A grand atrium. Light spilling over poured concrete. Contemporary art installations in all directions. I’ve ducked into the old Public Tobacco Factory in Athens to escape the midday heat and feel suddenly as though I might be in London at the Tate Modern.
Opened this summer, the industrial space in an overlooked part of central Athens has been transformed by NEON, an organization founded by Greek art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos.
It’s just one sign that Greece, better known for its abundance of antiquities, is becoming a destination for contemporary art, too.
Taking over the once-abandoned building, the 6,500-square-metre NEON gallery promises to be “a dynamic hub for meeting and exchanging ideas” in Greece’s capital, and €1.2 million has gone into the project. The inaugural exhibition, “Portals,” which runs until the end of December, showcases the work of 59 contemporary artists from 27 countries, including Cornelia Parker OBE (U.K.), Dana Schutz (U.S.) and the late Marisa Merz (Italy).
“For a decade now, we Greeks have been in a state of economic and political crisis, and with the recent pandemic we are experiencing a social disintegration, making Greece a very thought-provoking place, with a lot of room for diverse cultural exchange,” says Georgia Liapi, curator at Zoumboulakis Gallery in Athens.
She points to the respected Documenta art festival and its decision to host in Athens in 2017 as a turning point for the contemporary art scene in Greece. “This emerging art community building up in Greece is contradictory to the limitations of funding for artistic production. But this can be seen as a productive challenge that births alternative ways of developing an exhibition project,” says Liapi.
There’s a real DIY feeling among artists here in Athens, a resilient sense that despite the financial crisis, anything is possible with the right mindset. Thanks in part to the exposure of Documenta and to cheap rental spaces, artists began to spill into the city in the years following 2017.
Take the previously rundown neighbourhood of Kypseli, now a burgeoning art hub: Strolling down the pedestrianized, tree-lined boulevard of Fokionos Negri and its surrounding streets on any given evening, I stumble upon exhibition openings amid locals sipping cold coffees and ouzo.
At British artist Eleanor Lines’ Kypseli Print Studio, artists pour in for an exhibition from her latest residents. Red and black screen-printed textiles are draped from a mezzanine across her screens, and young Athenians rub shoulders with a new international crowd between the fabric.
“Kypseli has a faded grandeur and I enjoy tracing its art deco and modernist legacy,” says Lines of the neighbourhood. She has created a series of prints that draw inspiration from the architecture and motifs found on the area’s dramatic wrought-iron doors. “I came here to set up my studio because I did an art residency in Kypseli and felt very inspired,” says Lines, who now hosts a residency of her own.
Elsewhere, on the island of Mykonos, Greek gallery owner Marina Vranopoulou is also running art residencies. Dropped into the heart of the idiosyncratic old town, between iconic whitewashed walls and blue-shuttered windows, stands Dio Horia. Inside, an ever-rotating exhibition explodes with colour from visiting artists, invited from all over the world to work and show in Mykonos.
“Most artists fall in love with Greece and the residency program and come back to spend more time here. What they seek in their time, research and artworks are to be close to the monuments, like the open-air island museum of Delos, and the rural life in Greece that remains simple and authentic,” says Vranopoulou, whose artists-in-residence have included David Shrigley and Erik Parker, along with Greek artists Polina Miliou and Spyros Aggelopoulos.
“There is a positive change of landscape in Greece. I see a lot of new art organizations popping up, with excellent programs, cultural spaces in various neighbourhoods, and artists from all over the world finding their peers and creative voices here,” says Vranopoulou. The island of Hydra also hosts a roster of international artists each summer, in a former slaughterhouse turned waterfront gallery run by the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, which is set to present works by Jeff Koons in June 2022.
Once the artists move in, galleries follow. Carwan, originally founded in Beirut in 2011, relocated to the port town of Piraeus, southwest of Athens’ city centre, last year. Just a stroll away from a ferry to the Greek islands, I can now dip into the contemporary design world.
“We chose Piraeus because we found the energy reminds us of the one in Beirut,” says Quentin Moyse, one of the partners at Carwan, referencing the old port warehouse space and its surrounding workshops and craftsmen. Carwan isn’t the only gallery in the area. The proximity of Rodeo and the Intermission, both on the same street, has made it a destination for art and design lovers.
There’s seemingly no end to the exciting Greek gallery openings. In September, Italian gallerist Francesco Romano Petillo, together with friend Paolo Cortese, will open Gramma_Epsilon, tucked into a quiet side street in central Athens.
“The background of Athens to me is particularly appealing and ideal for the project we are about to present,” says Petillo. “The perfect chaos of the centre, the sense of time passing slowly, the heat and the sensuality ... And that beautiful rock with the temple on top, which appears from almost every corner of the city when you least expect it.”
Beyond the galleries, travellers to Greece can also stay in an art hotel, of which there are many. Art collector Dakis Joannou’s Yes Hotels Group hosts contemporary work by international artists throughout each property, including New Hotel and Semiramis, both in Athens. The newly opened Hotel Aristide on the Cycladic island of Syros has its own gallery, and Shila attracts creative types in Athens with regular events and a rotating exhibition featuring Greek and international talent.
“We wanted to make a versatile and whimsical space that becomes a stage where we can showcase artists we love,” says Shila’s creative director and co-founder, Eftihia Stefanidi, of the hotel’s multidisciplinary ambitions, further punctuating just how much there is to see in Greece. Even hotels are doubling up as galleries — the ultimate vacation for the art lover.