Art-Athina, Athens 2015. Courtesy Art-Atheina.
The economic depression that is crippling Greece has taken a heavy toll on the sale and exhibition of the country’s contemporary art, seen by many as a luxury even during the best of times. Mid-career artists and midsize galleries are struggling and often failing to cope.
Local demand has all but vanished due to a crisis of cash and of confidence, as euros hide under the proverbial mattresses of a Greek middle class weary to spend what little money they have. When such bleak economic realities meet the resilience of the Greek people, a harsh chiaroscuro emerges. Amid the darkness of continued uncertainty and threats of Greece’s exit from the eurozone, those survivors of the Athens art scene are forced to battle on as best they can.
Austerity Squeezes the Greek Market
CAN Christina Androulidaki Gallery, 2015. Via Facebook.
In 2012—four years after the global financial crash, two years after Greece implemented the first economically catastrophic austerity regimen, and three years before the Greek parliament voted on the nation’s future in Europe—Christina Androulidaki opened CAN gallery in Athens. “I haven’t experienced the good years of contemporary art,” she says, half laughing. Her voice then turns serious; “It’s a struggle…everything is not fine. But I have a gallery. I have to be here everyday, no matter if I sell or don’t sell.”
The reality is that more likely than not, works on offer won’t find buyers. And if they do sell, the purchasers probably won’t be from Greece. Not only has demand for Greek art within the country simply disappeared, the crisis has caused the flow of art collection to reverse entirely. Today, many Greek collectors are trying to “sell the works they own in order to ensure cash so as to be able to pay increased taxes and meet their needs,” notes Mary Adamopoulou, an arts and culture journalist at Ta Nea, Greece’s largest circulating paper. Under an austerity package passed by Greece on Thursday, VAT and other taxes are slated to go up further, perhaps prompting a further selloff even as prices plummet.
Those attempting to liquidate their assets are doing so without much success. Gone are the pre-2010 days with record sales of Greek art at Sotheby’s and Bonhams. Today, sellers don’t just outnumber buyers, there are barely any Greek buyers to speak of. “Galleries aiming at the local market, at local collectors, don’t exist,” says Nadia Gerazouni of The Breeder, a well known Athens contemporary gallery that is weathering the storm thanks to a strong presence at international fairs.
By Gerazouni’s count, at least eight galleries have closed since the start of the crisis, with many more entering a kind of hibernation, putting on one or two shows per year. Capital controls, limiting Greeks to €60 a day for the foreseeable future, have, in the words of art consultant Elizabeth Plessa, dealt the “final blow to the Greek art scene, as so many art events have been cancelled during the past three weeks.”
In Plessa’s estimation, however grave the situation is now, it would be graver had Greece exited the euro and isolated itself from international culture and markets (a course of events that, while increasingly less likely, cannot be ruled out). As it did with all Greeks, the recent referendum on austerity divided the artistic community, though most we polled leaned toward rejecting the proposal offered by the European Union. Feelings are also divided about swallowing a third austerity package, which was passed last Thursday without guaranteed debt relief. “For once in Greece, we seem to have a prime minister who is not afraid to admit defeat,” notes artist and curator Andreas Angelidakis. During a crisis that has stretched on for five years, finding positives amid the more numerous negatives is an art form in and of itself.
Alexis Caniaris, director of the contemporary art fair Art-Athina, also has a keen eye for the silver lining. “We were very lucky to have Art-Athina 2015 in early June,” says Caniaris, “before all these disastrous events that stopped a slow but developing period for the Greek economy.” Attendance to the festival has steadily climbed. Caniaris reported good sales this year, and he has a generally hopeful outlook now that Greece will most likely remain within the euro-zone. However, some Greek observers are worried about the ability of an international fair to withstand the economic collapse. Subsidized by E.U. funds until 2015, the fair has reduced its budget, turning to private sponsors including Alpha Bank, the doors of which have been closed for the last three weeks before reopening today.
New and Old Ways of Continuing On
Nadia Gerazouni, The Breeder. Photo copyright Paris Tavitian.
A purely economic accounting of the crisis obscures the psychological and human toll it is taking on Greece and Greek art, however. “It’s the morals; it’s the psychology around it,” says Rebecca Camhi, whose two-decade-old gallery is across the street from Greece’s left-wing ruling party Syriza’s secondary headquarters. “There’s a general feeling that things are not good.” Those close to collectors, including Plessa, echo this sentiment. Financial and psychological stability are “inevitably interrelated,” the consultant argues, and only both “can keep the art market as well as the museum world going.”
While economic metrics are nearly uniformly dire, Athenians are continuing to mount exhibitions by coming together through acts of solidarity that resist the crushing effects of austerity demonstrating instead a stalwart resilience among the city’s artists and galleries. To some extent it is difficult to understand why. Greek artists and gallery staffers will be the first to tell you that they are uncertain about their future, that what is bad far outnumbers what is good. Still, in a situation as bleak as Greece’s, mere presence is a form of optimism.
Partly, their will is born out of acclimatization. “We have learned to live with fear to the point we are immune to it,” writes The Breeder’s Gerazouni. Some artists, such as Petros Efstathiadis, have abandoned the expectation that their work will sell, choosing to stay in Athens “because there is no other place as interesting as Greece right now.” In a strange way, the lack of art funding and the difficulty of being an artist even before the crisis prepared those in Athens. “It was always guerilla,” notes Angelidakis.
“I see a light in the end but not tomorrow”
With the referendum and the imminent possibility that Greece would leave the eurozone in the past, psychological stability is slowly returning to a Greek populace understandably hesitant to let themselves feel like the worst is behind them. Varvara Liakounakou, part of a generation of mid-career artists who aren’t selling, is cautiously optimistic. “I see a light in the end,” she says, “but not tomorrow.”
There is cause for tempered excitement. Athens will host a biennial in October and Documenta 14 in spring 2017, allowing Athenians to mark their calendars with events other than divisive referendums and Eurogroup summits where a so-called Grexit is on the line. With doom and depression being the overwhelming narrative surrounding Greece at the moment, any dilution of this message, however slight, is a source of hope.
More a reflection of the country’s pockets of wealth than a creator of it, the Greek art market won’t be a driving force of Greece’s economic recovery. But it remains to be seen if art can help mend the current psychological rupture in Greece. “You never know the impact of art in a crisis situation,” notes artist Petros Efstathiadis. “Maybe it is important for society, maybe it is useless.” For some, art created during this crisis has the potential to play an active role in recovery. “Maybe art [lets us] state that we are able to live our lives, transforming fear to creation,” says artist Christina Nakou.
Even as wages and prices fall, Greeks are seeking out arts and culture. Attendance at museums and art performances is up 30–35% over the last three years, according to Caniaris. But it is possible this rise is due to one of Greece’s only growth sectors: tourism. Yet Caniaris insists that “art has proved to be a refuge for Greeks struck by the crisis.” If the charismatic ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ tweet about the joys of attending a Beckett play during debt negotiations is any indication, Caniaris may well be right.
For mid-career artists, many of whom have taken on second jobs to produce art that will never sell, it is difficult to invest much faith in art. The gallery representing Varvara Liakonaukou closed following the first round of austerity, and the acquisition of Greek art for the collection she co-curates has ground to a halt. “It feels like there is no need for art right now,” she sighs. Like discussions on Greece’s broader fate, on this point there exists little clarity and much debate.