Why public art institutions still matter a lot – a Greek experience – an artist’s perspective
During the last years, Greece, a «periphery» country has been brought to the centre of attention and of public discourse. Mainly due to the financial and political crisis that broke in 2008, caused the biggest social destruction since the end of the Second World War and brought the country to its knees.
Due to the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece, culture was one of the first sectors to suffer major cuts. Under this state of emergency, public museums are facing dire operational difficulties as public funding has been slashed up to 70%. This state of affairs makes it not only impossible for museums to organize and carry out programmes and exhibitions, but also extremely difficult to cover normal operational costs and pay their personnel. Therefore, major private institutions, such as the Onassis Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Neon, have intensified their activities and initiated new venues, scholarships, prices, and funding programmes.
In spite of the poverty and insecurity, the depression and the general collapse of the experience around them, artists' initiatives are blossoming. New collectivities are being formed, new art spaces are inaugurating, and artistic and cultural activism is on the rise. In the middle of all this, documenta 14, the major German organisation, has moved to the strained South announcing that they want to «Learn from Athens». But, what precisely can be learned from the Greek experience?
Let us briefly look at the burdens of Greek history that could help us better understand contemporary Greek culture. After four, and in some areas five, centuries under Ottoman rule, the final and successful «War of Independence» broke in 1821, in various parts of the land. The first Hellenic Republic was founded in 1827 and included a large part of the central and southern territories, as well as the Cycladic Islands. The north-west and north-east territories of Macedonia, Epirus and Thrace, as well as Crete, joined in the beginning of the First World War (WWI). Throughout the 20th century, various successive events prevented any chance of stability in Greek society and State.
Apart from WWI and WWII, that Greece experienced in all its brutality, suffering massive losses, it also went through the First and Second Balkan Wars against the Turks, ended in 1922 with the so-called «Great Disaster». In 1922, after the end of the Greek-Turkish war, and under the terms of the Lausanne Treaty, approximately one and a half million Christians and half a million Muslims were uprooted – as they were forced to move, the former from Turkey to the new Greek territories, and the latter to Turkey – in what was called «the exchange of populations».
During WWII, Nazi Germany occupied Greece for four disastrous years. The city of Thessaloniki suffered the loss of one of its biggest and oldest communities –who had been part of the city since the end of the 15th Century –, when 50,000 Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust.
The end of WWII left Greece in ruins, and the country suffered the additional tragedy of a bitter Civil War, fuelled by foreign powers and lasting until 1949. At the end, Greece was left also divided for many decades to come.
It has been in 1947, in the midst of the Civil War, that the Dodecanese islands joined Greece, giving the modern State its present geographical borders.
After a short period of two decades, during which people tirelessly strove for recovery, there came the April 1967 coup d’État and a seven-year military dictatorship was established.
In the post-dictatorship years, or «metapolitefsis», a period from 1974 to, roughly, the end of the 90s, democracy and a State based on the Rule of Law were established. It was at the same time that the fundaments of the Welfare State were laid – naturally, not without problems or weaknesses.
The effort to move forward and stabilise the economy was brutally, once again, interrupted by the ruthless austerity programme imposed on the Greek people from 2010. That programme has destroyed the Greek economy, wiped out the middle class, dismantled the Welfare State and its institutions and disrupted all social cohesion.
Given this History, it is not surprising that it took so long for the Greek State to inaugurate and establish public modern and contemporary art museums.
Neither it is strange that Greek citizens strongly identify with the idea of the Nation but do not identify with their own State and even see themselves often in opposition to it. In this context, the reason why the citizens are beset by anxious feelings of impermanence and uncertainty is more than clear.
The Greeks are a people of the diaspora. At various historical moments, we have seen massive waves of emmigration to other parts of the world.
It is also interesting to see how Greek society has incorporated and perverted the institutions and values of modernity.
Major art movements of the last century had little impact on artistic production in Greece. Some have argued that only in poetry did Modernism arrive timely in Greece. The production of images was for the greater part of the last century under the shadow of the Byzantine iconographic tradition. The majority of the Greeks are Orthodox Christians, this meaning that there is a wealth of religious images possessing a strong symbolic power – not only enormous spiritual power but also political power.
The images that people worship are not exactly seen as visual fields of exploration, having meaning in and producing meaning out of themselves, but they are more like vessels of the Spiritual «beyond». This perception of the image has been dominant in society and has shaped it, not only in a theological and aesthetic sense but also in a political sense.
The way a society understands and perceives images is crucial in understanding how its social, national, and other identities are structured. Moreover, it provides a channel through which people express fundamental sentiments and emotions, their relation to reality and their idea of transfiguration.
Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, I left for Germany in 1991 to study in Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Jannis Kounellis, my professor in the Kunstakademie, was saying that he had left Greece, where the Madonna was a two-dimensional figure like a decal sticker (calcomania), to go to Italy where she was a woman with flesh and blood.
During the intense years of my studies, I experienced a number of great differences between Greece and Germany that influenced my thinking and work. The mentality and habits of people, the relation of citizens to their State and to public space, the function of the public institutions, were a few among many.
In 1995, while still being a student, I have initiated an exchange project, a workshop and an exhibition with 32 students from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and the Art School of Thessaloniki, under the supervision of Jannis Kounellis. A proposal was delivered to the Organisation for the Cultural Capital of Europe Thessaloniki 97, and, after it was accepted, I undertook the organizational and curatorial work.
As a big scale project, it required intense, demanding and multifaceted work over a long period of time. For that reason, I moved back to Thessaloniki for a couple of years. Our partners were Greek and German public institutions and organisations, and gave us not only the necessary means, the framework and the time needed for completion but also absolute freedom of action and decision, freedom to experiment and research.
The realisation of the project was an adventurous, complex and valuable experience. Jannis Kounellis, me and all the students, from a number of different nationalities, met in May 1997 and, for nearly a month, we could investigate in depth fundamental artistic issues, taking the workshop and the exhibition as a common ground for working together and learning how to understand and accept our cultural differences. Personally, I also gained useful knowledge about the nature and the attributes of the different public cultural entities, either German or Greek. At the end, one thing was certain: such a project could only have been possible with public support and funding. After the completion of the project, I returned to Germany, and since 1998 I have lived in Berlin.
In 1999, two years after finishing my studies, I have been invited to represent Greece in the 48th Venice Biennale. This meant going through all the stereotypes of this participation, the «honour», the «pride» and the «responsibility» that involves representing one’s country in such a major international exhibition. And being strongly confronted with the perplexing and awkward idea of «embodying» a country. I could experience the mechanisms of constructing national subjects, and the processes of building a national identity. And I presented a site-specific work, whose focus was the critique of institutions like the Greek Pavilion and the Biennale itself. Cultural industry and cultural tourism were also targets of my artistic strategy.
Meanwhile, and on the occasion of the Cultural Capital of Europe Thessaloniki 97, the Greek Government founded the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. At the same time, the Center of Contemporary Art was also founded and affiliated to the Museum. With funds from the European Capital of Culture, the Greek State acquired the Costakis Collection, a collection of 1,270 works of the Russian avant-garde from the early 20th Century – and the collection became the Museum’s dowry.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art, in Athens, was also created in 1997 and officially opened in 2000.
Both Museums were received with enthusiasm and many expectations. The National Gallery in Athens had been, until then, one of the few public institutions organising big scale historical and modern art exhibitions.
But, mostly, the private galleries and a few private museums have been serving as the exhibition spaces for individual artists.
Thessaloniki has, since 1979, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, a private non-profit museum, which was founded upon receiving a bequest from the Alexandre Iolas collection, part of which is housed in the museum.
The top priority of Greek cultural policies has been to support and promote the cultural heritage of Ancient Greece, as well as the Byzantine treasures. The decision to establish not only one but two Contemporary Art Museums came after many years of discussions, and many complaints from the Greek art community, who never stopped demanding State support for contemporary art.
Artists would, at every opportunity, express the need for the existence of public institutions providing the conditions of showing their work, and allowing them to undertake artistic research.
It is interesting to compare that strong call for institutions with what was going on at the same time, in countries like the U.S.A. and Germany, where institutional critique was at its highest in art discourses.
It took a couple of years until the State and the National Museums could become properly operational and have a full programme of exhibitions and other events. Activities in both museums started in 2000, with a series of national and international art exhibitions of Greek and non-Greek artists’ work.
While the Museums play a variety of roles, each one of them is based on a different set of concepts and perspectives, and has developed along different lines. Both have produced art exhibitions, run temporary art exhibitions and shown art works from famous collections (both modern and contemporary). They have also given the opportunity to many an artist to produce and show new work. They have also run multiple educational programmes, organised and hosted conferences, lectures, artists' talks and workshops.
From their foundation to the present day, despite the spreading crisis, the two museums have had a great impact on artists' communities and have played a significant role in artistic production.
Since 2007, the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, supported by the Ministry of Greek Culture and funded by EU funds (National Strategic Reference Frameworks), is also organising the Thessaloniki Biennale.
In Athens, the National Museum of Contemporary Art had no art collection to begin with. But the inaugural director, Anna Kafetsi (who served until November 2014), has managed to put together a collection of a vast number of art works of Greek and non- Greek artists. Together with the main programme, the museum inaugurated, in 2010, a separate programme called «Project Room», this one being supported by private funds. Artists were invited to produce and show new artworks, which became part of the museum’s collection.
In the autumn of 2011 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism set up a Working Group whose task was to draft a study for public policy in the field of contemporary culture. This initiative arose out of the realisation that the entire field has not been subject to a coherent and comprehensive approach by the State. The Working Group was tasked with submitting a comprehensive proposal, whose starting points concerned the following four topics:
– Creating structures, planning and implementing a comprehensive and coherent cultural policy
– Strengthening of public arts organisations
– Regional Cultural Policy
– Promoting and supporting Greek cultural creativity abroad
The result of this study was the formulation of a «Proposal for a New Cultural Policy», that was put to public consultation in March 2012, and served as a base for debate and exchange of ideas. But, just two months later, the government of George Papandreou has been forced to resign and the study was shelved.
In countries like Greece, art and culture have always received only a small percentage of the overall State Budget – and, even within the allocated funds, contemporary art was never a priority.
Art, and in particular contemporary art, has still a long way to go, before becoming well established as something essential and necessary for society.
In such countries, there is a long practice of private institutions and foundations often playing the role of main benefactors and supporters of contemporary art and, some times, even playing the role of the Ministry of Culture.
It is important to see public institutions, and in particular the museum, in relation to historical and geographical specificity; to understand the needs of the artists and all those involved in cultural policies and productions; to motivate the people to visit the museum and consider it as an institution that belongs to them.
The role and strategy, the policies and the content of public museums in Greece are not similar to those in Germany or those in Portugal. A comparison of the different functions of public art institutions in such countries can be easily made, and the differences can be clarified. Let me elaborate by giving a few examples.
It is difficult to imagine a non-Greek director being appointed in either of the two public museums or in public institutions in general, or even in private museums. Recent experience has shown that when such an appointment takes place things don’t end well. The director has to meet the objectives of the job; to know very well the complexities of the institution and the local society; and, last but not least, also has to be accepted by the people.
Germany, differently, has a great number of public museums run by German as well as non-German staff – the appointments changing every 3 to 5 years. But it should be noted here, that all the key political position with regard to culture are held by Germans. Both approaches seem to be legitimate, serve particular cultural and political interests, and fulfill certain needs.
Transparency is another interesting issue. German public museums are reluctant to reveal information on the amounts of the donations they receive or even the names of their donors.
On the other hand, the Greek State has introduced, in 2010, an online platform called «transparency» (diavgeia), where, since then, all decisions on expenses, billing and other financial matters of all public institutions, including museums, are uploaded and made available to the public.
Another marked phenomenon is the rise of new art circles, of ever growing and expanding financial power and influence. Increasingly, collectors have come to open their own museums. This state of affairs has become the subject of critical debate and not only in specialist art magazines but also in the mainstream media. In a ranking of countries with more private museums, Germany comes third (with 42), just after South Korea and the U.S.A..
Public and private institutions, and artists’ initiatives are all necessary, but some balance is strongly needed. Given the acceleration of advance from private initiatives, it is imperative to redress the balance with strong public museums.
It is not either some ideological or «entrepreneurial» attachment, or any voluntary «choice», that forces public museums, in most European countries, to seek outside sponsors and funding – it is the very need to survive. Within a landscape permeated by the «logic» of «market forces» public museums have to take on a new role, based on «market economy models».
This international trend finds its sharpest expression in the Greek experience, as the question of survival (or, more accurately, of mere survival) is a most urgent and pressing one.
The public museum is now faced with an internal contradiction. On the one hand, in order to survive, it had to become what its critics call «culture industry»; on the other hand, it has to retain its public and social role, over and above the dictates of market forces.
That self-contradiction raises many questions such as:
Are we prepared to lose public institutions all together?
Does the public want to turn into mere «culture clients»?
Do we want every free production to be subject to privatised institutions?
What are the ramifications and implications of this entire paradigm?
In the midst of a real catastrophic crisis in Greece, the documenta 14 declaration of its intention to «Learn from Athens» has created much expectation in the local art scene.
However, the hopes of Greek artists have not yet been answered. Few attempts have hitherto been made by the documenta 14 team to meet the Athenian public, and it remains to be seen whether it can successfully deal with the many challenges of such an ambitious project.
Greece is a society in rapid transition. Through the past years, stereotypes about the mentality of the Greek people have multiplied.
But what is really known about the Greek people and Greek culture(s)?
What attracts people’s interest to what is unfolding in the Greek society, what does one seek to learn from it?
What narratives, what tools, what strategies can one employ in the process of approaching and listening to people who are under what can be described, without hyperbole, as a state of emergency?
Throughout my work as an artist, I have had solo exhibitions and taken part in group exhibitions, in various public and private museums, institutions and foundations. The range of my artistic activities also included individual and collective initiatives for curatorial and educational projects, that came to life through the collaboration of public and private institutions and organisations, in both Germany and Greece.
In the last years, very radical changes have widened the gap between «the wealthy North» and «the poor South» of Europe. And the differences between the societies in which I live, work and move have become much more pronounced.
Since 2011, I live between Berlin and Lisbon. This rather valuable experience opened a new perspective, and gave me an incentive to reconsider my relation to Greece, and to Germany, and to find ways to approach deeper the culture in Portugal. The new situation has shed new light on questions of identity, language, nationality, history, trauma, memory.
Paradoxically, the more my life has expanded, the more choices I seem to have, the more mobile I became, the more I found myself retreating into an inner space of contemplation.
The crazy speed and the enormous pressure for exposure has increased my feeling of alienation, being always on the move, in a continuous state of non-belonging.
But, as times are dark and unpredictable, there is an urgent demand to take action and try to stand up for the autonomy and freedom of artistic creation and production. And to argue that only such autonomy and freedom can secure art’s public place in society.
In the last decades, we have witnessed the emergence of the so-called «creatives». But, a creative person is not necessarily an artist, and creativity is a moment among others in the production of art works.
So, in this context, one may ask what is the role of the art and of the artist now?
Nowadays, once more, artists in all parts of Europe are re-defining their relation with the institutions.
Art has a deeply political character. The making of a work of art is a complex and fragile process. It comes to light from an opaque passage. It is seen and sensed first, rather than first understood and bought.
During the last years, artists are faced with a precarious situation, they are forced to compete for funding and struggle to make a living. In the current conditions, the support for artistic research has become more rare – one more reason for public institutions to step in and guarantee the conditions for such work.
As many people in Greece have rather plausibly argued, what has risen out of the present crisis are also problems that have been festering for quite some time – that is, these are not simply the result of economic hardship and budgetary cuts.
However, both citizens and the State are now called upon to see this historical moment, undoubtedly both painful and catastrophic, as a unique opportunity for learning valuable lessons from it.
It is a time for reflection, for critique and self-critique. A time to take stock, reconsider and reinvent a new role for public institutions and to plan a new cultural policy beyond the ideological stereotypes.
At present, the State has to set a basic framework of rules and assume all political responsibility, having the indispensable and non-delegated role of planning and implementing pluralistic and democratic cultural policies.
The public museum enjoins an all too necessary independence – thus ensuring the possibility and continuation of critical thinking, free artistic production, experimentation and research.