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Bos/Hrv/Srp 22 Oct 12

Endless Reconstruction Keeps Art Museum on Hold

Despite artists’ appeals, Serbia’s Museum of Contemporary Art, shut for five years, looks likely stay a construction site for years.

Jelena Jovanovic
BIRN Belgrade
Invitiation for the "What Happened to the Museum?" exhibition

When an exhibition was mounted on “What happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art” in the museum’s old, closed building in Novi Beograd from June 23 to September 30, the aim was to speed up reconstruction of the building that halted two years ago because of lack of funding.

Although the artists behind the show succeded in expressing the art world’s dissatisfaction with the five-year wait, it is unclear what else they achieved.

The Culture Ministry, tasked with stumping up the remaining 6 million euro for the reconstruction work, still doesn’t have the money.

The ministry recently pledged to transfer a mere 160,000 euro to start the most immediate construction, so that the building can be brought to its purpose and open within a year.

But the rest of the reconstruction will have to be finished later on, it said

Artists and audiences, fed up with waiting for the museum to reopen, have only one wish: a large, functional exhibition space to present modern artists and the museum’s rich collection of artworks from different epochs. After years of waiting, the art scene feels it has suffered enough.

One deadline after another:

July 2012 marked exactly five years since the closure of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The most significant cultural institution presenting contemporary art in Serbia, it was shut for the purposes of reconstruction, adaptation and expansion.

Over those five years, audiences have had no opportunity to see the museum’s permanent collection or its occasional exhibitions of significant local and international modern artists.

The envisaged one-year deadline for the work, from 2008 to 2009, passed a long time ago. The second announced deadline, at the end of 2010, has also since been moved because of financial problems.

Only the first stage of the reconstruction project is now complete - about 30 per cent of the task.

This includes stopping penetration of moisture into the museum courtyard, works on the roof and the depots and repairs to the workshops for conservation.

However, following the first phase of reconstruction and the stagnation of the process, the interior of the building is in as poor a condition as ever.

The walls inside are covered with mould and the flooring also has  mould, with patches visible, the result of leaks from the roof.

“The building is like an abandoned construction site… exposed to decay,” muses Dejan Sretenovic, curator of the MSU.

According to Sretenovic, the second phase of the project will be more extensive.

“This will include replacing hardware, cleaning the façade, reconstructing the entrance porch, interior landscaping and installation of technical equipment,” he explained.

Those works will probably have to be done in stages, as the ministry lacks the money to finish all the work at once.

A priority, in theory:

The Minister of Culture, Bratislav Petkovic, who took office following the May general election, recently declared reconstruction of the Museum of Contemporary Art a priority.

Miroslav Tasic, state secretary in the Ministry, also made optimistic estimates that the museum could open in a year.

But, as Tasic explained to Balkan Insight, the ministry cannot finance the whole reconstruction.

He said that although the museum is a priority, together with the National Museum, other important projects need to be finished soon, or their realisation needs to start soon.

These include the Historical Museum of Serbia, the Vuk and Dositej Museum and the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

It would be “more realistic” to finish the most immediate works, open the museum and then continue with the reconstruction, he explained.

“The question is whether it is necessary to allocate all 600 million at once and then open a museum, or whether it’s possible to finance part of this vast sum, to open the museum and afterwards to finish the work,” Tasic added.

He detailed fire-protection systems and electrical installations, as well as replacing large glass areas as immediate priorities in order to open the museum.

The glass surfaces on the facade are old and non-functional, as the building was built in 1964.

Modern, multi-layered glass is needed to provide basic museum conditions and protection from UV rays and maintain an appropriate temperature inside the building.

Non-exhibition in non-museum:

Museum taken from the Kalemegdan fortress

The exhibition on the reconstruction of the Museum was the first event to take place in the building since it closed in 2007.

Dejan Sretenovic says artists chose to designate it a “non exhibition” because no conditions exist to prepare and present a proper exhibition, as it is currently a “non-museum”.

“We decided that what was appropriate was to make a non-exhibition,” he recalled.

“We wanted to conceptualize the existing situation in situ and produce some sort of incident, to wake up the Museum from its hibernation,” Sretenovic added.

Darinka Pop Mitic, one of the younger artists who took part, said that it was an attempt by artists to make use of the ruined whole.

“The Museum of Contemporary Art’s absence over the years of reconstruction has greatly affected the cultural scene,” she recalled.

“This exhibition is the result of a five-year gap in the presentation of contemporary art in Serbia,” she added.

“I hope that after this exhibition, the reconstruction process of the Museum will be faster.”

But her colleague, Misa Mladenovic, another artist who presented at the exhibition, said that he doubted the exhibition would have much impact beyond a narrow circle of artists.

“I think the Museum of Modern Art is not a priority for the Ministry of Culture, and that the Mninistry would rather invest money in something else,” he said, pessimistically.

Mladenovic says that the absence of the Museum had had an influence on the local art scene, but not that much.

“Many diverse and active areas in the field of visual art have been active during the long period of the Museum’s reconstruction,” he noted.

“On the other hand, we have been denied the large exhibition projects that the museum occasionally mounted, as well as insight into the important collection of 20th century works in the museum,” he continued.

Sretenovic says the “non-exhibition” reflected a need to seek public support and put some kind of pressure on the authorities to address what he calls “the impossible situation that the museum has been in for five years”.

The eyes of artists and audiences are now on the ministry, he adds.  

“We are satisfied with the echo that the non-exhibition had in public and in media,” he recalls.

“The government is now on the move. Judging by the first statements of the new Minister…. But we will see.”

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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