Facing a staggeringly high unemployment rate of 26.5 percent (Eurostat) and economic uncertainty stemming from the debt crisis, there's no doubt that Greeks have plenty of issues on their mind. But when it was announced that, as part of the latest Greek bailout, the country would be required to sell off 50 billion euros ($55 billion) worth of assets, the specter of cashing in on the country's rich cultural heritage was raised. While nobody expects the Parthenon to go up for bid anytime soon, the real worry, according to experts, is that as the government continues cutting spending, cultural funding will suffer serious cuts. "The first things to suffer under the government's austerity plan have been culture, education, and health," according to Denys Zacaropoulos, artistic director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art. In an article in The Art Newspaper, Zacarpoulos shares the concern of an independent curator who says that the situation for public institutions, bereft of critical funds, is both "critical and hair-raising." How is the funding crisis affecting building preservation and archeology in a country that has added so much to the architectural lexicon?
The organization in charge—the Greek Ministry of Education, Religious Affairs, Culture and Sport— has, like every other Greek ministry, seen its budget decrease substantially since the debt crisis started, according to David McGill, an archeologist, Professor of Archaeological Heritage work for University Campus Suffolk and author of Sifting the Soil of Greece. While big-ticket sites such as the New Acropolis Museum at the Athenian Acropolis have received international attention and funding, it's the smaller sites and museums around the country that have, and likely will bear, the brunt of budget cuts. As staff and resources dwindle—the Ministry of Culture and Tourism suffered a 10 percent staff reduction in 2012 alone—it's a fair guess the backlog of conservation and preservation projects will continue to grow, and less money will be available for dealing with the inevitable wear and tear that comes with crowds of visitors.
"They haven't published that data, but it's clear they've had to reduce the number of staff and salaries," McGill says. "That started seven years ago, and it's just gotten worse."
Tourism revenue accounts for a little more than 17 percent of the country's GDP, and while visitor numbers have been steady of increasing lately—according to official numbers for March released by the Greek government, visitor figures for museum are up 19% and visits to archeological sites are up over 30% year-over-year—the news of the last few weeks may put a damper in visits to heritage sites, an important tourism driver.
The issue is structural upkeep and slowly deteriorating sites. According to James Wright, director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the debt crisis has not perceptibly changed the work of school, which oversees a number of projects and archeological digs in Greece. For instance, the school is currently collaborating on master plan to turn the ancient city of Corinth into an archeological park.
"Overall, they have wrestled admirably with the cuts," he says, "which include reductions in personnel as well as finances."
But the crisis has contributed to a brain drain and maintenance issues. Wright did mention that there has been significant loss of expertise, since there is a policy of attrition and senior figures were given early retirement, which results in an immediate loss of expertise. The reduction of staff has affected the regional Ephoreias (inspectorates), he says, which were already hard pressed to manage the museums, storerooms, requests for impact assessments, and management of existing sites. Despite it being a time of triage and prioritization, he "wouldn't say that sites have been neglected," nor does he believe that looting has been a more serious problem.
"There has been a change in the way the public thinks about antiquities," he adds, "and the national police have become much more professional in investigating looting and prosecuting looters."
He points to his own experience in the Nemea Valley, an area that had a long history of organized looting, specifically the Aidonia Treasure, a collection of Mycenaean gold and jewelry that ended up in a Manhattan gallery in 1994 and was eventually repatriated to Greece. Recently, however, a ringleader of thieves in the area was arrested, and he feels villagers are increasingly aware of and supportive of the tourist potential of archeological heritage.
The EU supplies hundreds of millions of euros in funding mechanisms that are controlled by the various ministries, such as the Ministry of Culture, which require matching funds by the Greek government but can be directed towards heritage conservation and preservation. These have been a big boon, says Wright, but they can only be used for certain purposes. While museums can use the funds for capital projects such as improved signage and parking, they can't use the money to hire guards, curators and administrators, which creates a problem of sustainability on top of other conservation issues.
"While there are observable and perhaps measurable negative impacts on heritage management and on the infrastructure of heritage sites here and there, on the whole the EU support is having an overall positive impact," he says.
UNESCO, responsible for 17 World Heritage sites in the country, was not able to comment at this time, and attempts to contact the Greek Ministry of Culture have been unsuccessful, making it difficult to learn more about specific sites. But it seems that an extended period of reduced funding is making the protection of cultural heritage sites that much more difficult.
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