smoothly and Aktor completed its task by February 2014. But that was not the end of the story.

Building finished, but not the museum

To create a functioning contemporary art museum, an extensive infrastructure is required — from sophisticated technical and audio-visual equipment for the 7,000 square-metre exhibition space to mundane items such as a ticketing system.

Given the dire condition of Greece’s public finances, the state says it cannot pay for this final phase.

A solution seemed to have been found when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, one of Greece’s leading philanthropic organisations, announced in April 2014 it had approved a grant of €3 million for the “immediate completion” of the remaining work.

But there was some small print. The foundation required the museum to create a non-profit body to receive the grant, and the state had to guarantee both a budget for the museum’s first three years and sufficient staffing levels to allow it to operate.

These requirements got bogged down in delays, disputes and bureaucracy. The museum’s board prevaricated in forming the non-profit body. This was finally done in April 2015.

Confusion has reigned over a staffing plan. There are conflicting accounts of when and what plans were sent, and by whom. Nikos Xydakis, culture minister until late August 2015, told BIRN in July that his ministry was still waiting to receive the plan, which would then require approval from multiple state bodies.

And then there is the budget. Xydakis acknowledged this would have to rise from around 400,000 euros into the millions to allow the museum to open. But politicians are reluctant to commit that amount to a museum in such a difficult financial climate.

As a consequence of all these delays, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation announced on November 19, 2015 that it was withdrawing the grant. The museum’s current director Katerina Koskina tried to play down the importance of this move, declaring that the museum can still claim the money by submitting a new request.

But the inescapable truth is that yet more time has been lost.

So much has changed since the museum was established that even its founding director, Anna Kafetsi, is no longer in post. She was dismissed in November 2014, accused by the then-minister of not cooperating with the museum’s board. That decision is now the subject of yet another dispute, as Kafetsi has appealed to the Supreme Court.

“It remains to be seen whether constructing the museum building will prove to have been easier than opening the actual museum,” whispers Kafetsi as I leave her house after a long interview.

She stops, turns to me and says: “Everything concerning this museum happened in an unorthodox manner. Everything. And we had to deal with the consequences again and again. But then, if it had not been unorthodox, it would simply not have been at all…”

Belgrade’s museum misery: The never-ending countdown

The Athens museum is not the only one in the region whose doors have been closed for much longer than anticipated due to a troubled renovation project.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade closed in the summer of 2007 for what was meant to be a brief revamp to make it fit for the 21st century. But it has remained shut for the past eight years.

The modernist building, with triangles and trapeziums prominent in its facade of white marble and glass, stands in parkland near the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. For months, an electronic clock outside ticked down to another deadline for completion — October 20, 2015, the museum’s 50th anniversary. But everyone already knew long before that this target would also be missed.

The museum was designed by Belgrade architects Ivan Antic and Ivanka Raspopovic. Although it drew severe criticism while under construction (it was compared to a barn or a “shack on stilts”), it came to be seen as the city’s most important architectural work of the period.

The museum itself played a major role in contemporary culture. In its glory days, it hosted exhibitions of Picasso, Miro and Klee and served as a platform to promote Yugoslav art internationally.

“Nobody in the Balkans had this kind of museum with 5,500 square metres for exhibitions of contemporary art,” the museum’s executive director Slobodan Nakarada notes with pride.

The museum has a major collection of Yugoslav modern art. But almost all of its 8,000 works are currently housed in the vaults of the National Bank of Serbia.

The museum fell into decline during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. His regime hid non-Serb art in the basement. The museum stopped staging exhibitions by foreign artists and its visitor numbers dwindled to an average of just two people a day. It suffered severe damage when a NATO missile hit a nearby building in the 1999 Kosovo war. It was no longer possible to control the temperature or the humidity in the galleries. Finally the Serbian government allocated €8 million euros for renovation works, which were estimated to take one year, Nakarada recalls.

By 2009, nearly a third of the planned works had been completed. The roof and basement were fixed and an electrical substation was moved to a separate building. The total cost was around €2 million.

But suddenly work came to a stop. The culture ministry announced it did not have the €6million for the rest of the overhaul. The interiors, the facade and museum facilities have yet to be renovated.

I stepped inside the deserted building in July last year. Only a grid of thin beams remained of the ceiling. Black and red fantastical reinterpretations of Greek mythological creatures from a previous exhibition adorned the walls. The impression was of a building needing attention but nothing like the massive renovation in Athens.

The prolonged loss of the museum is particularly acute as one of the country’s other main spaces for art, the National Museum of Serbia, has been undergoing its own delay-plagued renovation for the past 12 years.

As in Athens, members of the Belgrade contemporary arts scene feel they are a low priority for public officials often fixated on ancient history and heritage.

“Visual arts here are perceived as something problematic, something that has no appeal for the wider public,” says 39-year-old artist Ivan Grubanov, recently returned from representing his country at the Venice Biennale.

Politicians have blamed the international economic crisis for their failure to come up with the cash to finish the job.

But Branislava Andjelkovic, the museum’s director from 2001 to 2013, says the amount of cash required is relatively small.

“The cost of constructing one kilometre of a highway is equal to finishing the Museum of Contemporary Art,” she says. “It’s a question of priorities, not money,” declares Branislav Dimitrijevic, an art historian and museum supporter who also happens to be Andjelkovic’s husband.

Eventually, the museum’s backers appeared to have found a sympathetic ear in government. Ivan Tasovac, who became culture minister in 2013, is more in tune with the arts than most politicians, having been a concert pianist and director of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tasovac fought to secure funding to complete the renovation and set up the countdown clock to show he meant business.

But, in another echo of the Athens saga, then came a disputed tender procedure. Three companies lodged complaints, which were upheld.

Senior figures involved in the project have accused each other of trying to influence the tender process to advance their own economic interests or those of their allies.

“I was never popular with politicians because I was always repeating the same thing: it’s our money, no deals,” says Andjelkovic.

Adding to the disarray, Andjelkovic’s successor as museum director, Jovan Despotovic, was at loggerheads with executive director Slobodan Nakarada. But in September 2015, Despotovic was dismissed and Nakarada agreed to do both jobs. Now, he says, a new tender will be issued in January 2016 with the aim of re-opening the museum in the summer of the same year.

Nakarada has proposed that the now-defunct countdown clock becomes part of the museum’s collection.

It remains to be seen if the new timetable will end in success. Last summer, Nakarada acknowledged he had already got one prediction wrong: “I thought museum life would be boring.”

In both Greece and Serbia in recent years, that has certainly not been the case. These sagas have had almost everything, including personality clashes, political rows and courtroom wrangles. Just a couple of things have been lacking in all this time: functioning museums, open to the public

Fotini Barka is a freelance journalist based in Athens who previously worked at the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.


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