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From Athens to the Islands: The Greek art scene enters a new era. Cathryn Drake


Greece is the word. Athens is the current European capital of cool, and this summer, tourism was at an all-time high for the country. Even Bill Gates is eyeing property there. The buzz started with the gaze of the art world, when documenta 14 chose Athens as its joint locus in 2017, opening first in Greece, then later in its traditional home of Kassel, Germany. The organisation’s team set up offices in the Exarcheia district – which became known as a base for anarchist activity following post-dictatorship protests at the nearby Polytechnic in 1973. These events put the spotlight on the youthful neighborhood and its vivid street art and graffiti. As an epicenter of the economic and refugee crises, Greece became a cause célèbre, and the media started calling it the ‘New Berlin’. International creatives flocked to the city, and young Greek diaspora artists returned to work for documenta and collaborate on a flurry of projects emanating from the expectations sparked by this new energy.

While documenta may have put Greece on the global art map, the country was never short of creative spunk, and cultural production became more collaborative at the height of the economic crisis. A history of colonialism and fascist regimes has engendered a tenacious DIY mentality. In 2007 the first Athens Biennale, called ‘Destroy Athens’, took place in an abandoned gasworks – a forecast of what was to come. As ‘for rent’ signs accumulated, artists and curators took over empty spaces to use as studios and exhibition venues, such as the multidisciplinary 3 137, in an Exarcheia storefront; Enterprise Projects, in a parking garage; and ΎΛΗ[matter]HYLE, run by artist Georgia Sagri out of an apartment. In 2013, State of Concept, founded by Iliana Fokianaki, started its lively politically-oriented exhibitions, dialogues, and workshops for artists in a former commercial space. ‘There is an undeniable documenta effect, the before-and-after in the equation. It made us all critical and self-conscious on top of highlighting the challenges the local scene is facing,’ curator Panos Giannikopoulos says.

Nonprofits and artist-run spaces have continued to proliferate ever since, generating a dynamic scene characterized by lots of painting, political discourse, and performance. ‘Athens is indeed having a moment, and it’s wonderful to witness so many events and arts initiatives that reflect its grassroots grit and resilience,’ says Maria-Thalia Carras, Director of TAVROS, which since 2019 has operated a socially oriented program in a working-class neighborhood. ‘It’s why we all love this city.’ Luckily, private foundations have long funded all this inventive cultural activity. NEON, founded in 2013 by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, sponsors annual grants that support spaces and exhibitions involving Greek artists. Founded in 2017, ARTWORKS is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and provides grants to art workers through open calls. Since 2010, the Onassis Foundation has supported the arts with a year-round program of performance and exhibitions at its cultural center, Stegi; the Onassis AiR fellowships and residency, hosting practitioners from abroad for up to three years; and soon the ONX Studio, an extended reality and AI art hub. ‘We are going to be a better glue, bringing together different people who share curiosity,’ says Director of Culture Afroditi Panagiotakou. ‘But we have to make sure real people, and not just tourists, can live in the city.’

As the long financial crisis lifts and the pandemic subsides, there are more jobs, and Greeks are buying art. Yet the market has never been the driving force here, and only a few galleries, such as The Breeder, Kalfayan Galleries, Eleni Koroneou Gallery, Hot Wheels Projects, and Bernier/Eliades exhibit at international fairs. The affluent Kolonaki district is an established gallery hub: and Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery, Nitra Gallery, Crux Galerie, and Citronne – the last the offspring of a gallery on the island of Poros – all opened there in the past decade. International galleries have also arrived. In 2018, Allouche Benias, related to US-based Allouche, moved into the spectacular Deligiorgis Mansion. Even Gagosian is here, having taken over a Kolonaki villa in 2020, with an inaugural show of drawings and paintings on marble by Brice Marden, who has a home on the island of Hydra.

By now, an itinerary of Athens art spaces is really a tour of the city’s neighborhoods. Housed since 2008 in a former ice-cream factory on a bordello-lined street near Metaxourgeio square, The Breeder celebrates 20 years in business this fall. Rebecca Camhi shows prominent artists such as Nan Goldin and Nikos Alexiou in a quaint neoclassical house around the corner. Dio Horia started with a residency on the islands of Mykonos and Delos, and just inaugurated a space near the Acropolis. The port of Piraeus has become a gallery outpost, with a branch of the London gallery Rodeo, The Intermission, and Carwan Gallery (a design gallery relocated from Beirut) taking over atmospheric old workshops and warehouses. ‘The market has gotten better and there is a more active scene,’ The Breeder gallery director Nadia Gerazouni says. ‘And everyone is stopping in Athens during the summer, so we don’t close the gallery in August anymore.’

By now, an itinerary of Athens art spaces is really a tour of the city’s neighborhoods. Housed since 2008 in a former ice-cream factory on a bordello-lined street near Metaxourgeio square, The Breeder celebrates 20 years in business this fall. Rebecca Camhi shows prominent artists such as Nan Goldin and Nikos Alexiou in a quaint neoclassical house around the corner. Dio Horia started with a residency on the islands of Mykonos and Delos, and just inaugurated a space near the Acropolis. The port of Piraeus has become a gallery outpost, with a branch of the London gallery Rodeo, The Intermission, and Carwan Gallery (a design gallery relocated from Beirut) taking over atmospheric old workshops and warehouses. ‘The market has gotten better and there is a more active scene,’ The Breeder gallery director Nadia Gerazouni says. ‘And everyone is stopping in Athens during the summer, so we don’t close the gallery in August anymore.’ The Greek government has recently stepped up support, too. In response to a slew of protests by art workers, Nicholas Yatromanolakis was appointed the country’s first Deputy Minister of Culture. One complaint has been that archaeology is prioritized, and certainly Greece has a significant legacy to look after. ‘Contemporary production is part of the national heritage, but most countries don’t value it,’ he says. As part of a strategy to support the creative sector, sales tax on artworks has gone down from 24% to 13%, and an unprecedented labor and social security reform bill will be passed in 2022 to define the status of cultural workers, regulate compensation standards, and simplify bureaucracy so artists can more easily make a living.We want to make a national framework rather than depend on loose private initiatives.’ This summer’s biggest news was the official opening in June of EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, after a series of false starts due to lack of state funding following the completion of the building in 2014. The first show, ‘Statecraft (and Beyond)’, is an ambitious look at mechanisms of modern nation states, curated by the new director, Katerina Gregos. 'EMST aims to carve out a distinct position in the international museum ecosystem by reflecting its rich geopolitical space at the nexus of East and West,’ she says. ‘We don’t want to mimic Western mainstream institutions. Someone coming to see a museum of contemporary art in Athens does not want to see the same things they have seen in London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin.’



Athens may be the most fascinating and least understood European capital, its dramatic and dynamic modern history not yet digested. Part of its attraction is the unruly mosaic of neighborhoods and an edgy exoticism now in danger of succumbing to European-style development. ‘This is a really important moment for the Greek scene,’ says Hugo Wheeler, Founder and Director of the young gallery Hot Wheels Projects. ‘Any time of year you can go to a number of institutions and see great exhibitions. I can’t think of any other Mediterranean city where you can do that.’ Take that, Berlin.

Cathryn Drake is a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to Artforum, frieze, Men’s Vogue, BBC Travel, and Time, among other publications. Captions for full-bleed images: EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Stephie Grape. Installation view of Andrea Bowers' works at EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, 2022. Photograph by Katerina Paraskeva. EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Spiros Rekounas. EMST, National Museum of Contemporary Art. Photograph by Spiros Rekounas.

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