On the occasion of his major donation, the Greek collector talks to us in his Athens HQ about the reasons for this decision, his passion for art and his philosophy.
Dimitris Daskalopoulos in front of David Hammons' Untitled, Body Print, 1975 (106.7 x 78.7 cm/42 x 30.9 in), which he recently donated to the Tate.
Photo: Natalia Tsoukalas
Dimitris Daskalopoulos, a leading contemporary art collector and founder of the culture and development organization NEON, recently announced the donation of part of his famous collection—which includes works by Louise Bourgeois, Paul Chan, Robert Gober, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Sarah Lucas, Jannis Kounellis, Paul McCarthy, Steve McQueen, Annette Messager and Kiki Smith—to four museums in Athens, Chicago, New York and the UK. The donation includes over 350 works by 142 artists: 140 go to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, a joint donation of 100-odd to the Guggenheim in New York and the MCA Chicago, and 110 to the Tate in London.
What led you to make such a significant donation?
It was the next obvious stage of my journey and the way I view art, the ownership of works, and their meaning and value. I felt the time had come for me to make decisions about the future of my collection. The works that make it up ought to be seen by a large number of people; they need to be in dialogue with other forms of contemporary art, especially the art of tomorrow. This is why I decided to make them accessible to the public through museums and public institutions with the means to exhibit them.
How did you become a collector?
First of all, I have to say I don't consider myself a collector in the sense of someone who likes to buy beautiful things, decorate their house in a spectacular way and impress their friends. I've never been like that. I see myself as a curator of a collection. I didn't buy the works because I wanted to own them, but because I wanted to express my way of thinking. These works, which I love and admire, belong firstly to the artists who created them, secondly to the collection of which they are a part, where they dialogue with each other, and lastly to all those who see them and interact with them. I have always wanted this collection to be within everyone’s reach, so that these works can speak to others and arouse intense emotions in them—even if their feelings are negative, which is sometimes the case with contemporary art.
When did you first start responding emotionally to art?
I have always had a deep love for art. I remember, when I was 12, my uncles took me to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. And, unlike what might be expected of a child of that age, I didn’t find it boring or look longingly at the exit. I was totally amazed by Rubens’ paintings and sat there for two hours drinking them in. Since then, I have always loved being around works of art. Four decades later, on a trip to Munich, I said to myself, "You are now a leading collector: just go back to where it all began to see if anything has changed”. And I found myself sitting for two hours in front of Rubens' Fall of the Rebel Angels, feeling exactly the same magic. For me, contemplating the great paintings of art history that captivate us with their beauty is every collector’s duty, especially those interested in contemporary art. Because contemporary works are difficult to understand. They are bold and sometimes unappealing. It’s a question of having a nose for them, feeling their strength and their true meaning. And for that, it’s important to be in touch with masterpieces that have come through the centuries; it’s a real exercise in humility for a collector.
And an inexhaustible source of excitement...
Absolutely. It's the emotion one feels before human creativity. The huge emotional tension I experience in front of a work in a museum often lasts long after the visit. Every time I go to Rome, I visit the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria to look at Bernini's sculpture of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It is a sculpture whose marble truly speaks: a shattering piece, where her face reflects her passion, terror and humility before God; absolute love. The work is almost alive. Once I was in a museum where I went back three rooms to see how far the light of an El Greco painting could reach. Works like these are entrancing, and even when you are no longer in front of them, you still see them when you close your eyes.
What is the role of art in contemporary society?
Art is not a luxury; it’s a fundamental need for mankind. The real world proves it. The existence of so many museums, society’s desire to preserve works of art and exhibit them, the huge number of people who go there to admire the masterpieces of humanity—all this shows that art is essential to our lives. I am moved by the beautiful works that are part of our universal heritage and contemporary art alike. Thanks to the latter, I have thought a great deal, my horizons have broadened and I have become even more curious. These are crucial qualities for anyone who lives in tune with their times. Contemporary art is a living, evolving art that not only questions and comments on our time but also endeavors to foresee and influence the future. I think it is everyone’s duty to think about how we can participate more actively in what is happening around us, and how we can become more useful citizens. This is why I created NEON: to give all my fellow citizens the opportunity to get in touch with the concerns and challenges of contemporary art, each in their own way with their own sensitivity. Contact with art, especially contemporary art, stimulates us as not only individuals but also members of a community, and this is especially important for a country like Greece, which has been through an enormous crisis and is seeking new points of reference. A country needs creative citizens who have hope, who believe in the future. And contact with contemporary art plays a very important role in this process.
What about its educational role?
This is absolutely essential and is why NEON puts a lot of emphasis on educational programs. It tries to invest in the brains of tomorrow, to form more open and effective minds in an increasingly demanding society. Art and culture are crucial to a country’s development, and as a source of tourism, income and jobs. Greece needs to invest more in culture. It must look to the future, deploying its extraordinary creative forces, because our excessive pride in antiquity often holds us back and prevents our current talents from expressing themselves. Through my interest in contemporary art and my actions, I try to change attitudes and show that culture is an important industry that can offer a way out of the problems we face.