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The week in art news – Hagia Sophia to be turned back into mosque

Plus: James Murdoch’s firm to invest in MCH Group | Frieze fairs in London cancelled | Frank Popper (1918–2020) | Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to be disbanded | Delphine Lévy (1969–2020) | Statue of Black Lives Matter protester erected in Bristol | Met to open five days a week from August | TEFAF New York has been cancelled

13 July 2020

Our regularly updated digest of the week’s top art news

President Erdogan has realised his long-held ambition of turning the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. On Friday, Turkey’s top administrative court, the Council of State, ruled unanimously to annul the decree, issued in 1934 by Kemal Atatürk, converting the Byzantine church-turned-mosque into a state museum. President Erdogan promptly issued a presidential decree transferring control of the site in Istanbul to the Religious Affairs Directorate. It will open for worship on 24 July. There have been a number of calls for the decision to be reversed, including from the World Council of Churches, which has expressed ‘grief and dismay’ over a move they say undermines ‘efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and co-operation’. In a statement issued by UNESCO, its director-general Audrey Azoulay expressed deep regret at the decision, adding that that the Hagia Sophia’s ‘status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue’.

MCH Group, the company that owns Art Basel, has confirmed a pending deal with James Murdoch’s private investment firm Lupa Systems. If the deal is approved by shareholders at a meeting scheduled for 3 August, Lupa Systems will acquire a stake of between 30 and 44 per cent in the international events and exhibitions company. The move is part of a wider set of ‘financial and structural’ measures being taken to help the company ‘overcome the effects of the corona crisis’.

This year’s editions of Frieze London and Frieze Masters, scheduled to take place in early October, have been cancelled. Exhibitors were informed of the decision via an email sent by the fair’s organisers on Tuesday, which cited the ‘continued unprecedented challenges regarding Covid-19’, including restrictions on travel and large gatherings. Galleries have been invited to participate in the second edition of the Frieze Viewing Room, an online platform launched in May after the cancellation of Frieze New York.

The art historian Frank Popper has died at the age of 102. Popper, who was born in Prague, moved to Paris in 1955, where he completed a doctorate at the Sorbonne on the emerging field of kinetic art. In his subsequent work he pioneered the study of art’s relationship to technology, and traced the development of what he called ‘virtual art’, a term he used to describe new media artworks that invite the viewer’s immersion and participation. In 1976, he was appointed professor of aesthetics and the science of art at the Sorbonne, becoming professor emeritus in 1985.

The German government has announced that it will disband the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Last week, a report was published following a two-year government investigation that concluded the foundation was too large to operate efficiently, and recommended that a number of smaller autonomous state bodies be formed. The foundation currently oversees 15 museums including the Hamburger Bahnhof, the Pergamon Museum and the Neue Nationalgalerie, with collections amounting to around 4.7m objects and a budget of around €356m per year. Both the president of the foundation, Hermann Parzinger, and the German culture minister Monika Grütters have announced their support for the decision.

Delphine Lévy, the director general of Paris Musées, died on Monday at the age of 51. Lévy had been in charge of the 14 museums owned by the City of Paris, including the Petit Palais, since 2013, prior to which she had held prominent civil service positions with the Bertrand Delanoë, then mayor of Paris.

Marc Quinn installed a sculpture of the Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid on the plinth where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston used to stand. The sculpture, titled A Surge of Power (Jen Reid), was erected at dawn on Wednesday morning. Photographs widely shared in the media, had shown Reid, a stylist living in Bristol, standing on the plinth with her fist raised during the protests; she told the Guardian that she had been working on the sculpture with Quinn for several weeks.The mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees confirmed later on Wednesday that it ‘was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed’, and on Thursday morning the sculpture was removed by Bristol City Council contractors; the council said in a tweet that the statue would be held by Bristol Museums ‘for the artist to collect or donate to our collection’.

Nathalie Bondil, the director general and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has been sacked by the institution’s board of directors. The board has said it based its decision upon complaints from staff about a ‘toxic work environment’, with several employees having left the institution in recent years. Bondil had served as director of the museum since 2007. On Wednesday the senior curators at the institution issued a statement supporting the appointment of Mary-Dailey Desmarais in July as head of the curatorial division. In an interview with Radio Canada, Bondil said her relationship with the museum’s board deteriorated after she expressed doubts about Desmarais’s appointment. The curators’ statement was made, they said, in response to ‘numerous comments, many of which are damaging to her reputation and that of the Museum’. In further developments, the Art Newspaper reports that Musée d’Orsay has cancelled the Canadian leg of an exhibition about Charles Darwin, organised with the MMFA, the director of the Palais de Tokyo has said she will not be able to work with the MMFA any more, and other leading French cultural figures have expressed their support for Bondil.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Wednesday that it will welcome visitors five days a week, from Thursday to Monday, when it reopens its doors on 29 August. The Fifth Avenue building will follow a number of safety measures, including frequent cleaning and capping visitors at 25 per cent of the museum’s capacity. Face coverings and social distancing will be encouraged. The Met Cloisters will open in September but the Met Breuer will not reopen before the building passes to the Frick Collection.

TEFAF New York 2020 has been cancelled. Hidde van Seggelen, chairman of TEFAF’s executive committee, confirmed that given the uncertainties about health and safety, international travel and New York’s reopening plan, it was not possible for the event, postponed from the spring, to go ahead. Van Seggelen said that the fair was committed to refunding exhibitors for their stands in full. Details of ‘an enhanced online initiative’ will be announced soon.

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