Experts have raised concerns over the fate of a collection of Ancient and Modern art housed at Georgia’s leading art museum, the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts. This comes as proposed renovation plans by Georgia’s culture minister, Thea Tsulukianian, are taken under consideration and as political unrest sweeps across the country.
Members of the Tbilisi museum’s staff, as well as cultural experts, are concerned that the collection, which houses nearly 139,000-items of antiquities to 20th-century works, may be in peril amid Tsulukianian’s proposed renovation plans. Preservationists are also decrying a potential demolition of the museum’s historic building, a former seminary dating to 1838.
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Shortly after being appointed to her new role in March, Tsulukiani announced plans to renovate Shalva Amiranashvili Museum, calling it “a major generational endeavor.” Some critics of the new appointee see her political ties as the driving force behind the abrupt move to revamp the museum. A longtime member of the national government, Tsulukiani served as justice minister from 2012 to 2020. She holds ties to Georgian Dream’s founder and Kremlin-backed billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Some media outlets have speculated that Tsulukiani’s agenda for the museum’s building is related to Ivanishvili’s real-estate investments in the region. The former Georgian president is the main backer of a $500 million museum and hotel development project known as Panorama Tbilisi.
In July, Tsulukiani claimed the renovation was urgent, in response to a review by UNESCO experts citing damage to the ancient icons in the museum’s permanent collection, along with their necessary relocation. The official website dedicated to the network of Georgia’s government-backed museums states that the building’s conditions are in disrepair: “The Shalva Amiranashvili Fine Arts Museum (FAM) of the Georgian National Museum has been facing decades-old problems related to poor condition of its building and the inappropriate conditions of collections’ storage.”
In the same month, the newly appointed museum director, Nika Akhalbedashvili, a former justice ministry appointed by Tsulukiani, announced to museum staffers that the collection would have to be abruptly moved in the coming months. The announcement spurred fear among the institution’s employees and conservationists, who say that the plan puts the collection in jeopardy of being permanently displaced. Further advice from experts on strategies to safeguard the centuries-old items have been ignored by the museum’s new leadership, The Artnewspaper reported.
On the heels of the announcement in August, concerns over protecting a prized icon dating from the sixth century housed at the museum began to circulate. In a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Tsulukiani, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II requested that the Ancha Icon (ca. 6th century), an important religious relic, be returned to the Church for preservation.
A plan for the care of the collection was previously organized by experts associated with Georgia’s National Museum umbrella, the group that oversees nearly a dozen state institutions, but has since been scrapped. That agenda stipulated that the Medieval icons and Modern Georgian art in the museum’s collection would be temporarily moved off site, while the ailing building underwent a multi-phase renovation to update its climate controls and safety infrastructure.
The controversy over renovation plans for the museum also happens to coincide with a time of political turmoil that has roiled Georgia. The country’s governing body, the Georgian Dream party, has been accused of election fixing during their mayoral races earlier this month. Meanwhile, the jailing of former president Mikheil Saakashvili of the opposing United National Movement party has lead to widespread protests across the nation.