The Athens Art Scene Goes Contemporary

ATHENS — On a recent afternoon, the Pennsylvania-born, Athens-based artist Jennifer Nelson toweled away at her new project in a spacious temporary studio. In a corner were overstuffed garbage bags of various colors whose contents would be used in her installation of her: “Waste (Inheritance).”

Over the last year, Ms. Nelson has been collecting the packaging and material waste generated by her family. Through September, she is transforming the household refuse into a giant sculpture that she will drape herself in during a performance at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens, or EMST. It’s her way of raising awareness of the litter that human beings produce and the burden it creates for future generations.

The waste workshop is one of seven exhibitions marking the rebirth of EMST, a museum of international and Greek contemporary art.

Born in 2000 as a nomadic institution, it moved into its current premises seven years ago. But because of the Greek economic crisis, bureaucratic delays and the pandemic, EMST had its official opening as a fully operational museum earlier this month. Festivities were held on its premises: a converted brewery with a large foyer, multiple gallery levels, and terraces with panoramic city views.

Another reason the opening was delayed was because “in this country, successive governments were not interested in contemporary art, quite frankly,” said Katerina Gregos, the museum’s artistic director for the last year. The emphasis so far was “on our classical heritage and on antiquities. There’s a lot that you need to safeguard, and we are a small country.”

Ms. Gregos also noted that when it came to modern and contemporary art, there was a “massive gap in education.” Greece “never really experienced modernism,” and if you were an artist who wanted a career in the 1960s, “you had to go abroad.”

She said attitudes had changed under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in power since 2019. His government had persuaded her to move to Athens from Brussels, where she had lived and worked since 2006, and, she added, given her the means to run the institution : an annual budget of 9 million euros ($9.5 million), roughly double what it was before.

Ms. Gregos is the curator of EMST’s main inaugural exhibition, “Statecraft and Beyond” (through Oct. 30). It’s a group show looking at how the authority of nation-states and governments is exercised and how it is being challenged by technology, globalization and extreme nationalism.

Covering a large wall is the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s work “The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men” (2021): close-up photographs of the hands of male leaders (mostly dictators), often held up in salutes , representing patriarchal power.

On another wall, the German artist Thomas Kilpper displays 90 charcoal drawings representing far-right attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in various locations in Germany.

The Greek state may have been late to the contemporary-art party, but private foundations funded by the country’s biggest fortunes have endeavored to make up for it. The Deste, Neon, Onassis and Stavros Niarchos Foundations put on shows and cultural programs, distribute grants, and fund artist residencies. (Recently, a new commercial gallery quarter has also burgeoned in Piraeus, the port of Athens.)

This summer, the foundations are offering a varied slate of cultural programming.

Inside its striking postindustrial space, a former tobacco factory, Neon — established by the billionaire Greek entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos — is showing “Dream On,” featuring 18 large-scale installations by such artists as Thomas Hirschhorn, Annette Messager and Paul McCarthy. The artworks are from the collection of Mr. Daskalopoulos, who, in April, gave more than 350 works to four museums, including EMST, the Guggenheim and the Tate.

DESTE, founded by the Greek Cypriot billionaire Dakis Joannou, is hosting a tribute to the California artist Kaari Upson, who died last year at 51 and whose works included sculpture, video and drawings.

And the Onassis Foundation — named after the son of the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and headquartered in a massive building opened in 2011 with display galleries and two theaters — is showing an exhibition of digital art in an unexpected location: the Pedion tou Areos Park.

Speaking at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference, an event organized in association with The New York Times, the Onassis Foundation’s director of culture, Afroditi Panagiotakou, said the economic crisis had “put Greece on the map for all the bad reasons,” but also helped the world “forget about the Parthenon for a while” and focus on the urban reality of Athens.

She said the recession and collapsing property prices, as well as the 2017 Documenta exhibition (which was partly held in Athens), led artists to move to Athens and build an edgy art scene.

“Right now, the big issue is: how can we keep ourselves relevant?” she asked. “How can we keep the international scene interested in Athens, now that the crisis is not here in the same way?”

Mareva Grabowski-Mitsotakis, the prime minister’s wife and a champion of Greek culture and craft, agreed that it was important “to keep the momentum that is existing right now, where the art scene is flourishing.” She suggested that Athens should become a bridge between past and present, the center of “a dialogue between our classical heritage and contemporary creativity.”

“Even if it’s a periphery city,” she said, Athens is, “through its cultural heritage, one of the most important cities of the world.”

Nicholas Yatromanolakis, the country’s first-ever deputy culture minister for contemporary culture — a Harvard University graduate who was appointed to the role last year — said he was annoyed by occasional parallels between Athens and global capitals such as Berlin.

“The goal is not to make it the new New York, or the new London, or the new Paris,” he said.

He described his job as helping artists across the cultural spectrum “make a living from their art, from their craft,” and “showcase what they can do beyond the borders of Athens or Greece.”

“We should make Athens the best version of itself,” he said.

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