Washington — Melina Mercouri, Greek minister of culture, called for a world cultural summit in Athens next year and predicted that the Parthenon marbles will be returned to Greece from Britain by 1996. She dropped that prediction casually into a Monitor interview the day after her official appearance here at the National Gallery to announce a rare exhibition of early Greek art at the gallery, opening Jan. 31. ``I would like a summit of culture, like you see [a summit] for arms, and where else to do that than in Greece? We must work very hard to do that, a summit including the arts and technology,'' she said. She is also proposing to United States officials a cultural exchange that will include a ``Greek month'' here and an ``American month'' there.
Behind Ms. Mercouri at the National Gallery press conference was a large technicolor photograph of the Parthenon, a hint that her trip here had to do with more than lending 67 examples of ``The Human Figure in Early Greek Art'' that are part of the cultural legacy of Greece. Mercouri has for some time been waging an active campaign to have the Parthenon marbles, now in the possession of the British Museum, brought back to Greece. When the Parthenon marbles were mentioned in our interview, she said abruptly, ``They will come back in 1996.'' Asked if that timing was wishful thinking or fact, she replied, ``It is both.'' She explained that building of a new Acropolis museum is already under way in Athens. ``It's to unite in one place all the archaeological [treasures], and the museum will be the entrance to go to the Acropolis, to the Parthenon.''
Mercouri became an international celebrity as an actress in such films as ``Never on Sunday'' and ``Topkapi.'' A battery of television and still cameras focused on her at the National Gallery's luncheon press conference, where guests dined on a Greek chicken-and-rice dish at tables decorated in the blue and white colors of the Greek flag.
She surprised reporters and perhaps gallery director J.Carter Brown by using her speech not only to praise Greek art and cultural exchanges but also to plug for Athens as the site of the 1996 Olympics. Noting that 1996 is the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games, she said, ``I believe you will agree that it is right and proper that Greece be awarded its own golden anniversary, and I dare say when you see our exhibition leading to the perfection of the human figure, you will find further [it is] logical and just that the golden Olympics be awarded to Athens.''
Mercouri looked like anything but a colorless bureaucrat as she padded barefoot into our interview the next morning. She was wearing a long white satin robe, her mane of blond hair tumbling over her shoulders, her huge topaz eyes rimmed with kohl. She curled up on a beige velvet couch and talked in her dramatic contralto with its faint rasp, mostly in richly accented English with an occasional drumroll of Greek.
Was her trip as much a political one as an artistic one? ``I am a political person, I am not artistic. What is art, if it is not politics? Art is not apart from life, it is everywhere, even in the workers in an industry. Art is a political act.''
Born into a political family (her grandfather was mayor of Athens; her father, minister of public order and public works), Mercouri became involved in left-wing politics and theater trade unionism in the 1950s. After the military coup in Greece in 1967, she became a vocal critic of the regime. Her citizenship was revoked, her property confiscated; and she says three attempts were made on her life. When the military regime fell in 1974, she and her husband, director Jules Dassin, returned to Greece. In November 1977 she was elected to Parliament from the Piraeus district (scene of ``Never on Sunday''), and when Andreas Papandreou's Pasok party won the elections in 1981, he named her minister of culture. She is also minister of sports, of youth, and of Greek-Americans abroad.
In Washington she met with highly placed United States diplomatic and cultural figures as well as members of Congress. Although she holds strong political views, she says there is no censorship under her ministry. ``I don't work only with people of my party. I work with writers, with artists, with members of other parties.''
Mercouri says she misses acting. ``I say that when I dream a play in my dreams, I play all the parts that I haven't played, and I wake up as minister.'' As minister, she says, ``I give my life, my talent, whatever I have, to the Greek cause.''