At first glance, Polidefkous Street doesn’t look like Elysium for art lovers. The arrow-straight boulevard in Piraeus – the coastal city on the Saronic Gulf within the Athens urban area – cuts through an industrial landscape more suited to port workers than painters. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find world-class galleries here that underline why Athens is fast becoming Europe’s new art capital.
Housed in buildings as interesting as the artworks, the exhibition spaces in Piraeus and across the rest of Attica are feeding off a creative energy driven by a decade of financial turmoil in Greece.
“Socio-political unrest sparks discourse,” confirms Artemis Baltoyanni, owner of The Intermission, which opened on Polidefkous late last year. “We do carry a heavy cultural history that is now interlaced in a gritty urban landscape with affordable living. What more does an artist need?”
The Intermission has made an immediate impact. Featuring artists – both local and international – who are reshaping contemporary art, the gallery has treated visitors to a field of balloons with cat faces for a show by American John Knight and a shimmering beaded curtain as part of a recent exhibition by the London-born, Athens-based Zoë Paul. Next up are the big, bold installations of US sculptor Cooper Jacoby, displayed in an extraordinary space that’s almost as high as it is long, and has a cove.
“The plan was for the cove to be closed off as a separate little room but as it came into being it seemed more interesting to keep it open,” says Baltoyanni. “This way the exhibition space is bigger, the whole structure seems lighter and natural light reaches every corner.”
One of the main reasons Baltoyanni opened her business on Polidefkous is her friendship with Sylvia Kouvali, who established Rodeo gallery down the road in 2018 following spaces in Istanbul and London.
Located in a former warehouse minutes from the main port of Piraeus, it displays artworks against exposed brick walls – a stripped-down approach that allows Kouvali to explore how art is received in an environment that’s very different to her other galleries.
Currently setting up shop in the warehouse is Sidsel Meineche Hansen and his show Home vs Owner. The Danish artist’s work features everything from wood and clay objects to CGI animation.
Matching The Intermission and Rodeo for beguiling backdrops is The Breeder gallery in Metaxourgio, an up-and-coming art hub in downtown Athens. Here, architect Aris Zampikos has masterfully renovated an ice-cream factory from the 1970s, receiving an award from the Hellenic Institute of Architecture for his efforts.
Once you’ve stepped through the gallery’s metal doors, the building makes it impossible to focus on anything but the art, with light streaming in from the atriums on the upper floors and the black, white and grey environment perfectly showing off the works. Even the white exterior is treated like a canvas, with artists invited to adorn it with temporary creations.
Exhibitions at The Breeder are always provocative. The featured artist in October is British painter Joy Labinjo, whose new body of work, The Elephant in the Room, was conceived during the pandemic lockdown in the UK as mass protests around the Black Lives Matter movement raged outside.
“The platform of The Breeder gallery is open to artists of all nationalities, gender, colour and religion, supporting a deeper understanding and free exchange of ideas and ideals in contemporary art,” says George Vamvakidis, who co-founded the gallery with Stathis Panagoulis in 2002. “Our aim has always been to promote a dialogue – political, social and creative – between Athens and the rest of the world.”
The Breeder also strives to promote the young emerging Greek artists who’ve been returning to Athens in droves over the past 10 years. “Since the crisis, creative immigration has blossomed, with artists escaping from big art centres and relocating to spacious and affordable studios at the heart of the city,” says Vamvakidis. “Increased interest and confidence in the capital is drawing Greek artists home, creating a synergy that is unparalleled in other places at this time.”
Just how close-knit the Athens artistic community is became clear during the Covid outbreak. When The Breeder put out an open call for artists to submit artworks for an auction, with proceeds going towards those in the industry struggling financially, more than 100 people stepped forward with 150 works.
Over at Bernier/Eliades in central Athens there’s a reminder that creativity in the city stretches back to the fifth-century BC. The gallery – started by Jean Bernier and Marina Eliades in 1977 – is located in the shadow of the Acropolis, offering visitors a memorable sight before they even set foot inside.
Bernier/Eliades moved into its current premises, a wonderful neoclassical building in the Thission district, in 1999 after relocating from Kolonaki, on the southern slopes of Lycabettus hill. The new location reflects the fact that, while young Greek artists are tapping into modern issues, they still draw inspiration from the city’s rich history.
“We thought it was important to give a new dynamic to our gallery,” Eliades and Bernier point out, talking about their move. “The first 20 years, the space in Kolonaki was an interesting district for the contemporary art scene, but we’ve moved into a more historical area next to the Acropolis. Athens is a very attractive city for artists and we are convinced the young generation is still inspired by the city and its important culture.”
The gallery itself has a proud history, having represented such big names as German artist Thomas Schütte, while also consistently championing rising Greek stars like Rallou Panagiotou. Showing an old gallery can learn new tricks, its latest show is UK artist Charles Sandison’s solo exhibition The Garden of Light, which includes interwoven video projections depicting the hidden world of data that surrounds us.
Old meets new
The moment George Benias laid eyes on the gorgeous 19th-century Deligeorgis Mansion in Kolonaki he knew he’d found the perfect place for his new gallery, Allouche Benias.
“Being located in Deligeorgis Mansion gives us the opportunity to create a strong connection between the Athens of the past, a great architectural history and the contemporary art culture,” explains Benias, who opened the space in 2018 with Eric Allouche. “I also enjoy the contrast during the curatorial process. Finding ways to combine the building’s neoclassical elements with contemporary painting, sculpture and even installations.”
Being in the centre of the city has allowed Benias and Allouche to create a strong community around them. “It is not only a place where you can see and enjoy art, but also a place where artists can hang out and practice their craft,” Benias explains. “Our doors are open to everyone, since one of the main objectives, from the beginning, was to make art more approachable to the Athenian public by creating an environment where everyone can visit.”
The gallery has been working with a handful of brilliant Greek contemporary artists, giving them an opportunity to create their own show. Current exhibition Who’s Afraid of Komodo, curated by Eugenia Vereli and Kostas Efstathiou, is just one of many success stories.
Benias believes young Greek artists and the city need each other. “What artist wouldn’t want to live here? We have great weather, good quality of life and a growing scene of great young emerging collectors,” he points out. “And like every city, artists tend to transform neighborhoods and create the cool factor. The fact that so many artists return here, gives the city a positive change of pace, a kind of art revival in terms of ideas and production.”
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