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Sunday, 20 October 2019

The Egyptian Museum of Modern Arts: The story behind its partial closure

With the biggest collection of modern artwork in Egypt, The Egyptian Museum of Modern Arts had been shut for nearly three years, re-opening only partially. Ahram Online examines some of the issues keeping it from fully opening.

Soha Elsirgany, Monday 5 Oct 2015
The Museum of Egyptian Modern Art
The Museum of Egyptian Modern Art (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
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The Egyptian Museum of Modern Arts has been closed since January 2011. Egypt’s Fine Arts Sector, which has been operating under the Ministry of Culture, repeatedly pointed to renovations as reason behind the closure.

Having this in mind, many art followers wonder what renovations should include and how the sector translates them into time parameters. Its place on the list of the Fine Arts Sector’s priorities is unclear, however, with plans related to the reopening of all the halls remaining frozen until date.

Dating back to 1927, the museum contains many important works by Egyptian artists such as the country’s early 20th century contemporary art pioneers: Mahmoud Said, Ragheb Ayad, Gazbeya Sirry, Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, and many others.

It was brought to life upon the initiative of artist Mahmoud Khalil, who donated his collection after founding a fine arts advisory committee which later also founded the museum that housed Khalil’s donated private collection and the state’s collection.

The collection’s first home was the Old Wax Museum in Cairo and then the works kept being moved from one place to another. Finally in the 1980s, the artwork found its final place at the palace known as El-Saraya El-Kobra or the Great Palace, built in the 1930s blending neo-Islamic style with Art Deco. The palace was a part of the back-then Gezira Fair Zone, yet today the area is often referred to as the Cairo Opera House grounds due to the new opera that was built there in 1988.  

The museum was renovated several times in 1991, 2005 and then again it was closed in 2011 for same reasons.

Partially re-opened in November 2014, the first floor currently is functioning as an exhibit open in the mornings that closes at 2pm.

The second floor, from which all the works have been taken down, contains one functioning room, the Abaad Hall (also known as Dimensions Gallery and Mohsen Shaalan Hall), in which artworks from the museum’s stored collection are exhibited monthly.

According to the data provided by Hamdy Abo El-Maaty, head of the Fine Arts Sector, the Egyptian Museum of Modern Arts ranks as housing the biggest collection in Egypt, and arguably the most comprehensive selection of Egyptian artists in the world. The number adds up to 14,000 artworks, with 3,000 lent to embassies and other national institutions.

Unfortunately, with most of the museum’s space closed for several years, the visitors are able to see only a minimal fraction of its riches.

Gems hidden in budget struggles

“I have a vision to make this museum one of the best in the world. For a museum that holds thousands of artworks, it is not appropriate for it to be only partially open. It has represented the arts movement in Egypt for the past century, and its extremely important,” Hamdy Abo El-Maaty tells Ahram Online.

“A committee of specialists will start next week working on digital and manual archiving of the museum’s artwork that is stored. And the plan is to digitise it, so visitors can have a brochure and digital information experience,” he adds.

Abo El-Maaty has also presented a proposal to Abdelwahed El-Nabawy, former culture minister, to open more than one branch for the Egyptian Modern Arts Museum throughout the country, in a genuine effort to utilise and showcase the museum collection’s full capacity.

“Yet we can’t fully open a museum that has a lot missing from its infrastructure- no air conditioning, the elevators aren’t working well, lots of renovation needs to be done,” he adds.

According to Abo El-Maaty, who was also the museum’s director in 2004, the full operation of the museum, which it was hoped to open by the end of this year, is still waiting in line for its budget.

“It is all related to the financing. This museum requires around 25 million Egyptian pounds for the renovations, which I’ve presented in a request to the culture ministry and is still pending approval. All the paperwork is ready, as soon as we have the money for it we will start working on it,” he says.

“We applied for 106 million to cover the needs of all the museums, but we got 84 million. 20 went to Gamal Abdel Nasser Museum, 20 for Mahmoud Khalil, and 44 to Gezira Art Centre.”

“Besides that, we used to have 33 million to use freely on renovations, which we were going to use for the Egyptian Modern Arts Museum, and it was cut down to just 20 million. Since that wasn’t enough to complete the Modern Arts Museum, the money went to finish other projects that are already being worked on,” Abo El-Maaty says.

Priorities

With all the numbers that have been provided by Abo El-Maaty, we still question the sector’s choices and priorities. In our conversation, it becomes apparent that the sector invests a lot into new projects while there are several already existing museums and other art venues awaiting restoration, including the Modern Arts Museum.  

“Of course it’s more important to invest in what is already there. But the Gamal Abdel Nasser museum for instance was an already existing building that we then transformed into a museum. And this will be a very important museum on the international level too,” Abo El-Maaty explains.

“It’s a matter of adjusting the timeline. We work with what we get with the budget, if the money isn’t enough for a certain project, we try to finance other projects that might be smaller, but at least we will have finished something until we can work on the others,” Abo El-Maaty says.

However, if the Fine Arts Sector’s core intent is to bring the museums’ movement back to life, the budding question is still related to the timeframe: Why has it taken all those years to assure that the amount needed for the restoration of the Modern Arts Museum takes all those years?

The answers are intertwined with the fact of the same issues from 2012, haunting the museum and stifling its potential.

“At the time when I was in the sector, we were putting up newer cameras. But I’ve been out of that position for a year now and I don’t know what they’re doing,” Salah El-Meligy, former head of Fine Arts Sector, tells Ahram Online.

According to a February 2012 article in the New York Times, in which Salwa Hamdi is quoted as the museum’s director at the time, Hamdi has been working on “the creation of an online database to keep track of the collection,” in an effort to improve the museum’s infrastructure and organisation.

The article states that Hamdi was also facing the problem of securing a budget for these renovations.

A rattlesnake pit

Prominent artist and curator Khaled Hafez, thinks that it not about securing the budget but rather blames the instability and political and administrative changes the country has been going through since 2011 as the reasons behind the operational stagnation.

“Can you imagine we’ve had almost ten culture ministers, and six heads of Fine Arts Sector, in the past four years? All this change makes it very difficult for the continuity of any project,” Hafez tells Ahram Online.

Hafez believes that the books are correct, and the sector is indeed seeking to modernise the museum and is awaiting the budget.  “This sounds like an easy part in the whole equation,” he comments.

He points, however, to another, unofficial issue hindering the museum’s completion.

“The truth is everyone is nervous about the responsibility after Mohsen Shaalan’s incident,” Hafez says.

In August 2010, a Van Gogh painting Poppy Flowers was stolen from Mahmoud Khalil Museum, leading to the trial and one year imprisonment of Shaalan, at the time Head of Fine Arts Sector.

Shaalan was found guilty of negligence and incompetence in his duties in relation to the theft.

Hafez explains that after this incident, “all the large museums were put under the scrutinising eye of the National Security Agency,” he explains, mentioning the Mahmoud Khalil Museum which has since been shut down, with the Fine Arts Sector quoting renovations as reason behind the closure.

“I don’t think it was right to jail the head of the sector in that situation, but now no one wants to touch the museum ‘cause it’s like a rattlesnake pit, no one wants that responsibility after they’ve seen the consequences,” Hafez says.

For his part, Abo El-Maaty says that security systems are part of the renovation plans, and an issue they are trying to address.

“Of course the theft of that painting from Mahmoud Kahlil Museum happened as a result of neglect in the security and the cameras weren’t working well. I’ve just today signed on a proposal budget for 300,000 pounds, for supporting all museums with security cameras, to cover places that need more equipment,” Abo El-Maaty tells Ahram Online.

It seems the ball lies in the court of the culture ministry, who ultimately grants or postpones approvals that decide the fates of these museums, with The Egyptian Modern Arts Museum on top of them.

“When I talked to the current minister Helmy Namnam, he told me ‘I know all that you want to do, and I will be supporting with everything’. It is important that we’re on the same page,” Abo El-Maaty reveals.

“I don’t think there will be any reason not to agree on any projects, and so far everything has been approved, as this is the normal state and how things should go,” Abo El-Maaty says.

 

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