Art Market

The Greek Collector Championing Contemporary Art at Home and Abroad

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle
Sep 15, 2021 9:05PM

Nikos Navridis, installation view of Try again. Fail again. Fail better, 2013, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © George Charisis. Courtesy of the artist, NEON, and Bernier/Eliades Gallery.

Greek entrepreneur and art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos is a man on a mission. He has been instrumental in redefining the Greek contemporary art scene, where private money often serves to revive public venues. His modus operandi is to take a derelict space, refurbish it, and turn it over to its owners to program artistic activities and implement their long-term vision. His latest undertaking is the overhaul of the abandoned portion of Athens’s former Public Tobacco Factory, today run by the Hellenic Parliament and housing its library and printing house. A rectilinear Neoclassical building constructed in 1930, it was once a symbol of Greece’s industrialization and progress. The last cigarette was rolled there, by now-defunct Greek tobacco giant Sante, in 1995. Since then, the facility has served as a military prison, a refugee shelter, and then as the offices of the Court of Auditors, the Presidency of the Government, and the Ministry of Finance.

Now, after undergoing a renovation costing €1.4 million ($1.7 million), this gargantuan space has opened its doors to the public for the first time as a new cultural center. For Daskalopoulos, the complex is a gift to the Greek state marking 200 years of Greek independence; it will be operated by his foundation, NEON, until the end of 2022, when the Hellenic Parliament will decide on future programming. Founded in 2013, the semi-nomadic, Athens-based arts and culture outfit organizes exhibitions and installations in venues across Greece, from the National Observatory of Athens to the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, and offers grants and scholarships to artists. NEON works in association with a range of cultural institutions and backs the programs of public and private organizations, all in the name of increasing access to contemporary art among people from all walks of life—consequently, all its programming is free.

Danh Võ, installation view of Untitled, 2021, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © Natalia Tsoukala. Courtesy of the artist and NEON.


Orchestrated by NEON’s in-house architect, Fanis Kafantaris, the retrofit of the 70,000-square-foot, two-story cultural center within a historically significant landmark—spanning its atrium, two wings on the ground floor, a former customs office, and more—was minimal and functional. There are concrete floors and walls, window and door frames have been refreshed, and some of the building’s infrastructure—wiring, plumbing, elevators, Wi-Fi, security and fire detection systems, and accessible restrooms—has been modernized. The building stands as an example of Athens’s early modernist, interwar architecture, and was designed by civil architects Pavlos Athanasakis and Antonis Ligdopoulos. In transforming the space, Kafantaris has forgone institutional norms like sleek white cube spaces, leaving the building in a raw, industrial state that retains memories of the people who once worked there.

Opened in June and running until the end of December, the new cultural center’s inaugural exhibition, “Portals,” features works across a broad range of media by 59 artists who hail from 27 countries, including Glenn Ligon, El Anatsui, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jannis Kounellis, Louise Lawler, Liliane Lijn, Dimitris Papaioannou, Adam Pendleton, Solange Pessoa, Francis Picabia, Gala Porras-Kim, Michael Rakowitz, Ed Ruscha, Adrián Villar Rojas, Danh Võ, and Billie Zangewa. It also presents 15 new, site-specific installations commissioned by NEON. Curated by Elina Kountouri, the foundation’s director, and Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s director, the group exhibition takes as its starting point a quotation from a Financial Times article written by Indian author Arundhati Roy at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis: “The pandemic is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

From food to finance

Installation view, from front to back, of Kutluğ Ataman, Küba, 2004, and Adam Pendleton, Our Ideas #2, 2018, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © Natalia Tsoukala. Courtesy of NEON; Yaacov Gorsd Collection; Art Consultancy Idit Orni; and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection.

Daskalopoulos made a name for himself in the Greek food industry. Starting in 1983, he oversaw the transformation of a family dairy business into VIVARTIA S.A., Greece’s largest food conglomerate with some 13,000 employees in 29 countries, before selling the company in 2007. In addition to serving as the chairman of the Federation of Greek Food Industries from 1999 to 2006, and then chairman of the Board of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, he is the founder and chairman of DAMMA Holdings, a financial services and investment firm, and of diaNEOsis, a think tank researching social and economic issues in Greece.

“In my first 10 to 15 years of collecting, I managed to stay under the radar,” he said. “It was a different, fascinating world that gave balance to my life, with different people, ideas, rhythms, personal pleasure, and calm. My interaction with contemporary art was very important as well to keep me abreast of current thinking, of what is today and what may come tomorrow. I think curiosity is something that is very useful—it’s a driving force to be able to contribute and create more, and I needed curiosity in the business world.”

Born in 1957 in Athens, Daskalopoulos’s artistic “epiphany” occurred when he was 12, awestruck before a series of Rubens paintings at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. At 18, he bought his first artwork, a small bronze statue, while traveling through Thailand. The initial acquisition for his collection was Rebecca Horn’s The Painting in the Inner Egg (1993). “It was an unconscious decision to become a collector, an inner urge,” he recalled.

Embracing difficult art

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964. Courtesy of the D. Daskalopoulos Collection.

Marisa Merz, installation view, from left to right, of Untitled, n.d.; Untitled, 1980s–90s; and Untitled (Head Gold), 1980s–90s, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © Natalia Tsoukala. Courtesy of the artist; Bernier/Eliades Gallery; and NEON.

Perhaps the most important works in his collection today are Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Fountain (1917/1964), a seminal piece in the history of 20th-century art, and Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968–99), which has been on long-term loan to the Tate since 2005. One work he regrets letting get away is Christian Marclay’s celebrated 24-hour video The Clock (2010), an edition of which he was given the opportunity to acquire. “There is serendipity as you move forward in the art world,” he reflected. “You are lucky enough to see and be offered a work, or are unlucky to be absent and not go to a particular exhibition or art fair, but I’m very comfortable with this. I was never anxious to get through the door at Art Basel very early so as not to miss something.”

Started in 1994, the D.Daskalopoulos Collection now comprises over 500 works by 220 leading artists from Greece and beyond, such as Matthew Barney, Lynda Benglis, John Bock, Paul Chan, Robert Gober, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Annette Messager, Bruce Nauman, Paul Pfeiffer, and Kiki Smith. While reflecting key aesthetic developments of the last quarter century, the collection also includes pieces from earlier in the 20th century by the likes of Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys, Gilbert and George, Robert Morris, and Dieter Roth.

Mona Hatoum, Current Disturbance, 1996. Courtesy of the artist and D. Daskalopoulos Collection.

“My collection focuses on works that explore the human struggle to create and leave a mark during our short, fragile lives,” Daskalopoulos said. “The agony of existence and creativity is something I show through visceral or difficult-to-approach works. There are no nice abstract paintings with beautiful colors. I decided I would buy whatever contemporary artists make, which is not only painting. That is why my collection is very heavy on large-scale sculptures and installations, which if I put two of them in my house, I would have to move out. I never bought to decorate my walls. I put artworks in dialogue that I thought represented what artists wanted to do.”

In addition to focusing on his own foundation and collection, Daskalopoulos stays plugged into the international art community via many leadership roles at influential museums. He is a vice president of the Board of Trustees and chairman of the Collections Council of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; he also contributed to a discretionary curators’ fund for acquisitions and created a curatorial post for contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum. In 2018, the Foundation honored him at the Guggenheim International Gala for his arts philanthropy. An active member of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Tate International Council, the Leadership Council of the New Museum, and the International Board of the Palais de Tokyo, his collection has been exhibited at the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

“My collection has been a repository since the start,” he said. “I have a very open lending policy and hundreds of my works have traveled to various exhibitions around the world because I believe they should be in touch with the public, otherwise they don’t even exist.”

Championing the contemporary in antiquity country

Installation view, from front to back, of Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 2005; and Elias Sime, TIGHTROPE: ECHO!?, 2020, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © Natalia Tsoukala. Courtesy of James Cohan and NEON.

Today, the sight of visitors moved by artworks and artistic thinking is a driving force for Daskalopoulos. “NEON was a natural development in my career as an art collector and a businessman, as somebody concerned about the progress of my country,” he said. “It was a political act to create a foundation that exposes the Greek public to contemporary art. I believe that art is a basic human need, and contemporary art speaks about the present and the world we live in, which can expose people to new ideas and break down societal stereotypes.”

Until recently, Greece has suffered from a chronic lack of funding and backing for contemporary visual art, with the government focusing nearly all its efforts on promoting the country’s classical heritage. It’s a nation with a weak art market and virtually nonexistent support structures for Greek artists, many of whom are forced to emigrate to pursue their careers. In contrast with established art markets globally, Greek audiences have not benefited from the institutions that would expose them to contemporary art. For example, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens had been without a director since 2018 (curator Katerina Gregos finally took on the role this summer) and only a fraction of its premises were accessible to the public. Nonetheless, Daskalopoulos observed a thirst for contemporary art among the population, and the birth of NEON has led to healthy competition, whereby other institutions, mainly private, have begun exhibiting contemporary art.

Vlassis Caniaris, installation view of Child's Desk, 1972, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © Natalia Tsoukala. Courtesy of the artist; Kalfayan Galleries; and NEON.

“NEON was an effort to expose the public to contemporary art and its ideas, not an effort to show my collection or build a museum,” Daskalopoulos said. “The decision to be itinerant contributes greatly to the vivacity of the organization because I have seen many private or public institutions that live in anxiety to make something interesting that people will want to visit. With NEON, we go where people may be interested to discover something new and where artists will be inspired to create something different than what they would usually do for a white cube space. Many of our exhibitions have been presented in spaces that did not exist before, that were renovated, so we are able in this way to look at the city and country from above, to fly over it instead of being in one room and trying to invite people to come.”

The new Athens cultural center is not the first time that NEON has resurrected a space of historic value to increase public access to contemporary art in the capital. In 2016, on behalf of the government, it converted the basement of the Athens Conservatory, which had been empty for 40 years, into an exhibition space. It has remained under the school’s governance and became an integral part of its ambitious cultural programming.

Now, Daskalopoulos, who stopped acquiring works three years ago, is focused on sharing his collection and ensuring its long-term integrity. “I believe that my collection has formed its character completely and there is nothing to add to that discourse now, so buying more artworks is senseless accumulation, which is the danger of being a collector,” he said. “My collection is big enough and important enough that it requires attention to what will happen to it in the future, and that is a responsibility of a collector. I find it may be just as fascinating as collecting itself.”

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously identified Dimitris Daskalopoulos as a billionaire.

Thumbnail image: Nikos Navridis, installation view of “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” 2013, in “Portals” at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, 2021. Photo © George Charisis. Courtesy of the artist, NEON, and Bernier/Eliades Gallery. Portrait of Dimitris Daskalopoulos by David Bebber.