Beyond the Crisis: On Greece’s Burgeoning Art Scene

Sara Kuhnt

Contexts / 04.07.2012
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Much has been written about the fairly new Athens art scene, often suggesting that its current boom is a direct effect of the economic crisis.1 What seems to be overlooked, however, are the developments leading up to the current situation, and the underlying interdependency between Greek cultural politics, artistic activities and the broader social context, which stems from the mid-1990s when the Greek art world saw a slow but substantial transformation. It is the particular development of a diversity of art institutions – ranging from public museums to independent spaces, commercial galleries and critical journals – that has enabled the current resistance of the art scene to the crisis.

For example, in analysing the current situation, one first has to note that the Greek state started to support contemporary culture relatively late. Until the mid-1990s there was no sustained public funding, apart from that going to large cultural institutions such as the National Art Gallery or the national theatres and orchestras in Athens and Thessaloniki. Over the last two decades, these institutions provided space for more contemporary and experimental presentations, but only hesitantly. Whereas the public theatres opened up more willingly to less established forms of performance, state support for the contemporary visual arts in Greece has been more conservative and contemporary art has been widely dependent on private initiatives and capital. Until today, public funding has been lacking in strategy and investment especially to support smaller, independent non-profit art institutions. Hence, the commercial art galleries have played a major role in shaping the local art scene as well as in defining contemporary aesthetics in Greece. Although it would be far-stretched to say the practices of Greek artists has been driven by the market, the predominance of object-based art works, traditional media and compliant topics testifies to its influence in recent artistic production.2

At the same time, it is the activity of the galleries that has enabled both the increasing participation of Greek artists in the international art circuit and the introduction of international artists to broader audiences in Greece. Before the mid-1990s, they served as barely the only public spaces for art discourse. The series of discussions ‘Hypothesis for a Museum of Contemporary Art’, organised at Desmos gallery in 1977, is a good example of the active role private galleries have played in Greece historically, as well as of the spirit in the artistic community during that period. While Greek artists synchronised with the sense of internationalism of the 1960s and 70s and partook in the redefinition of the artwork and artistic media,3 they were also intensely engaged with the needs of the Greek art scene as a periphery to Western art centres. The longing for institutional support of contemporary art may be considered antithetical to the spirit of Institutional Critique in other European countries and the US. Until very recently, such lack of diversity of art institutions has been held responsible for the marginal significance Greek artistic activities have played in the international art system.

Installation view, 'Everything That’s Interesting Is New', 1996. DESTE Foundation, Athens. Photograph: Fanis Vlastaras and Rebecca Konstantopoulou. Courtesy DESTE Foundation

Between the late 80s and the mid-90s a wave of contemporary art galleries opened; a second one occurred in the early 2000s, mostly focusing on the introduction of Greek artists to international collections. By 2005, most of them were doing extremely well, participating in important art fairs all over Europe and slowly approaching the general public as well as new groups of collectors within Greece. Another instrumental institution in introducing contemporary art to broader audiences in Greece has been the private, non-profit DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, which held the influential exhibition ‘Everything That’s Interesting Is New’ in Athens in 1996.4 After securing its own building, the DESTE Foundation was able to display cutting-edge international artists in Athens on a regular basis and started to support younger Greek artists by launching the DESTE Prize in 1999.

Institutions with a wider public responsibility such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens and the State Museum of Contemporary Art (SMCA) in Thessaloniki, both founded in 1997, were comparatively slow in unfolding their activities and gaining the acceptance of local artists and art professionals. Although still facing serious difficulties concerning limited funding and space, their sustained and academically sound work has helped to introduce contemporary and, more importantly, critical art and theory to a broader public. In 2007, a series of events appeared to justify the euphoria in the artistic community:5 from the successful relaunch of the local art fair Art Athina6 to the increasing activities in the Kerameikos/Metaxourgeio area (KM) and the inauguration of two biennials of contemporary art (the Athens Bienniale, held by a private, non-profit institution founded by the curatorial collective XYZ, and the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, organised under the artistic direction of the SMCA).7

Alongside a boom in the commercial sector and increasing institutional support, throughout the last decade there has been a proliferation of independently-led activities around contemporary art and critical discourse. This was influenced by a growing number of young art professionals educated abroad, mainly in Great Britain, and who were instrumental in the organisation of group exhibitions in temporary spaces, the formation of artist groups and the circulation of low-budget self-published magazines such as Local Folk or later a, in connection with the Athens Bienniale. The artist collective Filopappou Group, for example, is a grass-roots, open collective producing mostly research-based projects. It held its first exhibition in 2001 at the Filopappou Hill in Athens, when it presented site-specific works by nineteen artists. The curatorial group Locus Athens, on the other hand, initiated in 2004, organised mainly event-based projects focusing on interdisciplinary, performative and experimental art practices, still underrepresented in an institutional context at the time.

Filopappou Group 37-58o B/23-43o A exhibition poster. Filopappou Hill, 2001. Courtesy Filopappou Group Filopappou Group, poster for the exhibition '37-58o B/23-43o A', 2001. Filopappou Hill, Athens. Courtesy Filopappou Group Motivated by the increasing attention contemporary art was able to gather at that point, non-profit spaces sprouted up by the end of the decade.8 Some were founded by experienced and well-connected individuals in the field of contemporary art, others by younger professionals seeking to become active in the broad cultural field. The work of these spaces has necessarily been based on a great deal of idealism, unpaid labour and private capital. Attempts to reduce expenditure and raise money for the artistic activities are various. For example, the Dynamo Project Space in Thessaloniki tries to reduce expenses by providing space for the trade of design products, renting out working spaces and charging fees to attend organised workshops. Others are supported by private institutions and individuals. For example, the Kunsthalle Athena is not obliged to pay rent for its building in Athens Metaxourgeio district, which is owned by Iasson Tsakonas, director of Oliaros, an architectural practice and initiative intensely engaged in the cultural and architectural regeneration of the KM area.

Perhaps some of the most successful attempts at providing a permanent space for contemporary art on a self-financed basis are the spaces the Georgakopoulos brothers are involved in: the gallery cheapart launched in 1995; TAF – The Art Foundation in 2009; and the recently founded CAMP - Contemporary Art Meeting Point. Although cheapart is not taken seriously by many art professionals due to the occasionally decorative character of the work exhibited, it had a big share in opening the field of contemporary art to a broader public. While cheapart introduced a financial concept based on an annual commercial exhibition, demanding a fee from the participating artists in order to finance the rest of the programme, TAF is financially supported by the earnings of the café-bar located in the yard of the building.9

Of course, the hopes that some of these organisations might have had of receiving government grants are unlikely to be fulfilled in the near future. And like in most of the world, for the commercial galleries it became apparent a few years ago that the easy times have passed. Most of them reduced their participations in international art fairs dramatically since 2008: galleries such as The Breeder are now taking part in LISTE 2012, while they had still been able to finance a booth at Art Basel two years ago. It is remarkable that the majority of them have not closed yet, especially since also the local market seems to have come almost to a standstill.

Vangelis Vlahos, Images to influence the reading of Greece’s interests in Eastern Europe and the Balkans today, 2008. Installation view, 'Selective Knowledge', ITYS Institute for Contemporary Art and Thought, Athens. Photograph: Vivianna Athanassopoulou. Courtesy the artist and ITYS

While the commercial galleries are adapting their activities to the changed situation,10 the non-profit spaces unexpectedly seem to benefit from the crisis, at least on a short-term basis and in the intangible value of the art world’s attention. The effort it took to build up the diverse Athens art scene in the last decade has been too arduous to simply abandon the field now. Under the local state of emergency – and with the consciousness that the international art world is turning its gaze to Athens – the move towards discursive, performative, research-based and anti-capitalist art practices becomes evident, not only in the work of the Greek artists but even in the programme of institutions such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The shift in focus from exhibition-making to the organisation of discursive events seems particularly interesting. The dialogue between art professionals and experts from different disciplines is aimed at a more comprehensive understanding of the current socio-economic problems, a consideration of possible solutions and a debate on the role of art in society. One of the most illustrative examples is the third Athens Biennial, held last year, which presented the work of mainly local artists and, more importantly, focused on organising events that prompted debate and communication on art and the socio-political situation alike.11

However, the current attack on private capital through the Greek economic and tax policies is severely endangering the vitality of the art scene. When art workers’ livelihood is deprived, sooner or later they will have to abandon their time-consuming dedication to the local art scene and maybe even emigrate to other countries with a steadier framework for working in the arts and better economic prospects.

So far, no mass closings of art spaces have taken place. Quite the contrary, new spaces, commercial and non-commercial alike, are opening and despite or precisely because of daily difficulties, there is still a desire for discussion and diversion. The emergence of a new spirit of cooperation and collective troubleshooting in order to overcome the challenging times is exciting, not only in the arts but in the society in general. How long this fragile solidarity will last and how resistant the local art scene turns out to be in a society with crumbling infrastructures, will presumably become apparent within the near future.

Installation view, XYZ, 'Operácia Luce', Hosted in Athens, 2012. Courtesy the artists and Daily Lazy Projects, Athens

Footnotes
  1. See, for example, Rachel Donadio, ‘Greece’s Big Debt Drama Is a Muse for Its Artists’, The New York Times, 14 October 2011, available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/15/arts/in-athens-art-blossoms-amid-debt-crisis.html?scp=3&sq=rachel+donadio+&st=nyt

  2. See Despina Zefkili, ‘Marketing Greek Art: How Has the Gallery-Driven Athens Art Scene Affected the Local Art (Attitude)?’, Local Folk, May 2006.

  3. A good analysis of the artistic upheavals of this period in Greece, as well as of the influence the military regime had on artistic activities can be found in Bia Papadopoulou (ed.), The Years of Defiance: The Art of the 70s in Greece (exh. cat.), Athens: EMST, 2005. For more information, see the exhibition's online page, available at: http://www.emst.gr/EN/exhibitions/emst_exhibitions/main.aspx?ID=77

  4. The DESTE Foundation was originally founded in 1983 in Geneva by collector Dakis Joannou and the curators Adelina von Fürstenberg and Efi Strousa. Today, DESTE is clearly associated with Joannou and his collection. Although the importance of its activities for the Athens art scene can’t be denied, the exhibition ‘Everything That’s Interesting Is New’ has also been attacked for representing widely-accepted, highly-priced works by mostly U.S. artists, without critically reflecting on this. See M. Scaltsa’s review of the exhibition, first published in the newspaper To Vima tis Kyriakis, 11 February 1996, and reprinted in Matoula Scaltsa, Gia tin Mouseiologia kai ton Politismo, Thessaloniki: Endefktirio Publishing, 1999, pp.45–48. For more information, see the institution's website, available at: http://deste.gr/en/index.html

  5. The label ‘new Greek scene’ appeared around 2004 but was soon dismissed as superficial, since it was not suitable to unite the diverse artistic practices under a common paradigm. See D. Zefkili, ‘Do we Need a Greek Scene?’, Local Folk no.3, September 2005.

  6. Art Athina was initiated in 1993 by the Hellenic Art Galleries Association (PSAT), which was founded in 1987. It was discontinued in 2006 and relaunched in 2007 with a new concept and a larger number of participating galleries, also from abroad. For more information, see the institution's website, available at: http://www.art-athina.gr/wp/

  7. The area of Kerameikos / Metaxourgeio in the Athens city centre, traditionally an area of craftsmen and today mostly populated by immigrants, has been in the focus of a culture-led urban regeneration. The architectural initiative Oliaros together with the non-profit organisation KM Protypi Geitonia have been leading forces in this process. In 2007 the non-profit organisation ReMap KM was launched, which is taking place parallel to the Athens Bienniale and brings together galleries and independent exhibition projects. It also invites galleries and artists from abroad to get to know the area and contribute to the activities. For more information, visit http://remapkm.org/

  8. Some examples are Open Show Studio, Salon de Vortex, Kunsthalle Athena, Vital Space and Frown Tails, all founded in 2010; Beton 7 and the Dynamo project-space, both founded in 2009. Other artists and curatorial groups worked without a regular space, such as Under Construction (2008), Lo and Behold and QW3RTY (2010), or Daily Laizy Projects (2011) which recently organised the group exhibition ‘Hosted in Athens’.

  9. Since traditional modes of funding have never played a major role in financing artistic activities in Greece, the current difficulties of the state do not have an immediate impact on the art institutions

  10. The Breeder, for example, opened a restaurant on the top floor, while Loraini Alimantiri Gazonrouge started to focus on curatorial and educational projects.

  11. Actually, anti-capitalist topics and discursive formats had been already part of the second Athens Bienniale 2009. While at that point the Greek crisis was already foreshadowing, it had not yet reached the wider international public and the biennial's title, ‘Heaven’, was no hint at the state of emergency to come. The third Athens Bienniale, by contrast, succeeded in transforming loosely knit ideas and a discursive approach into a wholesome and coherent concept. For more information, see the website of the Athens Biennial, available at: http://www.athensbiennial.org/AB/en/ENintro.htm#.