A snapshot of the struggling but surviving art scene in Athens
ATHENS—Buried beneath mounds of problems spurred by political instability and economic turmoil, the contemporary art scene in Athens is struggling to keep its head above water. With the absence of a clear cultural policy, the arts sector consistently being the first to receive budget cuts, a homeless contemporary art museum and the recent impromptu cancellation of a major art fair—art in Athens has definitely felt the strain of the city’s ongoing grapple with the Euro-crisis. But, while sales are down and funding is scarce—neither the spirits nor skillset of the artistic community in the city has been crushed as it collectively, and creatively continues to strive for a means to stay afloat.
“It was a huge boost,” sighs Sofia Thoma, gallery director of AD gallery, referring to last year’s Art Athina fair—an event widely praised by the press, which surprised many by drawing an impressive 18 thousand attendees. But despite its success last May, the fair has been put on indefinite hiatus this year due to financial woes and plans to restrategize. “Things are very unstable at the moment—not only politically but financially as well— so it would be a risk to run Art Athina at the end of May,” explains Alexandros J. Stanas, the fair’s creative director since 2009.
While Stanas is obviously disappointed about the fair’s cancellation, he sees it as only one of the many issues currently perturbing the state of contemporary art in Athens. “The city lacks all of the components of a healthy art scene,” he explains. “We have a museum for contemporary art which is located temporarily in a building waiting for its building to be built, and we also have a major problem regarding the Ministry of Culture—having to do with contemporary art especially—there is no central strategy or axis, so nothing can be built because of the lack of general policy.”
That said, Stanas realizes that policy is no easy matter. “The government is making good steps—but having a cultural policy for Athens is like having a cultural policy for Greece, which is difficult.” He references the draft of a recent white-paper document that he hopes the new parliament and minister of culture will consider either implementing or learning from. “It is a very interesting document in that it recognizes what is wrong with the way the culture is acting and offers tools and priorities for setting cultural policy in the future,” he says.
Zoumboulakis Galleries owner and manager Daphne Zoumboulakis agrees that the current political instability and missing detailed cultural policy has been setback for contemporary artists. “The result is that it is extremely difficult for Greek artists and Greek art in general to have any real presence in the international art scene. Thus the whole mechanism and cycle as it functions in Europe and most other Western countries is basically non-existent in Greece,” she says.
Thoma says that aside from policy, one of the largest flaws hindering the international presence of Greek artists is their lack of identity. “[The artists] are trying to incorporate the ways the other European and international well-known artists are using and that is the mistake,” she says, explaining that in doing so they fail to bring anything new to the table and ignore the pool of inspiration their heritage lends them. “I’m not saying they need to be classical—their ideas can be drawn from their past, future, and present— but as Greeks,” she says.
Despite the financial hardships it has brought, Zoumboulakis explains the crisis might have been the boost Greek artists needed to put themselves on the right track in terms of finding their identity. “It has marked the beginning of a slow but steady course towards the quest of essence and the acquisition of a contemporary art identity in Greece— something that was only a secondary consideration due to the convenience offered by mimicry and commercialization.”
Thoma says that another issue spiked by the general crisis has been a shift in the psychology of the collectors and buyers, provoked by cuts made in all sectors. “We are receiving a frozen attitude from the people— they want to buy but they are not sure if it would be better to be more skeptical about proceeding in a purchase.”
While obviously this attitude shift has hurt sales, Stanas points out that there has been some good that has come from it. “Through the recession there has been a balance brought to previously-inflated prices and to the quality of work,” he explains. “Because people are more careful with what they buy or what they look into—they choose more wisely.”
The flipside of a situation that is full of “have-nots” is that it requires people to get creative in order to meet their needs and fill the voids. “I see that because the commercial sector is not as active right now, there are many artist initiatives and independent spaces popping up around the city,” says Stanas, describing a guerrilla movement in which many shops and spaces left empty as a consequence of the recession have been transformed into art spaces by local artists.
Kassiani Benou, communications manager of the National Museum of Contemporary Art explains that the city’s intimate experience with the crisis will eventually become tangible inspiration for artists’ work—but that it’s too soon for that just yet. “Its tricky, just like after the revolution in Egypt everyone was expecting artists to create works about the revolution and be very political—which is normal—but people have to understand that artists need time to absorb what is happening around them,” she says. “The Greek crisis has been happening for two years, so only now have artists started to reflect more on the political situation.”
She thinks that by the time this inspiration kicks in, things will be moving in the right direction for art and artists in Athens. “I think that in difficult times art always flourishes. That may sound optimistic, but we have to be optimistic, or else there is no point—but I really believe there is strong potential in the Greek art scene and this will become much more evident in the coming years.”