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The SNG's 'hellish' state

SLOVAKIA’S prime fine arts museum, the Slovak National Gallery (SNG), is closing down three permanent exhibitions due to the accelerating deterioration of its premises. In spite of this, the gallery says that as an institution financed by taxes it will continue to present programmes and serve the general public.

SLOVAKIA’S prime fine arts museum, the Slovak National Gallery (SNG), is closing down three permanent exhibitions due to the accelerating deterioration of its premises. In spite of this, the gallery says that as an institution financed by taxes it will continue to present programmes and serve the general public.

“The fact that Culture Minister Marek Maďarič has said that he sees reconstruction of the SNG as the primary investment goal of his ministry is wonderful news to us after the catastrophic winter,” SNG general director Alexandra Kusá wrote in a press release on May 24, referring to a statement made by the minister soon after he assumed his post following the general election.

The statement arrived at a time when the SNG was struggling to solve problems with an obsolete air conditioning system which was unable to maintain the necessary humidity levels to preserve some of its artworks. Because of this faulty equipment, the extreme cold spell in February threatened to damage 28 artworks – including paintings and wooden polychrome sculptures from the 14th century up to 19th century.

“This event pushed us into this difficult decision – to close down part of permanent exhibitions [Gothic and Baroque art and Art of the 19th Century in Slovakia] in order to guarantee the safety of the collections,” wrote Kusá.

The deteriorating condition of the SNG was explained during a night tour – Heaven Hell in SNG – during the Night of Museums and Galleries on May 19. Kusá guided the tour, with stops in the boiler room, the storehouse of artworks, closed exhibition premises, as well as the roof of the gallery.

The tour began with the boiler room in the basement, containing the heating and air conditioning units. Here Kusá explained that some of the units are out of order and some are so old that a technical museum has already shown an interest in them. The tour continued into the underground storehouse of artworks. These now keep only a fraction of SNG’s art as most of its paintings and other visual art are now stored in Zvolen Castle and will be returned when rebuilding has been completed.

The next stop was in the so-called bridging, an extension of the historical part of the gallery erected in the 1970s. As Kusá explained the bridging is a unique exhibition space. It consists of one large undivided hall making it possible to create unique layouts for each exhibition. The best known museum in this style is the Centre Pompidou in Paris, built several years after Vladimír Dedeček designed the bridging for this gallery in 1967. As Kusá noted, construction techniques were faulty and less advanced at that time in Slovakia and the structure subsequently suffered technical problems. It has now been closed for more than ten years. Though plans for its reconstruction were prepared many years ago, until now financing has not been available. Now, with a price tag of more than €33 million, the SNG hopes that the reconstruction will finally become a reality.

“You experienced the hell [in the basement boiler room] and this is our hell,” said Kusá. “This is because we are ‘sitting’ on 1,800 square metres of exhibition floor, but we cannot use it. And the heaven is a strange garden of heaven at the top of the building, on the sixth floor.”

The SNG in Bratislava consists of the historical buildings of the Water Barracks and the Esterhazy Palace and a modern extension by Dedeček. The latter consists of the bridging and the administrative building that also houses the photo and restorers’ ateliers. Kusá perceives the space on the roof, with its unroofed walls as fascinating because nowadays, during the era of developers, nobody would allow anything like this to be built.

“This wall has no function but aesthetic,” explained Kusá, pointing at the outer wall. She added that the wall on the roof perfectly completes the building optically from the outside but has no other ‘proper’ function.

Dedeček was aware of the excellent position of the building in the city centre and made a window into the sidewall offering a magnificent view of Bratislava Castle, St Martin’s Cathedral and the rooftops of the Old Town. The garden which Kusá mentioned belongs to a small flat for a maintenance employee.

On the Night of Museums and Galleries the SNG opened a summer pavilion in its open-air courtyard to demonstrate that in spite of its long-lasting problems, the gallery continues to serve to the public. The pavilion is constructed from scaffolding tubes and the space offers hammocks, deck chairs, a large chess board, a children’s playground, Wi-Fi internet connection, a café as well as a table with chairs for those wanting to hold more-or-less official meetings.

“When it’s too hot in the city, come here, I can reveal to you that here it is always terribly cold,” said Kusá.

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