Today was by far the most exciting of the “Why Museums Now” conference, as the topic of museums’ roles in urban development was addressed. Talk all you want about exhibit design, branding schemes, and collections management–what I want to know is how local communities and the surrounding landscape will be affected by museum planning. And there is certainly a lot of planning to be done: this year, the number of local and international tourists in Georgia increased over last year by approximately 55%. If the country remains politically stable and the current rate of economic growth/infrastructural investment is sustained, the country can expect a lot more in the future as well. Some have predicted 5 million by 2015, which exceeds the current population of Georgia itself.
In order to meet the perceived wants and needs of tourists, the Saakashvili administration has poured money into schemes across Georgia–courting major hotel chains, restoring world heritage monuments, renovating Old Tbilisi’s historic buildings, and even creating plans for a new seaside “instant city.” As discussed earlier in the conference, museum spaces must keep pace with changing needs by being both aesthetically pleasing and functionally effective. The Georgian National Museum and Tbilisi City Hall plan to contribute by putting forward an idea for a new urban planning project: Tbilisi’s “Avenue of the Arts,” unveiled today by Jean Francois Milou and Suzanne Ogge of studioMilou (a French architectural firm known for its work with cultural institutions around the world).
The Avenue of the Arts proposal outlines the transformation of part of Rustaveli Avenue (from Freedom Square to Tbilisi Marriott, or about four blocks) into “a place dedicated to Georgian culture, arts and traditions,” with the intention of restoring Tbilisi’s status as the cultural and artistic capital of the Caucasus. The resulting space will be a multi-purpose, open-air “cultural platform” for the public, which will also unify and harmonize downtown tourist sites (museums, cafes, shops).
Anyone who has visited downtown Tbilisi before may wonder how it is possible to make a pedestrian-focused piazza in one of Tbilisi’s most high-traffic areas. Irakli Murghulia (of Tbilisi City Hall and Technical University) showed us how a new traffic-diverting highway (nearing completion) is underway on the outskirts of the city. He also mentioned that Tbilisi’s other municipal projects are working to connect the Avenue of the Arts and nearby visitor-friendly areas (Leselidze, Shardeni) to newly renovated ones across the River Mtkvari in Didube, like Aghmashenebeli and Plekhanovi, which will ostensibly relieve some overcrowding in the Rustaveli area. Milou’s team suggested that “automated bollards” be installed at either end of the new cultural district, to either block off automobile traffic entirely or to limit it to reduced-speed traffic. A new [wireless] tram is suggested (the antiquated Tbilisi tram system was removed shortly after the Saakashvili administration took power)–an idea rendered somewhat more realistic now that Parliament is moving to Kutaisi and fewer protesters will be blocking the proposed route.
Once open to freely-moving pedestrians, some of Rustaveli’s iconic yet underutilized architectural landmarks will be repurposed and incorporated into the plan. The soon-to-be-vacant monumental Parliament building will be a “Hotel of the Arts,” with cafes, exhibitions, and shopping space on the ground level. The old Youth Palace will become a performance venue and will also feature dining and shopping.
The Avenue of the Arts plan is intended to rectify some of the shortcomings of the Georgian National Museum’s 2006 Master Plan, which functioned as an internal technical document rather than one intended for the broader public. As a result of the 2006 plan, the museum has been criticized for not respecting and conserving the surrounding historical fabric–for example, a modern extension was added to the National Gallery, immediately adjacent to Kashueti Cathedral. Sometimes, modern architecture can bring variety and harmonize with the surrounding environment, yet it usually ends up criticized for being dissonant and obnoxious. The latter reaction is more likely when the general public is not informed and/or asked for their input.
While the Avenue of the Arts plan is ambitious and does attempt to address some logistical problems with downtown Tbilisi (cultural institutions isolated from one another by “walls” of traffic, multiple iconic buildings left vacant or underutilized, tourists confused by lack of clear locations to which they should flock), at the end of the day, the plan was still developed and is beginning implementation without citizen input. Perhaps visitor needs will be addressed, but what about nearby families, who will now have a bustling international arts scene next door? Undoubtedly, such changes in the heart of Tbilisi will have wide-ranging effects on the daily lives of local residents, particularly those in the nearby historic districts of Mtatsminda, Sololaki, and Ortachala. This large-scale centralized plan (ring any bells?) is not complemented by any programs to support nearby historic housing, which is often in lamentable condition already, never mind in several years with the planned increases in tourism and urban population.
Although almost every speaker at yesterday’s conference session discussed the problems of museum attendance (consistently dominated by tourists and local elites rather than the average, less wealthy and educated majority), the Georgian National Museum is currently using an exhibit to “promote public discourse” about the Avenue of the Arts project. Museum director David Lordkipanidze enthusiastically mentioned that several businessmen approached him after seeing this exhibit–but investment pitches hardly reveal a real forum for locals to voice their concerns. I do not think it is possible for the project to have the proposed “trickle down” or “multiplier” effect when none of the affected citizens are made thoroughly aware of upcoming changes or asked for their input before, during, and after the implementation process.
Another concern of mine is that with the completion of the Avenue of the Arts in conjuction with other Tbilisi “beautification” projects, visitors to the city will be directed through something of a Potemkin village, a Disney-Tbilisi sanitized and commodified for tourist consumption–and a Tbilisi completely disengaged from the lived reality (good and bad) of Tbilisians. This concern has been voiced by numerous critics of “New Old Tbilisi,” both foreign and Georgian. Now, I am as opposed as anyone to Orientalist tourists who come to bask in the quaint, “exotic” dilapidation of Old Tbilisi. But the Saakashvili administration, hell-bent on presenting a facade of Westernization and development (even if it is, literally, a facade), presses on in gutting and reconstructing planned high-tourist-traffic areas while ignoring entire residential districts–none of this with public discussion and input, mind you–and that is not the solution.
Dr. Lordkipanidze ended the conference today on a cheery note: “So ‘Why Museums Now’?—for a better life.”
But I can’t help wondering, for who?