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Dakis Joannou’s Greek-Art Cause

Meet the billionaire behind the launch of Greece’s contemporary art scene.


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This spring and summer, the legendary Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis had a rare solo show in his native Greece. Held at the Museum of Cycladic Art, a private antiquities museum in Athens, the two-story display was no doubt fueled by the country’s ever-deepening financial crisis, and a highlight, to be sure, was Kounellis’s elegiac ode to Greece’s struggling retired and out-of-work populace. Overcoats culled from local flea markets hung unused on gallery walls, their theoretical owners having nowhere to go; accompanying hats and shoes looked relic-like in a glass vitrine nearby. The exhibition opened on April 5. On April 4 one such pensioner shot himself half a mile away, in the middle of Syntagma Square. For many Greeks, Kounellis’s installation went from musing to memorial.

“Art plays a very important role during a time of crisis,” confirms Dakis Joannou, the Greek-Cypriot billionaire industrialist, omnivorous contemporary art collector and, arguably, progenitor of Greece’s small but thriving contemporary art scene. “It’s an emotional role. It helps people become more mature—to think a little deeper. And it’s an essential element in keeping the structure of society together.” Especially when everything around it is falling apart: Greece is on its third bailout and in its fifth year of depression with a 25 percent unemployment rate. “You don’t give up on culture,” he continues. “You have to allocate resources to maintain it.”

Which is precisely why, at a time when culture couldn’t slip much lower on Greece’s national agenda, Joannou is determined to stay the course. Now entering its 30th year, his Athens-based nonprofit, the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, is more multi-tentacled than ever, supporting exhibitions, projects and publications ranging from an ongoing Columbia University study exploring connections among art collecting, architecture and exhibition in Greece to Polish art star Pawel Althamer’s first solo outing in the country to a prestigious biennial Greek art prize.

A deft businessman with a background in civil engineering and architecture, Joannou, 71, has built a ground-up empire that includes an international construction company, Joannou & Paraskevaides, and a growing Greek hotel chain—never mind the fact that he remains a leading distributor of Coca-Cola in Europe, Africa and beyond. But his approach to art, he says—consuming it, collecting it, sharing it and doing what he can to facilitate the making of it—is staunchly strategy-free. His only goal, he insists, is “engaging in a dialogue with contemporary art.”

Joannou is nevertheless credited with creating a global platform for contemporary Greek artists. Young artists cite his 1990s and early 2000s DESTE shows as their first real encounters with contemporary work. Some of the world’s biggest artists and curators are regularly in town to pay him and the foundation a visit. And pieces by DESTE-affiliated Greek practitioners have made their way into MoMA, Documenta and other major collections, like that of Charles Saatchi. Achieving these things, he insists, has just been a happy by-product: “If an action is valid, it will create a positive environment and everything will fall into place.”

It’s a somewhat unexpected trek from Joannou’s year-old New Hotel near the Acropolis in central Athens—designed by Brazilian phenoms Fernando and Humberto Campana—to DESTE, housed in a former sock factory in the northern neighborhood of Nea Ionia. By cab, the 20-minute journey passes a stately stretch of museums and foreign embassies, grittier areas speckled with empty storefronts and the city’s beleaguered Parliament, where, in July, camera-toting travelers seemed to have replaced angry demonstrators entirely. (“It’s summer,” says Athens-based artist Eirene Efstathiou. And, postelection, in which the conservative, pro-bailout New Democracy party reigned supreme, “people are exhausted. Everybody is gathering strength to encounter the next series of social unrest.”)

DESTE hosts a handful of somewhat nebulous exhibitions each year, drawn from Joannou’s collection of 1,500 works. But the foundation does much more. It publishes experimental artist books (like this fall’s On Democracy, by Saddam Hussein, a series of speeches by the late dictator translated into English and printed alongside illustrations by New York artist Paul Chan, whose Badlands Unlimited is copublisher); it houses an archive of materials pertaining to contemporary Greek art; and it awards the aforementioned DESTE Prize to a deserving Greek artist every two years after a splashy exhibition of six finalists at the Museum of Cycladic Art (preparations for the 2013 edition are under way). DESTE also commissions riffs on fashion and architecture and runs a project space in a seaside slaughterhouse on the art-rich, pedestrian-only Greek island of Hydra. Joannou convinced the local government to let him use it in 2009; it had been vacant for years, its drainage system having had the unfortunate consequence of attracting swarms of bloodthirsty sharks.

On that sunny morning in July, Joannou is waiting for me in a modest office at DESTE. He is affable and genteel, jokingly telling me not to overthink things, that he doesn’t when it comes to his art-based extracurricular activities. Given all that the self-made billionaire has accomplished, I wonder if this is really the case. But Joannou also happens to be unapologetic about his approach, which has, at times, come under fire.

The most notable instance of this was “Skin Fruit,” the 2010 exhibition of works from his collection at the New Museum in New York City, where he sits on the board. Critics pounced on Joannou for purportedly using the nonprofit to enhance the value of his already blue-chip collection and for asking Jeff Koons—whose art was part of the show—to curate. “It shocked the world!” he says with a laugh. “It was like Apocalypse Now!” Regardless, he remains proud of that show.

A Greek art-world professional, however, doesn’t take such insider politicking so lightly, saying, “We’re in a time when collectors with lots of money can buy institutions and turn them into playgrounds for themselves and their friends.”

There has also long been a call for Joannou, whose empire has not taken that big of a hit, to offer more financial support to the cultural institutions that exist already in Greece. A source says, “If you give millions to big international museums so your name is going to be in the newspaper, that’s fine, but also help Greek institutions, because they don’t have the budgets.” Athens’s only dedicated contemporary art museum, for example, was founded in 2000 and has been without a permanent location for nearly a decade; the 2004 opening of its refurbished building has been plagued by delays. Joannou believes “support” is the wrong word, “because support isn’t helping anybody. In the beginning, a lot of people thought that’s what I was doing, and they would ask for funding for this or that. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not into that.’ It’s about creating a platform.”

Joannou started DESTE in 1983, before he began his collection. He wanted to act on his long-standing interest in contemporary art but didn’t think he could do that by buying it. “At the time, I didn’t understand what collecting was,” he says. “I thought collecting was like amassing trophies, and I really hated that. I thought that collecting was a horrible thing to do.”

Then he met Koons in the mid-1980s and something clicked. He realized that buying art could incite conversation, could build a community. He bought Koons’s Total Equilibrium Tank for $2,700 and has acquired more than 40 additional pieces of his since. DESTE, meanwhile, continued to evolve, moving to its current location in 2005.

Since 2009, DESTE’s Hydra Project Space has been co-opted by global artists of Joannou’s choosing (Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton and Doug Aitken among them) and fêted with a high-profile gathering attended by some 200 members of the art world’s who’s who. Joannou postponed this past summer’s “Urs Fischer-Josh Smith” show and all accompanying festivities until next year. It coincided with the elections, he says, and would have been “totally inappropriate.”

Instead, Joannou has organized an astute show of politically charged works, fittingly titled “Animal Spirits,” after a Keynesian theory describing the way emotions leach into an economy, whether we recognize it or not.

When examining Joannou’s initiatives, it’s also important to consider the more recent phenomena he has directly and indirectly inspired. The Greek art world in general appears hopeful, as artists of all ilk seek out visceral, effective ways to tackle one of the greatest economic downturns in modern history. The country has also seen an increase in new grassroots initiatives like the Athens Biennale, which was colaunched by a former DESTE director in 2007; ReMap, which mounts exhibits in unused spaces and buildings throughout Athens; and Kunsthalle Athena, whose smart, cutting-edge events, publications and shows are attracting attention around the world.

“A lot of things happen here because of very opinionated, very strong-minded individuals and not because of the state,” says Nadia Gerazouni, director of the Breeder, a ten-year-old commercial gallery in Athens that has been critical in promoting and placing works by Greek artists both domestically and abroad. Jannis Varelas was one of two of its artists short-listed for the 2011 DESTE Prize. Charles Saatchi acquired his entire installation, and it will go on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London next year.

“Joannou definitely helped shape a scene,” she adds, “but it’s one that also has a life of its own and has grown a lot these last few years.”

ReMap founder Iasson Tsakonas (a budding collector and patron himself) sees a local benefit in Joannou’s international standing as well. “He has a position in the global art scene,” Tsakonas says. “And no matter what somebody thinks of that position, it’s important in itself for a small place like Greece.”

And Joannou doesn’t take DESTE’s cultural impact lightly. “The whole endeavor is about Greece for me,” he says, “and everything is connected—the location, the work, with being Greek, with showing in Greece. The history, the geography, the climate, the people; that’s my context. It’s important that everything be active in this environment.” Crisis or not.

The DESTE Foundation of Contemporary Art is 20 minutes from Athens. Its Hydra Project Space can be reached by boat. For more information on either, go to deste.gr.

Dakis Joannou’s Greece

Joannou shares his favorites in Athens and beyond.

Island: Hydra may host the Slaughterhouse, but Joannou has a home on the Greek island of Corfu as well (and, of course, uses his Jeff Koons–designed yacht, Guilty, to get there). “It’s like Italy, and it’s totally green,” Joannou says. “The town is Venetian, so it’s like walking through Venice—not the canals but the buildings, the squares, the wells and so on. It’s a beautiful little island.”

Restaurant: Rhodia, a Mediterranean eatery in the chic Kolonaki neighborhood of Athens. “It’s very casual and not touristy at all,” Joannou says. “It’s been around for maybe 35 years and [has been] number one on everybody’s list since then.” At 44 Aristipou; 30-210/722-9883.

Hotels: The New Hotel (16 Filellinon St.; 30-210/327-3000; yeshotels.gr) and the Periscope (22 Haritos St.; 30-210/729-7200; yeshotels.gr), designed, respectively, by Brazilian designers (and brothers) Fernando and Humberto Campana and decaARCHITECTURE, are both part of Joannou’s Yes! Hotels chain. Yes, we know—they are his own. But the new design-forward boutique inns have undoubtedly brightened what was previously a fairly staid Athens hotel scene. “The idea was to go a step beyond getting a well-known designer to do a hotel [and] to get someone who had never done a hotel before,” Joannou explains. “This is what I really like—to think outside the box and do something very radical, very unusual.”

Ancient Site: Eleusis in West Attica, Greece, located about 25 miles northwest of the Athens city center and, in ancient times, the site of cult-like religious ceremonies to honor the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. “It’s a really magical place,” Joannou says. “Even up to now we don’t know what was happening inside those walls. That’s very intriguing to me.”


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