Greek museums forced to close as funding runs out

“Cultural institutions on brink,” says curator of main exhibition at Thessaloniki Biennale

Major public cultural institutions in Greece are on the point of collapse, say leading Greek art professionals, as concerns mount that the country faces insolvency after 61% of the population rejected bailout proposals earlier this week made by international creditors.

"The situation here is critical and hair-raising. The banks will run out of money unless immediate action is taken by the European Central Bank," says the independent curator Katerina Gregos, who has organised the main exhibition of the fifth Thessaloniki Biennale, which opened last month (until 30 September).

Gregos says that state cultural institutions are on the brink: “The State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki only has enough funds to pay staff salaries. It cannot fund running costs and exhibitions, cover utility bills and pay for internet usage.” She adds that the inauguration of EMST—the new museum of contemporary art in Athens, based in the former Fix brewery—has been delayed because of a funding shortfall. The Greek ministry of culture declined to comment.

Denys Zacharopoulos, the artistic director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, says that state museums have been under threat since 2008. “The first things to suffer under the government’s austerity plan have been culture, education and health,” he says.

His institution is run as a non-profit foundation supported by state funding, which has fallen from €500,000 in 2006 to €180,000 today. The museum is temporarily closed “because the cost of keeping it open will bankrupt the institution, making 20 staff redundant”, he says. Even operating the air conditioning is too expensive.

The ministry of culture hopes to merge the museum with the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki as part of a rescue package; the boards of both museums are already working in partnership, Zacharopoulos says, adding: "The real trouble now is that the stark economic facts mean that we can no longer dream of a better world.”

Artists are also responding to the crisis. The Thessaloniki biennial, which is organised by the State Museum of Contemporary Art, includes an ongoing project by the Depression Era collective made up of videos and texts, as well as a digital live image feed.

The collective, founded in 2011, charts the current crisis, “picturing the Greek city and its outer regions, the private lives of outcasts, the collapse of public systems… in order to understand the social, economical and historical transformation currently taking place in Greece”, says an exhibition statement.