ATHENS — On a recent afternoon, Pennsylvania-born, Athens-based artist Jennifer Nelson worked hard on her new project in a spacious temporary studio. In one corner were padded garbage bags of different colors whose contents would be used in his installation: “Waste (Inheritance)”.
Over the past year, Ms. Nelson has collected waste packaging and materials generated by her family. Until September, she transforms household waste into a giant sculpture in which she will drape herself during a performance at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, or EMST. It is his way of raising awareness of the waste that human beings produce and the burden it represents for future generations.
The Waste Workshop is one of seven exhibitions marking the rebirth of EMST, a museum of international and Greek contemporary art.
Born in 2000 as a nomadic institution, it moved to its current premises seven years ago. But due to the Greek economic crisis, bureaucratic delays and the pandemic, the EMST officially opened as a fully operational museum earlier this month. Festivities took place in its premises: a converted brasserie with a large foyer, several levels of gallery and terraces with panoramic views of the city.
Another reason the opening was delayed is that “in this country successive governments haven’t been interested in contemporary art, quite frankly,” said Katerina Gregos, the museum’s artistic director for a year. So far, the emphasis has been “on our classical heritage and on antiquities. There are a lot of things you need to protect, and we’re a small country. »
Ms Gregos also noted that when it comes to modern and contemporary art, there was a “huge gap in education”. Greece “never really knew modernism”, and if you were an artist who wanted a career in the 1960s, “you had to go abroad”.
She said attitudes had changed under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in power since 2019. Her government had persuaded her to move to Athens from Brussels, where she had been living and working since 2006, and, she added, gave him the means to run the institution. : an annual budget of 9 million euros (9.5 million dollars), about double what it was before.
Ms. Gregos is the curator of EMST’s main inaugural exhibition, “Statecraft and Beyond” (until October 30). This is a group show that examines how the authority of nation states and governments is exercised and how it is challenged by technology, globalization and extreme nationalism.
Covering a large wall is Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s work “The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men” (2021): close-up photographs of the hands of male leaders (mostly dictators), often held up as a sign of salute, representing patriarchal power.
On another wall, German artist Thomas Kilpper displays 90 charcoal drawings depicting far-right attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in various locations in Germany.
The Greek state may have been late to the celebration of contemporary art, but private foundations funded by the country’s biggest fortunes have been trying to catch up. The Deste, Neon, Onassis and Stavros Niarchos Foundations offer shows and cultural programs, distribute grants and finance artist residencies. (Recently, a new mall district has also sprung up in Piraeus, the port of Athens.)
This summer, the foundations are offering a varied cultural program.
Inside its striking post-industrial space, a former tobacco factory, Neon – created by Greek billionaire entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos – presents “Dream On”, with 18 large-scale installations by artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, Annette Messager and Paul McCarthy. The works are from the collection of Mr. Daskalopoulos, who in April donated more than 350 works to four museums, including the EMST, the Guggenheim and the Tate.
DESTE, founded by Greek Cypriot billionaire Dakis Joannou, is hosting a tribute to Californian artist Kaari Upson, who died last year at 51 and whose works included sculpture, video and drawings.
And the Onassis Foundation – named after the son of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and headquartered in a massive building opened in 2011 with exhibition galleries and two theaters – presents a digital art exhibition in a venue unexpected: the Pedion tou Areos park.
Speaking at last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference, an event organized in association with The New York Times, Onassis Foundation culture director Afroditi Panagiotakou said the economic crisis had “put Greece on the map for all the wrong reasons”, but also helped the world to “forget the Parthenon for a while” and focus on the urban reality of Athens.
She said that the recession and the collapse of real estate prices, as well as the Documenta exhibition of 2017 (which was held partly in Athens), led artists to settle in Athens and create an avant-garde art scene.
“Right now the big issue is, how do we stay relevant?” she asked. “How can we keep the international scene interested in Athens, now that the crisis is not there in the same way?”
Mareva Grabowski-Mitsotakis, wife of the Prime Minister and champion of Greek culture and crafts, agreed that it was important “to maintain the momentum that currently exists, where the arts scene is thriving”. She suggested that Athens should become a bridge between past and present, the center “of a dialogue between our classical heritage and contemporary creativity”.
“Even though it is a peripheral city,” she said, Athens is, “through its cultural heritage, one of the most important cities in the world.”
Nicholas Yatromanolakis, the country’s first-ever deputy culture minister for contemporary culture – a Harvard University graduate who was appointed to the post last year – said he was annoyed by the occasional parallels between Athens and world capitals such as Berlin.
“The goal is not to make it the new New York, or the new London, or the new Paris,” he said.
He described his work as helping artists from all cultural backgrounds to “live off their art, their craft” and to “present what they can do beyond the borders of Athens or Greece”. .
“We should make Athens the best version of itself,” he said.