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.