Art Market

Dakis Joannou Turned a Remote Greek Island into an Art Mecca

Nate Freeman
Jul 22, 2019 4:52PM

On a Monday in late June, after the Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland, the billionaire collector Dakis Joannou docked his yacht in the small harbor of the Greek isle of Hydra. The yacht’s exterior is covered in a kaleidoscopic pattern that was designed by Jeff Koons, and it is called Guilty.

That night, I took a hike around the island’s edge—Hydra is so small that cars are not allowed—to the art space that Joannou created on a cliff, the Deste Foundation Slaughterhouse, in a building that was once used to kill sheep and goats, to see a show of new work by Kiki Smith, an artist in New York. Smith is just one of the many artists Joannou has collected in bulk since the 1980s, when he began building one of the world’s greatest contemporary art troves: 1,500 works in total, many of them masterpieces. In 2004, ArtReview named him the most powerful collector in the world.

Dakis Joannou’s yacht Guilty designed by Jeff Koons and Ivana Porfiri, in the port of Hydra, Greece. Photo by Catherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images.


The annual show at the Slaughterhouse opens around the time of the summer solstice and draws the global art-world cognoscenti. For many, it is work, but the glam setting of a gorgeous Greek island makes it feel like a vacation. The usual suits and dresses get swapped for beachwear.

This year was no different. When I arrived at the Deste Slaughterhouse around 9 p.m., the sun still burning orange over the cerulean water, the collector Frank Moore was in a tank top and bathing suit talking to dealer Mike Egan of New York space Ramiken Crucible, while Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg was in shorts and a T-shirt. At one point, Maurizio Cattelan, in short shorts, grabbed a photographer’s camera and started snapping shots of the locals as they frolicked and drank the free wine in casks. A glorious exception: Jeffrey Deitch dressed in a full suit with a jacket. And it was rumored that Koons, the world’s most expensive living artist, would be making an appearance.

Installation view of “Kiki Smith: Memory” at DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra, 2019. © Kiki Smith. Photo by George Skordaras. Courtesy of DESTE Foundation.

Despite the firepower marshalled by a billionaire collector, the dinner was not a sit-down affair but a generous buffet of shawarma in pita and various meat pies and vegetable dips. It was all delicious. It was open to anyone on Hydra, anyone who happened to be on this tiny island without cars. It was hot, but there was ice cream for dessert.

Joannou was in the middle of the crowd of islanders, mostly talking to the locals and their adorably mewling children. He might be a billionaire collector, but he’s a collector with a tendency toward the self-deprecating, with a populist bent.

“We come to Hydra all the time and I saw this place that was deserted and on the water, and I had this idea of doing something.”

In fact, he doesn’t call himself a collector. He is, in his words, an “anti-collector.”

“I was against collecting,” Joannou told me, stopping to chat in the middle of the dinner. “I thought it was a very selfish thing, to take the work away from the public. I didn’t understand it actually, that’s why I hated it.”

And he has a playful side that can get obscured by the money and the art-world influence. For instance, compared to the 500-foot-long, $600-million yachts owned by billionaire art collectors with less self-awareness, the yacht Joannou named Guilty is only 115 feet long—not that big.

A collector of artists

Dakis Joannou was born in Cyprus to an industrialist father with construction projects throughout the hellinistic region. In 1974, following a Turkish invasion, the elder Joannou moved the family to London, and then to Athens. By then, Joannou had begun working with his father, and their international network of businesses included hotels, real estate, and shipping Coca-Cola products. With business booming, the younger Joannou waded into the art world, but not by collecting—he was staging shows at the Athenaeum InterContinental. This led him to set up the Deste Foundation (deste is the Greek word for “look”), which he incorporated in Switzerland, for tax purposes.

In Geneva in the early 1980s, Adelina von Fürstenberg, the founder of Geneva’s Centre d’Art Contemporain, introduced Joannou to a young art advisor who worked for Citibank, Jeffrey Deitch. The young New Yorker was a habitué of the galleries in the burgeoning East Village scene, and in 1985, he brought a visiting Joannou to Meyer Vaisman’s International With Monument gallery on East 7th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. It was the first major solo show for an artist named Jeff Koons, who was working on Wall Street to fund his increasingly expensive sculptural experiments. Joannou was taken by the most daring of them, from 1985: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series), the first of the iconic floating basketball sculptures. He asked Veisman to arrange a studio visit, and after speaking with Koons, he bought it—for $2,700, or a 10-percent discount off the asking price of $3,000.

Jeffrey Deitch, Jeff Koons, and Dakis Joannou at the opening of the exhibition “Everything That’s Interesting Is New,” The Dakis Joannou Collection, The Factory, Athens School of Fine Arts, Athens, 1996.


From there, he started buying more, primarily snapping up works by Koons’s Neo-Geo pals—Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton, and Haim Steinbach. Joannou had developed a policy of not collecting artists he hadn’t met beforehand. And with the main business humming along back in Athens, the fortysomething Joannou had time to meet artists from all over the world, first buying from other East Village galleries such as 303, which then showed Joannou-owned artists such as Christopher Wool, Robert Gober, Annette Lemieux, and Matt Mullican.

“I thought [collecting] was a very selfish thing, to take the work away from the public. I didn’t understand it actually, that’s why I hated it.”

He kept acquiring at a breakneck pace. When the famous dealer Anthony D’Offay introduced Joannou to the work of Maurizio Cattelan, he began buying it in bulk, becoming a close friend and collaborator of the wily Italian conceptualist. In 2003, he was introduced to the work of Urs Fischer at the Venice Biennale and quickly became a big supporter. His current obsessions include Roberto Cuoghi, the Italian artist who this year was picked up by Hauser & Wirth, and the Los Angeles–based artist Kaari Upson.

“Someone said, ‘You know, Dakis is not a collector of artworks, he’s a collector of artists,’” he told me. “That kind of says it all. Because I really get involved with every artist. You get really close.”

Installation view of “Kiki Smith: Memory” at DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra, 2019. © Kiki Smith. Photo by George Skordaras. Courtesy of DESTE Foundation.

Embracing the controversy

I got a tour of Joannou’s home in Athens during my time in Greece, and Upson and Cuoghi dominated the marble white atrium that greeted me upon my arrival, with Joannou and his wife Lietta standing at the center, shaking hands, smiling broadly. He then directed me upstairs, past little closets with David Shrigleys and bathrooms with Juergen Teller nudes and a hallway lined with tropicalia-washed Josh Smith paintings. The main living room was flanked by two gigantic George Condo portraits of Joannou and Cattelan. The paintings were clearly made from love. In one, Cattelan, the high priest of blasphemy, is wearing a clerical collar.

The whole collection is marked by a sense of whimsy, a willingness to poke fun at oneself rarely seen among typically self-serious mega-collectors. There was an upside-down drawing of Joannou by the curator-turned-artist Francesco Bonami, Joannou’s tie falling over his face. There was a Pablo Helguera cartoon of a king sitting while a scientist shows him a diagram of the solar system, with the king saying: “Nonsense! Everyone knows the sun revolves around Dakis Joannou!”

Portrait of Dakis Joannou by George Skordaras. Courtesy of DESTE Foundation.

And there’s even a work that chronicles perhaps the most troubling episode in Joannou’s life as a collector. In 2010, there was a public uproar over the fact that the New Museum devoted three of its floors to an exhibition of work from Joannou’s collection, thereby presumably adding to its market value, while he also sat on the museum’s board of trustees (he still does). When it was revealed that the New Museum’s then-director of special exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni, had previously worked for Joannou, and that the museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, was a close friend, the New York Times published a story deriding the show as evidence of “a dizzyingly insular circle of art world insiders.”

The whole collection is marked by a sense of whimsy, a willingness to poke fun at oneself rarely seen among typically self-serious mega-collectors.

And yet, nearly a decade later, Joannou seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. He not only bought but also hung right in plain view William Powhida’s drawing How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality (2009): a blistering takedown of the affair that satirizes the various players in the scandal and maps out all their connections, brutally criticizing the institution and its benefactor. Joannou’s cartoon face has a speech bubble saying: “Why build my own space in New York when I already funded the New Museum?”

Giving back to Greece

While Joannou was building his collection, he was also building up the status of Deste in Greece. For years, it was staging shows in the cultural center of the Cypriot embassy in Athens, but in 1998, it inaugurated the first permanent Deste space in a former paper factory in the Neo Psychiko neighborhood, later expanding to another building in a former sock factory.

In 2008, the Municipality of the Island of Hydra granted Deste the slaughterhouse space—an unusual choice for a place to exhibit contemporary art.

DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra. Photo by Fanis Vlastaras and Rebecca Constantopoulou.

“We come to Hydra all the time and I saw this place that was deserted and on the water, and I had this idea of doing something,” Joannou said. “I started with a specific concept, to have a mid-career artist do a serious project. It was not about younger artists experimenting or anything like this. It was about a mature artist really putting in some effort to connect to Hydra.”

Part of what’s interesting about the slaughterhouse is that the structure hasn’t been altered much at all. It is not far removed from its use as a place to kill animals for butchering.

“It’s a slaughterhouse,” Kiki Smith said. “You can see all the apparatuses for killing goats. And so if you do anything in a space of that kind of physical harshness, you have to respond to it.”

When I walked down toward the Deste Slaughterhouse on that evening last month, I saw that Smith had responded to its unique character by placing work directly in the space where the animals were once killed. She said she had adjusted to the site by hanging out on Hydra for two weeks before the opening, taking in the distinctive out-of-time-ness of the island, where the only vehicles available are donkeys. As a result, the work in the show seemed perfectly attuned to the surroundings, and reflective of the country’s propensity for mythmaking. There was an iron mermaid work installed on a stone wall in the small pen where the livestock were kept before their deaths. Candles lit metal lamps on the larger side of the space, where a fountain that resembled a large baptismal font was installed behind steel sculptures resembling water whipped up by Poseidon.

Installation view of “Kiki Smith: Memory” at Deste Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra. © Kiki Smith. Photo by Eftychia Vlachou.

Just then, I turned around in the tiny space and nearly collided with Jeff Koons—he had indeed come to town for the festivities, and was investigating every nook of the stone structure intently, sizing the space up.

“It’s a very special place, and I’m very excited for next year,” Koons said.

“Are you…?”

“Yes, I’m having the summer show here next year,” Koons said.

I had to confirm this with Joannou, and when I saw him at dinner, once again in his element in the middle of the Hydra locals, he confirmed that Koons—the first artist he ever bought, the artist who designed his yacht, the most expensive living artist on earth—would finally have a show at his art space in a slaughterhouse on the tiny island of Hydra.

Joannou saw Koons walking up the path, smiled at him, and then looked back at me and said, “You cannot miss next year.”

Nate Freeman

Header image: Portrait of Dakis Joannou by George Skordaras. Pictured: Kiki Smith, Bouquet I, 2019; courtesy the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’Neill.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled artist Pablo Helguera’s last name.