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Georgia: U.S. Charity Seeks To Raise Awareness of Georgian Art

A U.S.-based charity is hoping to raise money for Georgia's humanitarian needs by showcasing works by Georgian artists at a New York City gallery. The fundraiser is to benefit sick and homeless Georgian children, but its sponsor -- the American Friends of Georgia -- also hopes to raise the profile of Georgian art in the process. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev reports.

New York, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than 100 works by Georgian artists have gone on display in a prominent New York City gallery as part of a new effort to link a struggling segment of Georgian society with the rich art world of the United States.

The American Friends of Georgia, a seven-year-old charity, launched the initiative last week. Thirty-one Georgian artists are displaying their work at the Beadleston Gallery in Manhattan. The organizers have agreed to take a reduced portion of the sales to help revenues go toward a program to benefit sick and homeless children in Georgia.

Nearly $21,000 was raised at the exhibit's opening. The figure is expected to go higher in art sales throughout the week.

Marusya Chavchavadze is the executive director of the American Friends of Georgia, or AFG. She calls the exhibit "a window into Georgian art and culture." In an interview with RFE/RL, she talked about the isolation many Georgian artists feel from the rest of the world:

"Most artists are, just as the rest of Georgians, cut off from the West, and sometimes they don't even know how to market things. There are things they want to learn [about], how things are done in the West. It all [has] to do with helping them during a post-Soviet transitional period."

AFG's advisers include former U.S. ambassadors Kent Brown and Jack Matlock, and former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. The group's chairman is Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, a New York attorney who is well-known for his work on environmental issues. Sidamon-Eristoff, whose parents are of Georgian descent, tells our correspondent what motivated him and a number of other New Yorkers to establish AFG:

"In 1994, there was a group of us who gathered together and said we really should have something to represent the interest of those people [in the U.S.] who have some knowledge of Georgia, have been there or are in friendship or love with people who are Georgian. So, that was the concept."

AFG does not consider itself a rival of the Georgian Association of the USA, which comprises primarily people of Georgian heritage.

The opening of the Georgian art exhibit also served as a welcoming event for Nina Ananiashvili, prima ballerina at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and a guest-principal at the American Ballet Theater in New York. Ananiashvili, who is Georgian, says she feels privileged to do something for her country even in New York:

"There are no limits in art and there are no divisions. If a person is talented, his or her nationality is irrelevant. Take my case, for example. I'm Georgian, a graduate of a Russian ballet school, I dance at the Bolshoi, and I also dance in New York. At the same time I'm Georgian, and I'm glad to do some good for my country."

Despite an upbeat atmosphere at the exhibit opening, Georgian experts acknowledge that art from the Caucasus region is still far from a recognizable presence in U.S. museums and galleries.

Some experts say Georgian culture remains obscure to most Americans because of its distance from the United States as well as its difficult transitional period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a succession of civil wars. In addition, the number of Georgian immigrants in the United States is relatively small.

Chavchavadze, who frequently travels to Georgia, says the country's harsh economic situation drives many Georgian artists to seek work elsewhere. One of the few Georgians able to find employment in the U.S. is Georgi Alexi-Mikhishvili -- a prominent Georgian stage designer who teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Art experts say the more Westerners are exposed to Georgian culture, the more they will come to appreciate the sophistication of the country's artistic style, which has its roots in pre-Christian art. A number of the works at the New York exhibit revive ancient techniques, using enamel, embroidery, silk, and felt.

Sidamon-Eristoff says Georgia's artistic wealth is not limited purely to fine arts:

"I think those [in the U.S.] who know about Georgia know that it has a rich, ancient culture with rich, marvelous things [like] paintings and metallic objects, historical objects. And that kind of knowledge is becoming wider-spread as the time passes. I think people know about very magnificent Georgian film works and [the] movie industry over the years. And I think people know that Georgia is a country with magnificent scenery and a great potential for tourism."

AFG's mission is to provide assistance to improve educational, economic, and social conditions for the peoples of Georgia and the Caucasus region. Chavchavadze says the charity specializes in issues that might otherwise be overlooked by larger donors.

Sidamon-Eristoff adds that the distribution of aid money in Georgia is done at the grassroots level to avoid corruption.

"We try very hard to know exactly where every dollar is going. We try to have knowledge through Marusya's visits and through the contacts we have exactly what's happening and who's doing what. And we think we minimize the danger of having any monies diverted to other purposes."

Chavchavadze says the U.S.-based Phipps Foundation this year provided the group with a grant of $50,000. An additional $100,000 was raised during the first half of 2001.