Experts raise alarm over fate of Georgia's leading art museum amid political upheaval

Concerns persist that a government-backed renovation of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi could endanger its collection of 139,000 ancient and modern works

The 1838 building of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, Georgia

The 1838 building of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, Georgia

Uncertainty surrounds a controversial renovation plan for Georgia’s leading art museum as political upheaval grips the South Caucasus country. According to former and current staff members at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi, its 139,000-strong collection of ancient and modern works could be endangered by a relocation proposed by the culture minister, Tea Tsulukiani. Meanwhile, architectural preservationists have raised concerns about the rumoured demolition of the museum’s classical-style 1838 building, a former seminary at which Joseph Stalin once studied.

The museum turmoil coincided with the cloak-and-dagger return to Georgia of the exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili ahead of municipal elections on 2 October. He was arrested and has been on hunger strike for more than a month—leading to his transfer this week to a prison hospital—while thousands have rallied in Tbilisi to demand his release and medical treatment in a civilian clinic. Mass demonstrations have followed the elections, when the ruling Georgian Dream party swept mayoral runoffs in Tbilisi and other major cities amid widespread allegations of vote-buying. Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party in 2012 parliamentary elections.

Tsulukiani is an ally of Georgian Dream’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Kremlin-connected billionaire who bought Picasso’s Dora Maar with Cat for $95.2m in 2006 and served as Georgia’s prime minister in 2012-13. She became culture minister in March, having served as minister of justice from 2012 to 2020. Soon after her appointment, Tsulukiani announced the renovation of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum as “a major generational endeavor” that will require "very significant human and financial effort”. In July, she said urgent action would have to be taken since Unesco experts had determined that precious icons in the museum’s collection are seriously damaged and need to be moved.

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.

Eka Kiknadze, the museum’s former manager, tells The Art Newspaper that she was abruptly demoted to laboratory assistant in a reshuffle after she requested details about Tsulukiani’s plans. The new director, Nika Akhalbedashvili, a former justice ministry official appointed by Tsulukiani, told staff in July that the collection would have to be moved within months. Museum employees and preservationists have protested that the plan is ill-considered, amid fears that the collection might never return to the building. According to Kiknadze, a long-term strategy to move the museum’s collection to climate-regulated temporary storage in adjacent buildings has gone ignored.

The collection comprises “the main artefacts in Georgian culture, from medieval icons to modern Georgian art”, Kiknadze says, with the most valuable medieval works being known as the Treasury. These were “supposed to be temporarily [relocated] while the historic building was undergoing rehabilitation” under a “multi-stage” plan drawn up by specialists of Georgia’s National Museum, an umbrella organisation that oversees a dozen institutions including the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts. This would have provided a suitable 3,500 sq. m space “equipped according to all modern standards for storing museum collections in terms of climate and humidity, with the most up-to-date micro-climate, fire and physical safety systems”, Kiknadze says.

The most valuable medieval artefacts in the museum's collection are known as the Treasury

The abandoned strategy, which is still visible on the National Museum’s website, was created after the organisation partnered with Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2010-12 in a cultural “twinning” programme funded by the European Union. It referred to a design concept for the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum’s renovation by the French architect Jean-Francois Milou, who also proposed a masterplan for an “Avenue of the Arts” to unify various buildings of the Georgian National Museum.

The current situation “is quite alarming and very offensive because many years of work have gone down the drain”, says George Partskhaladze, a member of the Georgian National Museum’s research council who worked on the twinning project and restoration strategy.

Irina Koshoridze, the chief curator of Oriental collections, has confirmed to The Art Newspaper that “the transfer of collections has not started yet” at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum but she warns that “no temperature and climate conditions” are in place if objects are relocated.In contrast, a decade ago the 5,000 works of the Oriental collection were carefully moved to the Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia nearby, including 25 early Persian paintings that Koshoridze described as its “most important and world-renowned” works.

Supporters of the museum recently raised the alarm over the fate of another prized artefact, the medieval Ancha Icon of the Saviour, which dates to the sixth or seventh century. In August, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, asked the prime minister Irakli Garibashvili to hand over the icon to the Anchiskhati church after which it is named, for use in religious services.

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

Neither the Georgian culture ministry nor the National Museum responded to The Art Newspaper’s requests for comment. A ministry statement posted this summer on Facebook decried the poor condition of the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum, which it said “does not meet the elementary standards of seismic resistance”. The statement refuted claims that the building could be demolished, however, adding: “the ministry intends to save the unique exhibits preserved in the museum”. Tsulukiani has also claimed that works went missing under previous museum management.

In late September, Akhalbedashvili, the museum’s new director, accused local media of spreading lies and said: “the art museum building will definitely be restored in the place where it is now”.