Greece's $473 billion debt mirrors crisis in cultural assets
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Plato doesn't live here anymore.
A pack of feral cats chases the rodents that run past the Gypsy squatters who inhabit the bleak 32-acre Athens park that masks the birthplace of Western civilization.
Alexandros Stanas says what's interred beneath the debris illustrates both a solution to Greece's 345 billion euro ($473 billion) sovereign debt crisis and why his country roils in catastrophe.
"Economics, politics, philosophy, everything that empowers our reasoning and ability to solve today's problems was born here at Plato's Academy," says Mr. Stanas, a former management consultant at the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism, who is now general director of the Art-Athina International Contemporary Art Fair.
"This is the original holy ground," Mr. Stanas says, walking across the garbage that covers the buried foundation of the 387 B.C. intellectual incubator. "This is what we Greeks have allowed to happen to our ultimate metaphor for excellence."
Mr. Stanas, 40, says Plato's Academy, discovered by a private archaeologist in the late 1920s, is one of hundreds of forlorn historic sites and destitute museums that generations of Greek politicians of all persuasions have failed to turn into attractions with the marketing clout of Versailles, the academic distinction of Harvard University or the influential draw of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
"WEF sells itself as Plato's Academy in a Swiss village," Mr. Stanas says. "You are standing on the original WEF, the original Harvard, but I can't envision global leaders coming here for enlightenment and inspiration."
Mr. Stanas is not alone in using strong and what, for many among the 11 million Greeks, is politically incorrect imagery to describe the cultural dysfunction in a fiscally handcuffed country under psychological siege and battling to show its creditors that the corruption of the past is over.
"Athens is a tourism black hole," says Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Yeroulanos, 45. "The days of the minister of culture handing out money to his friends are over."
Yet time is running out for the vigorous fishing-industry executive tapped by Prime Minister George Papandreou in 2008 to buff up the city's decrepit government-owned museums.
Mr. Yeroulanos is brooding in the Hilton Hotel coffee shop. His ministry has been taken over by some of the 2,500 contract employees he was forced to dismiss to meet a budget target of 400 million euros that likely will be slashed even further.
"Let me tell you what we face," Mr. Yeroulanos says. "The minister of health and I are trying to create a methadone program that will stop addicts from gathering around the National Archaeology Museum. My job is to promote culture but the changes I'm trying to make happen, that need to happen, are taking place within an escalating crisis."
Pamphlets on how to deal with drug addicts scaring tourists at what should be one of the world's leading cultural attractions are not on the table in the office of Guggenheim Foundation international-board member Dakis Joannou. The chairman of the Greek construction company J&P-Avax SA and founder of the 28-year-old Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art helped establish the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, transforming the Spanish city from backwater to arts boomtown.
"Culture is a big business that people are hungry for and we have huge assets," Mr. Joannou, 71, says from his office in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. "But the government uses our assets to make political statements and to gain votes. It's a matter of survival for them, and nobody wants to invest in culture or anything else in a climate of bankruptcy."
Even so, Mr. Joannou says the two main political parties, Pasok and New Democracy, are devoid of the necessary cultural drive, and that the government's projected 12 percent rise to 16.5 million foreign tourists visiting Greece in 2011 compared with last year is a Pyrrhic indicator.
"The tourists who come to Greece go to the sunny islands, making any rise in visitor numbers pathetic in comparison to our assets," he says. "Culture management must be creative, imaginative, exciting and that can't be done here."
Mr. Joannou says he thought Greece's luck had turned when it won the right to host the 2004 Olympics, only to spend 9 billion euros on a project that ended in financial disaster, at the time lumbering the government with a deficit in excess of 4 percent of gross domestic product and beyond European Union limits.
"I went on a few of the government culture committees, but their inability to act frustrated me," he says. "I no longer get involved. I gave up on them. I do my thing. It's a shame."
Mr. Joannou shakes his head. "We could have done here what we did in Bilbao," he says. "Politicians didn't want to listen."
Private efforts to vitalize Greece's cultural sector are mostly met with political vitriol, says Paul Firos, the 64-year- old founder of Hotel Data Systems Inc. Shortly before the 2004 Olympics, the Greek-American businessman and philanthropist sold his Connecticut-based reservation software system and used 2 million euros of the profit to open the Herakleidon Art and Mathematics Museum on a leafy street beneath the Acropolis.
The government still refuses to allow him to put up a street sign that could lead people to the museum, says Mr. Firos.
Even the critically acclaimed New Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, after 33 years of ideological bickering, lingers as a target. Greek Communist Party Secretary General Aleka Papariga and the Greek Archaeologists Society have issued statements that condemn the 130 million euro facility co-funded by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and by the EU's European Regional Development Fund as "unacceptable" and "in danger from the most extreme privatization."
"Neither political party has the will or expertise to manage culture," he says. "Government culture experts live in a bunker and view any outside help to manage our treasures and make them profitable as a threat to their livelihoods."
Conventional wisdom dictates that cultural entrepreneurs not affiliated with either of the two main political parties are determined to Disney-fy Greece, Mr. Firos says, turning the country into a theme park with water slides on the Acropolis and a roller coaster down Mount Athos. As Mr. Yeroulanos says, "I will tell anyone who wants to Disney-fy my country to go to hell."
It's a potent rallying cry in a country whose citizens idolize their heritage and ancestors. As Costas Sarris, the 60-year-old Ministry of Culture and Tourism archaeologist charged with the restoration of Plato's Academy, says, "if you can't preserve something, it's better to leave it in the ground than dig it up for uncontrolled use."
That's why Daniel Berger remains in Rome. Back in 1993, Mr. Berger, a U.S. cultural entrepreneur, noticed that bureaucratic neglect and corruption had transformed Italian museums and archaeological sites into junkyards. "It was just like Greece," he says. "Italian society feared outside money and private people doing things the government couldn't do."
So Mr. Berger, 73, helped the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities formulate the so-called Ronchey laws, which allow private individuals and companies to bid on operating bookshops, restaurants, tours, ticketing and other concessions in state museums. A fee is paid for the space, with the government taking about 15 percent of the profits.
"At this point, letting Disney come in and manage Greece's cultural heritage would be the best thing that could happen," says Mr. Berger. "Okay, that's too much, but the government's fear of Disney highlights the problem they refuse to deal with. Visitors to Greece's treasures want a toilet that doesn't look like something out of an African village."
Small wonder that Mr. Yeroulanos says he has no intention of speaking with Mr. Berger. "I'm not interested," he says. "This is disastrous thinking. Athens is not Las Vegas or Abu Dhabi."
"The ignorance overwhelms," Mr. Berger says. "They worry about gift shops selling Athena bikinis. Every product that concessionaires sell in Italy must be signed off by the museum's director."
Athens lawyer and former parliamentarian Stratis Stratigis untangles the paradox. "Greek politicians are intimidated by sponsors, foundations and entrepreneurs," says Mr. Stratigis, former chairman of the 2004 Athens Olympic Organizing Committee. "They're seen as products of capitalist fortunes, a model that the leftists of Pasok and the populists of New Democracy have rejected for generations because it hurts them during elections."
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am