ATHENS – “The sea, the sun and the sex, with some Greek columns in the background,” said Poka Yio, artistic director of Athens Biennale. It summed up the Greek government’s tourism campaigns in the 2000s as he led a visitor into a rambling old department store that was one of the venues for the 2021 edition. Part of the motivation to launch the biennial in 2007, he said, was to change that stereotype: âWe wanted to put Athens on the cultural map of contemporary art.
Fifteen years later, Athens is certainly on the radar of international artist crowds, although more as a curiosity than a major hub. Despite the pandemic, 40,000 visitors attended the month-long Biennale, which ran until November. According to the organizers, 10,000 of them came from abroad, and the Greek capital was also teeming with world-class exhibitions, including the collective exhibition of 59 artists from the Neon Foundation “Portals” in a recently renovated former tobacco factory.
“If the political powers understood how much Athens is evoked as a contemporary cultural destination, they could pay more attention to it, because it means money and image”, said Katerina Gregos, director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, known under the name EMST. . But contemporary art, she added, is relatively new to the Greek scene. âWe have lived in the shadow of the Acropolis for a long time,â she said.
Gregos, who was born in Greece and was the founding director of the Deste Foundation, before later taking on the EMST role last summer, was referring to the cultural dominance of Greece’s classical heritage, which attracts most of the public funding to the sector.
âIt’s understandable,â she said. âWhen you have such incredible cultural heritage to safeguard, it is a huge responsibility, and we are a small country with limited finances. She added, “The modern Greek nation state was shaped by classical ideas, so this awareness is part of our identity.
As a result, she said, there has been very little government support for contemporary visual art, without any funding body like the Arts Councils in England, Canada or Australia, or organization funded by the state to support individual artists. Instead, the void is filled by private institutions like Deste, Neon, Onassis and Stavros Niarchos Foundations, which distribute grants, host artist residencies and organize exhibitions.
âLarge foundations have played a huge role in changing attitudes towards contemporary art by creating an ecosystem,â Yio said. âAnd Athens has another distinctive element, which is the small initiatives. So many people come here now to open art spaces because it’s so cheap. The arrival in 2017 of the five-year Documenta exhibition – the first time the major art event has been held outside of Germany – has been a game-changer, he added.
Yet these private sector initiatives, however successful, do not “replace the need for public policy,” said Gregos.
The Greek government seems to agree lately. In July 2019, Nicolas Yatromanolakis, a Harvard graduate, was appointed secretary for contemporary culture, before being promoted in early 2021 to the post of deputy to the Minister of Culture, in charge of contemporary culture.
Asked in his office in Excharcheia, a graffiti-strewn central district of Athens, Yatromanolakis, 46, said contemporary culture had not previously been seen as a serious contributor to the economy, or important to the image. international and Greek soft power.
“The pandemic has hit the contemporary sector very hard, and I think the Prime Minister has recognized the need to invest more on this front,” he said.
One of Yatromanolakis’ first projects was to quickly open EMST. The museum, which was founded in 2000, was a nomadic operation for 15 years before a former 1957 brewery in central Athens was chosen as the site. But even then long construction and financing deadlines, widely seen as symptomatic of systemic dysfunction, meant it was not fully operational until just before the coronavirus pandemic broke out in early 2020.
Around the same time, Gregos was approached by the Ministry of Culture to manage the museum. She was both enthusiastic and skeptical of the idea, she said, as Greece’s economic crisis that began in 2009 had resulted in drastic cuts in all areas of public spending. But she accepted. “It is Greece’s flagship institution for contemporary art,” she said. âWe couldn’t offer you more interesting and stimulating work. “
Contemporary cultural projects in Greece are currently allocated around a quarter to a third of the culture budget – which has averaged around $ 400 million over the past seven years – while the remainder is allocated to heritage sites classic. That’s a relatively small amount when split between heritage projects, national theaters and museums, and contemporary culture, said Yerassimos Yannopoulos, lawyer and EMST board member. (For the context, The culture budget in France is around $ 4 billion.)
âThe Prime Minister is very much behind this idea of ââpromoting contemporary culture, and Nicholas Yatromanolakis is a really brilliant guy, but Greece has been in dire straits since the debt crisis,â he said. He added, “And you can’t change it by sticking to the glorious archaeological heritage.”
Still, Yatromanolakis said binary thinking can be pointless. âI think pitting the classic against the contemporary is unproductive,â he said. “It should be collaborative,” he added, citing as an example a 2019 exhibition of works by British artist Antony Gormley. amidst ruins and classical artefacts on the island of Delos.
In a follow-up email, Yatromanolakis sent public funding figures for contemporary small-scale projects, showing a notable increase, from around half a million dollars in 2015 to around 11 million dollars in 2020. He has also highlighted the additional European Union funds from the Recovery and resiliency facility, set up to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, which offers an additional half a billion euros to the Greek cultural sector, equally divided between heritage and contemporary projects.
Afroditi Panagiotakou, director of culture at the Onassis Foundation, said the lack of focus on contemporary culture in Greece was the reason for the creation of the Onassis Cultural Center. This building, with its two theaters and exhibition spaces, opened in 2011. âWe were in an economic crisis and the Greek state simply did not have the means,â she said.
But successfully supporting contemporary art takes more than money, she added. âAt the end of the day, the people who change the scene are the artists themselves,â she said. âOur role is to support them, to work with them, to be there for them.
Yatromanolakis said private foundations frequently work closely with the state, citing the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which houses the Greek National Opera and Ballet, and funding from the Onassis Foundation for a new elevator for the Acropolis. âIt’s not a competition,â he said.
He added that the most ambitious project on his agenda was labor and social reform for independent artists, whose needs are not addressed by current tax and labor laws. âIf we don’t fix this, we won’t have the tools to allow cultural professionals to make a living from their work,â he said. âThere was nothing in place for contemporary culture, so you have to start from scratch,â Yatromanolakis added. âDespite all the horrible things the pandemic has brought, I think we can use this as a turning point in the way we do things. “
Athens may not have financial strength, said Yio, the director of the Biennale, but with its influx of migrants and artists, it was a rising metropolis, “a counterweight to the London-Paris-Berlin tripod. “. The Greeks, he added, never had a “bourgeois understanding” of art. âWe have missed modernism here, and now we are trying to make huge strides,â he said. âWe don’t have a lot of systems and structures that other countries have. But it’s also a very positive thing, and part of what makes Athens so alluring. Everything is still possible in this place.