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In an abandoned building in the heart of the Bulgarian capital, huge holes gape in the walls where doors used to be. Bits of wood, pieces of shredded wall, and other construction debris lie scattered on the floor.
Once used by the city's technical university before being abandoned for years, the space now echoes with the sounds of construction workers and machinery.
Sometime in 2012 these corridors should be flooded with visitors and art lovers, when the building becomes the flagship of a new museum complex. Dubbed the "Bulgarian Louvre" (though it is not related to the Paris Louvre), it is to showcase the best of the country's culture and art stretching back to antiquity.
Gesturing to the huge, gold-domed building across the square, perhaps the capital's biggest tourist draw, Culture Minister Vejdi Rashidov told reporters during an April visit, "When tourists come to the Aleksandar Nevsky Cathedral, they would stop by this museum to see all of our art. We have great artists that Bulgaria should be proud of. Once it's done Bulgaria will have its museum forever."
The project is part of an ambitious plan to redevelop Sofia's leading museums and galleries to spur cultural tourism.
The Bulgarian "Louvre" would connect the old technical university building with the National Gallery of Foreign Art, which with it shares a courtyard. It would combine the collections of the National Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Foreign Art, for a total of about 70,000 pieces. The 23,000-square-meter complex would be about one-third the size of the actual Louvre.
Construction is expected to cost up to 25 million lev (12.5 million euros). So far the state has provided 15 million lev. The rest is to come from subsequent state and EU funds.
In addition to the flagship museum, the government plans a museum for the history of Sofia, a complex combining the existing mineralogy and modern art museums, and a new museum of totalitarian art. Details of funding and construction schedules for the later work have yet to be worked out.
The authorities' emphasis on grand buildings and tourists worries many in Sofia's arts community. They say galleries are having to cram their collections into ill-equipped spaces, delay restoration work, hide away splendid pieces, and cadge for donations in order to buy new works.
"It presents museums as buildings, not as collections of art," Vessela Nozharova, a Sofia art critic and curator, said. "It's not professional to talk about museums only as a bunch of buildings that move from one place to another.
"The concept doesn't even mention how museums' collections would be developed. For the last 20 years almost no new items have been bought," Nozharova said.
Local museums and galleries rely heavily on donations to replenish their collections. "Our gallery is maybe the only one that has regularly bought new items for the last three years," Adelina Fileva, director of the Sofia Art Gallery, said.
Fileva complained that the planning process has been dominated by architectural concerns and has left too many other views out. "The concept should have been done in cooperation with a wide variety of experts, for example historians, archeologists, museum workers, artists," she said.
Although Irina Mutafchieva, director of the National Gallery of Foreign Art, welcomes the concept as a step in the right direction, she also insists that the plan should be further discussed by museum workers and experts. "Until the concept is broken down to exact timetables and costs, it will remain just an aspiration," she said.
"Despite the fact that we have had some new exhibitions in the last few years, most [exhibitions] are 20 to 30 years old, and people's interest in them is fading," Deputy Culture Minister Todor Chobanov acknowledged. Next year the ministry intends to create a fund that will support what it deems the best proposals from the city's museums for new acquisitions.
The ministry's current budget is around 100 million lev (50 million euros). State museums and galleries get less than 10 percent of that, but even that fraction is expected to shrink, as the cabinet plans across-the-board cuts. There is no fund for acquisitions.
Lack of exhibition space is also a common problem. Many museums, including the National Art Gallery, housed in the crumbling former royal palace, can show only a fraction of their collections. Other galleries and museums cannot afford the equipment for proper lighting, air conditioning, and restoration of the art works. For example, updating the air conditioning system in the National Gallery of Foreign Art alone would cost around 250,000 euros, and a new lighting system even more.
Meanwhile, some of the city's museums have become nearly irrelevant. For decades the only visitors to the impressive collection of the Museum of Sofia have been historians, museum workers, and restorers, as it has been closed to the public. Its 120,000 items – including a wall clock given as a gift from Queen Victoria to Prince Ferdinand I Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, former royal carriages, and a gold-plated desk, a present from Otto von Bismarck – remain out of public view.
A hundred years ago, the building of the National Art Gallery was home to monarchs, as Bulgaria's royal palace. But now the 130-year-old building urgently needs renovation. Occasional stains of mold decorate its walls. Some of its paintings hang next to thin cracks in the walls or peeling paint, or even under small fissures in the ceiling. The original parquet floors are pocked with holes.
Mutafchieva, the foreign-art gallery director, said, "Our most valuable item – a Madonna and Child painted by Giovanni Rosso – is in storage, because we don't have enough money to provide the necessary air conditioning and conditions to display it."
Meanwhile, inside the Museum of Natural History, time seems to have stopped shortly after its 1907 opening. Endless cabinets full of minerals on the first floor are followed by row upon row of glass cases with stuffed birds, wild animals, and cylinders holding formaldehyde-treated reptiles.
Boris Chilev, director of the Sofia city department that supervises the Museum of Sofia, is skeptical that the Culture Ministry's ambitious but unfunded plan will ever get off the ground. At this point, he said, it's merely "wishful thinking."
But Chobanov, the deputy culture minister, is undeterred. "When working in times of financial crisis, it's hard to plan future spending," he conceded. "However, the Ministry of Culture will do its best to find the money," he said.
The government argues that its approach amounts to an investment that will pay off eventually for all of the city's arts and culture venues.
Accompanying the culture minister on his April visit to the construction site, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov cited a claim by Rashidov that 40 million people visit Florence each year and spend on average 100 euros for tickets to museums and galleries. "So in times of crisis this money [for new museums] is an investment that will bring returns," he said.
Those numbers, however, do not jibe with those provided by the Florence Tourism Board, which reported 6.6 million visitors, 4.6 million of whom were foreigners, in 2009. By comparison, all of Bulgaria hosted 5.7 million foreign tourists last year, according to the National Statistical Institute.
Even if tourists were willing to shell out to see Bulgaria's treasures, Nozharova said, the emphasis on cultural tourism could leave behind many locals, who now pay 2 to 5 euros for entrance to most museums, as opposed to the significantly higher fees charged in much of Western Europe. "How are you going to charge Bulgarians a 20 lev [10 euro] entrance fee? No one would pay that," she said.
Fileva, the Sofia Art Gallery director, also wondered if places outside the capital – in a country rich with archeological treasures – have been left out of the picture. "If we want to develop cultural tourism, we need a national strategy," she said. There is near-unanimous agreement among prominent figures in the arts community on the need for a cultural policy that is at once comprehensive while paying attention to urgent needs. Chobanov said the ministry has already begun work on such a document.
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