New York Times: For One Athens Arts Group, the City Is the Space

ATHENS — Spending a day with Elina Kountouri, the director of the nonprofit art organization NEON, provides an insider’s view of this city.

“Through NEON I have revisited the city many times,” said Ms. Kountouri, referring to the way she discovers spaces for the art organization’s exhibitions. “You have to slow down your pace and think about the relevance that your program should have for citizens and visitors, go back to different histories and try and relate them with art.”

First stop: the grounds of the National Observatory of Athens, where she went to check on the construction of a major outdoor site-specific art project by Adrián Villar Rojas of Argentina that is scheduled to open June 1, “The Theater of Disappearance.” That is an umbrella title for four separate exhibitions taking place this year also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria and Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles.

Ms. Kountouri then headed to the Diplarios School, in the center of the city, where NEON has taken over the top two unused floors for the show “Breaking News — Athens” by the artist Michael Landy of Britain. One of the rooms has been turned into a workshop where Mr. Landy and his eight Greek assistants busily turn symbols, texts and logos — sent by the public to the NEON website — into blue and white etchings.

Mr. Landy said, joking, “we have created our own Greek bureaucracy,” adding that they must sign out every blue oil bar they use and that they stamp each work, which will then be returned to the person who sent in the image as a gift for participating when the show closes on June 11. (Oil bars are shaped like chalk, and produce an oil-paint color and consistency.)

After Ms. Kountouri finished lunch with Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the billionaire art collector who founded NEON in 2013, she rushed to the offices of the Melissa Network, a group that works with migrant and refugee women, to catch up on the Community Projects program the two organizations have been working on together.

Then it was on to the Kolonaki neighborhood to tour a stunning but dilapidated neo-Classical house with Kostis Velonis, an artist who will use the space for a site-specific project that will open in September.

Dimitris Daskalopoulos is a billionaire art collector who founded NEON in 2013. He says “exposure to the arts was extremely useful to my life and creativity in the way that I thought about business, in the way I thought about society.”

Ms. Kountouri finally ended her day near Syntagma Square for a meeting at the offices of Radio Athènes, an exhibition space that is one of a number of Greek organizations receiving grants from NEON.

Since its founding, NEON has become one of the most important visual arts organizations in Greece. Because of the country’s financial crisis, there has been a real struggle to get funding for the arts. NEON has helped ease that by supporting local Greek artists and curators and by providing grants and funding to numerous programs and organizations. About 60 percent of its money goes to projects outside the capital.

The organization has an impressive scope of programming in its 20 exhibitions. It has collaborated twice with the Whitechapel Gallery in London, partnered with the New Museum in New York on their “IdeasCity” project in Athens and played host to the Marina Abramovic Institute that showcased 27 performances by 29 artists and drew crowds of over 50,000.

NEON has also brought new life to spaces across the city. Four of those revamped spaces — the Athens Conservatoire, the Gennadius Library, the Ancient Agora and the Stella Municipal Cinema — are being used for the German exhibition Documenta 14, which opened in Athens in April and continues until July 16. (The rest of the exhibition is being held in Kassel, Germany, from June 10 to Sept. 17.) NEON, said Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, has become embedded in the city’s cultural landscape.

“Everybody is excited about what they do, and it is pretty amazing to build such a reputation so quickly,” Ms. Blazwick said, adding that Whitechapel and NEON run a yearly curatorial exchange program between London and Athens.

NEON has purposely never had a permanent exhibition space, opting instead to use the city as its gallery. “One of the mantras of NEON is it is not about the Daskalopoulos collection, it is about contemporary art,” Mr. Daskalopoulos said over lunch. “That has been a very important driving force, that sense of freedom.”

Mr. Daskalopoulos began collecting contemporary art in 1994 (his collection includes works by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Kiki Smith and David Hammons) and it became a “parallel career,” which he said eventually influenced many facets of his life.

“That is why I did NEON, because this exposure to the arts was extremely useful to my life and creativity in the way that I thought about business, in the way I thought about society,” he said. “It made me more inquisitive, more innovative. And in that sense I want as many people to be exposed to these challenges because I think it is useful in whatever you do.”

When Mr. Daskalopoulos first met Ms. Kountouri, who worked as a lawyer before moving into arts management, they quickly agreed that they wanted to do something different. “He realized that there could be a chance that the new organization could be relevant in society through current affairs, but could also be a link with the artistic community,” Ms. Kountouri said.

They first planned to renovate the National Garden near Greece’s Parliament, but private citizens, concerned that the yet-untested organization would ruin the gardens, took them to court. After two years, NEON won the case, but by then the organization had moved on to other garden projects — both with the Whitechapel Gallery — on the grounds of the Gennadius Library (“A Thousand Doors” in 2014 featured artists including Edward Allington, Michael Rakowitz and Nikos Navridis) and the private gardens of the French School at Athens (“Terrapolis” in 2015 showed works by artists like Joseph Beuys, Joan Jonas and Studio Ghibli).

“People were so grateful to have a chance to escape from the constant presence of the tremendous hardship, the political process, upheaval, the impact of refugees,” Ms. Blazwick said, adding that it helped people “transcend the harsh reality of everyday life.”

Other shows included British-German artist Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” (2014) at the Roman Agora, where over 11,000 visitors were taken through part of the ruins by 10-year-old guides (40 of them in total), who asked visitors to answer the question, “What is progress?”

“What is fascinating for me is NEON functions in a way that is very professional, very institutional and is an organization committed to producing and presenting cutting-edge practices in the most interesting spaces,” said Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, an assistant curator with Tate Modern in London, who will curate Mr. Velonis’s September show in the dilapidated house, which includes wood from destroyed churches in Bulgaria and Romania, and was the home of the first president of the Second Hellenic Republic, Pávlos Kountouriotis. “NEON is part of the fabric of the city.”

The organization has also focused on getting young people interested in contemporary art through their “Is This Art?” program, which through short videos has introduced over 4,000 teenagers to artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and has worked with the Melissa Network to help create understanding between the local community and refugees.

“It is important for us to have this link with the art world because it opens the dialogue in a different direction, and art touches everyone,” said Nadina Christopoulou, a co-founder of the Melissa Network. “That is one thing that has been missing in this crisis-handling, is that we have forgotten the need for beauty.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 4, 2017, in The International New York Times. 

1) Photo from “Breaking News-Athens” courtesy of Neon; 2) Dimitris Daskalopoulos, courtesy Trevor Leighton