In Athens, Austerity Makes Contemporary Art Palatable

originally published at NY Times

By KATHERINE LaGRAVE JUNE 18, 2015

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The artist Maria Hassabi’s installation “The Wall” at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Austerity measures have been bad for Greeks, but good for tourism, which shot up 28.8 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2014. Another beneficiary? Artists. Rent for studio space is significantly cheaper than in other European capitals, and the political and economic turmoil have provided plenty of artistic fodder — not to mention a frustrated, attentive audience. In the wake of these woes, artists, curators, critics and nonprofits are finding that contemporary art is having its moment in a city best known as the epicenter of the ancient world.

Iliana Fokianaki, an Athens-based curator and art critic, was considering a move to Paris in 2011 when businesses were shuttering, friends were losing their jobs and thousands took to the streets in protest. But rather than motivate her to head out of the country, this had the opposite effect. She stayed.

“I realized it would be much more useful to have an artistic platform in a city like Athens than another European city,” said Ms. Fokianaki, who in 2013 inaugurated State of Concept, a Greek nonprofit gallery that has a twofold mission to showcase artists through solo exhibitions and provide young graduates with free consultations. “The crisis kind of boosted our energy to do more things, rather than flee the country.”


But in a country lacking consistent federal artistic funding, perhaps what is most surprising is not who’s stayed, but who’s coming.

At the Snehta Residency, which has the playful name of Athens spelled backward, applications have tripled for its two-month research residencies for artists engaged in Athens-centric work since the program began in 2012, according to Augustus Veinoglou, its founder and director. Other artists have moved to the capital through the popular Kappatos Athens Art Residency and various other residency and exchange programs.

Irini Bachlitzanaki, a 30-year-old Athens native who moved to London to study art, returned in 2011 to the Greek capital despite its economic troubles.

“I was very interested to see if it would be possible to live here and work as a practicing artist,” said Ms. Bachlitzanaki, whose first solo show, Emergent Qualities, is to open in September at Elika Gallery, one of the city’s newer contemporary art spaces. “Perhaps what’s been most interesting is the community growing around different models. It’s very vibrant, and the level of work is very good.”

“The Hope Hippo” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla at the École Française d’Athènes. Credit Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
A record 25 million tourists are expected to visit Greece this year, according to the nonprofit Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises. Contemporary art is now in the spotlight at the Athens & Epidaurus Festival, which runs through Aug. 31. NEON, a nonprofit founded by the mega-collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos that focuses on Greek contemporary culture, has an exhibition until July 24 called Renaissance Stories. In the exhibit, five Greek artists produce works inspired by a famed Vlassis Caniaris installation.
In a separate attraction, NEON is partnering with London’s Whitechapel Gallery to bring together 25 Greek and foreign artists to explore myth, drama, metamorphoses and bioethics through outdoor art projects at the École Française d’Athènes until July 26. Other contemporary and historic mash-ups include displays of the finalists for the Deste Prize, which recognizes young Greek artists, at the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon’s multiplatform show of paintings and sculpture at the historic Benaki Museum until Aug. 30.

Many of these attractions will fill a vacuum left by the absence of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which has spent more than a decade in a period of restoration and flux but is not scheduled to reopen until the end of the year.

But while Athens’s art scene is flourishing internally, artists say international recognition and investment are central to continued growth. One large opportunity for exposure is Documenta, the world-renowned exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany; the last drew nearly 900,000 visitors over the course of 100 days.

Also called the Museum of 100 days, Documenta 14 will be the first time that the exhibition will be hosted in two cities, beginning April 8, 2017, in Athens and June 10, 2017, in Kassel. The selection of Athens amid its growing economic and political troubles was intentional, said the exhibition’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk.

“Athens seemed to be the place where contradictions meet: ‘the cradle of civilization’ affected by crisis and debt, its citizens enduring a lasting uncertainty as to their future,” Mr. Szymczyk said.

A version of this article appears in print on June 21, 2015, on page TR14 of the New York edition with the headline: In Athens, Austerity Makes Art Palatable.

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