WORKS of art and monuments in eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics have fallen on hard times. The collapse of the communist system left cultural ministries without funds and in disarray. Moreover unrest and civil war in certain areas threaten to destroy treasures such as the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, so that those trying to protect their cultural patrimony are facing a hard struggle.
In an interview last summer, the newly appointed director of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg spoke of leaking roofs, crumbling walls, and an outdated security system. It will take $200 million in order to maintain the Hermitage's buildings and artwork.
Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, the only daughter of one of the world's foremost art collectors, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, became aware of the deteriorating state of cultural monuments in eastern Europe several years ago. She was in Hungary investigating her family roots, and later in Germany where the director of the Dresden museum told her rain was leaking onto his Canalettos and Goyas. No one was addressing the issue of art conservation and restoration in the newly democratic countries, sh e realized, and most of their museums and churches were in desperate need of funds in order to preserve their art collections.
"Everybody was bouncing into the area trying to structure it economically, and as usual, culture was not the first thing on the agenda," she says.
The baroness, who admits to having spent much of the 1980s going to parties, a year ago launched the Art Restoration for Cultural Heritage (ARCH) foundation, primarily for conservation of eastern European art. She is now its chairwoman.
The idea for the organization was triggered soon after her visit to Hungary, with the advent of the civil war in Yugoslavia. As the culturally rich area of Croatia was bombed day after day, she jumped into her convertible with a friend and drove to Zagreb to find out what was being done to rescue art.
"The next thing I knew I was on camera with TV microphones in my face and people saying `What are you going to do about this?"' she says. "By going, I had shown sympathy, and it was a great symbolic thing; very dangerous at the time but basically, so what? I found myself saying perhaps the best thing would be to get scholars and people with more influence than myself to come here and decide how you can be helped."
Within a month, the baroness organized a conference in Zagreb on the subject of saving Croatia's cultural heritage.
Influential people from the art world attended, as well as the Croatian minister of culture and education. Back home in Lugano, Switzerland (where Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza's Villa Favorita museum is located), Ms. Thyssen-Bornemisza founded ARCH with her father's financial backing.
The non-profit organization proposes to help eastern European countries preserve and restore damaged or deteriorated works of art and to develop art conservation facilities in greater Europe. Taking advantage of the momentum from the war in Croatia, ARCH sponsored a month-long restoration course earlier this fall for Croatian students in Zagreb, which elicited such positive responses that another course has been planned for the spring.
ARCH's main focus at present, says the baroness, is the development of mobile studios, similar to large vans, containing conservation and restoration facilities. These vans would be dispatched to various countries.
The concept has been successful in Canada and Australia, where museums or monuments in need of restoration were situated in isolated areas, and it made more sense to bring a studio to the outback, than to take the works to a central location. Thyssen particularly hopes the mobile studios will inspire local communities to develop a sense of responsibility toward their art and will ultimately help them help themselves.
Corporations have already shown interest in the mobile studios project, and she is counting on their participation. "Corporations always want to see a rapid return on their investments. What we're doing is very visual - we'll have these mobile studios out in the spring and they'll be seen: the corporation name can be on them, and it's a promotional gimmick for the company as much as it's actually contributing to the project."
As far as soliciting additional financing, Thyssen is relying on well-connected ARCH board members to use their influence. ARCH's vice-president, Dr. Marilyn Perry, is concurrently president of the Kress Foundation in New York, which gave the fledging organization a grant. Other board members such as J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery in Washington and Dr. Paolo Viti of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (also connected to the FIAT cultural group) will most certainly generate funds in the
The baroness spends most of her time in eastern Europe meeting scholars and museum directors and dealing with labyrinthine bureaucracy. For the latter, a personal approach is especially necessary, she says. ARCH hopes to eventually post workers in eastern Europe to cut through the red tape on a local basis.
Another problem that arises is the absence of laws regarding non-taxable funds destined for non-profit organizations.
Officialdom aside, Thyssen is eager to build a cultural bridge between eastern and western Europe, evidence that eastern European art is European art "and that we can share our cultural property."
She also hopes to set up temporary exhibitions at her father's Villa Favorita museum. "We would love to receive some paintings from Prague or a museum in Transylvania," she says.
For the time being, ARCH is propelled ahead by hard work and much patience.
"If I can get ARCH going in the present economic climate then I'll have no problem running it for the next 20 years. I can't have chosen a more difficult time to do this," says the baroness.