Late Wednesday night, Greece’s parliament passed austerity measures established by the recent bailout agreement. In response, sporadic violence flared up throughout Athens, alongside the more numerous peaceful protests decrying creditors’ imposition of further cuts in government spending.
On Tuesday, the IMF announced that it would not participate in any plan that does not include debt restructuring – a policy deeply unpopular with powerful EU fiscal hawks German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble. Without either a “haircut” – a reduction in the overall debt burden – or the establishment of a generous timeframe to pay back debts, many analysts are pessimistic about the austerity package’s chance of success.
The measures require Greece to unload €50 billion in state assets, much of which will be sold off to pay back creditors. This could have a huge impact on Greece’s fine arts, cultural, and historical institutions, which have already suffered from an economic crisis that some economists consider worse than the United States’ Great Depression.
Denys Zacharopoulos – the artistic director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki – sums up the anemic state of arts and culture funding: “The first things to suffer under the government’s austerity plan have been culture, education and health.”
Structured as a nonprofit foundation and largely dependent on state funding, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art has seen its funding shrink from a peak of €500,000 in 2006, to just $180,000 in 2015 – a 64 percent drop off. These kind of budget shortfalls are staggering, and can make a huge difference in an institution’s ability to deliver on its mission.
Many other arts, cultural, and historical institutions are struggling, some with only enough funding to pay salaries. Scheduled exhibitions have been indefinitely delayed, and the planned construction of a new contemporary museum in Athens has been called off. Decreased funding impacts cultural institutions in other ways; in February 2012, for example, priceless artifacts were stolen from a museum in Olympia during an armed robbery. Archaeologists blamed security cuts.
Many monuments and structures – including the iconic Parthenon – are owned by the Greek state. As details emerge concerning airports, sea ports, rail lines, and energy providers that face privatization under the terms of the bailout agreement, the question arises: will Greece’s cultural heritage be up for sale?
Greece’s constitution features a robust framework for defending the nation’s artifacts and historical sites mandating public funding and protection. But if there is one thing fully evident with the recent bailout agreement, it is that Greece’s laws and referendums have little bearing on the demands of the nation’s creditors.
Regardless of the obligations delineated in the bailout agreement, special consideration for Greece’s remarkable heritage is in order. By removing the country’s capacity to steward and share its own past and cultural traditions, creditors are poised to rip away a powerful tool for national healing and cohesion during these difficult times.