“You see those four big nails on the wall? The next time you come there will be an El Greco hanging there! It will look like it’s floating in the space. And next to it will be a Bonnard, a Monet, a Picasso, a Kandinsky, a Klee, a Braque, a Bacon, a…”
I turn and look at Kyriakos Koutsomallis, feeling truly moved. We are standing with the general secretary of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation on the first floor of the under-construction building on Eratosthenous Street in a space that will be named “Hall of the Masterpieces”. When I started out in 1999 as a young reporter covering the visual arts for Kathimerini newspaper, Elise Goulandris was still alive. The plans for the museum had already been announced in 1992. Athens hoped that it would soon obtain a museum designed by the architect I. M. Pei.
And yet it will only be now, in 2018, that the unique works of Basil and Elise Goulandris’ art collection will finally be hung in the museum. They both died before seeing their vision come to life, which has been continued with patience and persistence by their niece and nephew Fleurette P. Karadontis and Kyriakos Koutsomallis. Twenty-six years filled of adversity, intra-familial conflicts, and battles even with state institutions, were required in order to complete something that will truly change the face of the capital.
A Few More Months of Patience
But the time that we have been waiting for has finally arrived. And through the words of the general secretary and the president of the foundation – both wearing hardhats of the Basil construction company, the space was transformed in my eyes from a building site to a gleaming museum full of people and exceptional artistic treasures. After a quarter of a century of waiting, what are the few more months it’s going to take until the official opening, now expected in early 2019? A heartbeat.
To sum it up: today, for a Greek to see the works of such artists up close he would have to travel abroad. But now modernist masterpieces will be found right in the heart of Athens! “This is where the Rodin sculpture will go and there, underneath the window, Degas’ dancer. Ah! And that is the small hall that will be dedicated to Giacometti,” Koutsomallis continues. For her part, Fleurette Karadontis explains with pride how on the second floor there will be a special space for large paintings, sculptures and more.
“How do you feel?” I ask.
“Like we are moments before a birth that has taken two and a half decades,” she tells me. “The foundation has been carrying it, and finally we will see the baby! We are in the final straight.”
Every obstacle, a blessing
The building may not bear the signature of a famous architect such as that of the Chinese American who built the Louvre’s famous pyramid, but that doesn’t matter. Because during my and photographer Vangelis Zavos’ brief inspection, the clever planning was apparent, as was the splendid museological approach and finesse of Athens’ latest point of pride: 7,300 square meters spread over 11 floors, five of which are above ground, featuring beautiful, welcoming spaces for the lobby, the permanent and temporary exhibitions, the workshops for children and adults, a library, a café, a restaurant, offices and an amphitheater.
“You know, they say every obstacle is a blessing,” says Kyriakos Koutsomallis. “From the 1980s our plans changed many times: during Melina Mercouri’s [tenure as culture minister] we talked about a neoclassical in Kolonaki, in the 1990s Rigillis and Rizari [Streets], in 2000 in Ardittou and we ended up here on Eratosthenous, where we transformed a building from the early 20th century with added stories and underground levels which were designed according to the needs of the collection. It might not be an extravagant architectural creation by Pei, but it is better. Given today’s crisis, a building like those of Pei would cost a lot more to maintain.”
Fleurette Karadontis adds, “We were fortunate in terms of the neighborhood. During the years of the recession, Pangrati literally transformed. It became attractive for young people, for tourists and Airbnb, and for many Athenians who come here as a new place to go out a little further out from the center. It is away from the marches and the protests. Quieter, more artistic. We hope to make use of this positive trend for Pangrati and insert our museum into peoples’ daily lives. For them to come here not only to see the artworks. For them to cross the threshold for seminars, for coffee, for food and to spend quality time with their children. We want to become indispensable to their lives.”
Matisse, Cezanne, Warhol
The construction elevator has broken down so we walk up, watching the builders unload the wooden shelves of the library, and pass the floors that will be the new home of works by Warhol, Pollock, Matisse, Cezanne, Parthenis, Moralis, Tsetsis, and other modern Greek painters. We reach the offices which enjoy stunning views of the Acropolis, Lycabettus Hill and the National Garden.
“We have the sense that it is a work of national importance that will give courage and positive energy to the country, of which it is in so much in need,” the two tell me. “And one more thing: don’t think for a moment that we will focus only on art-lovers and the intelligentsia. The museum will be open, it will be forward-looking, it will be a companion to the next generations of Athenians and Greeks. As such, we know our role and our responsibility. We will be socially tolerant, a place that welcomes everyone, that is our goal.”
“I will give you an example: down the road is an elementary school. The children came and interviewed us for their school newspaper. They are our neighbors, our future audience. Our entire collection will be presented piece by piece with special texts and captions, without us taking for granted that the people who will come will be familiar with the works. Our mission is on that is educational for young and old.”
I descend carefully, zigzagging between cables, planks, loose tiles and small heaps of lime, happy and optimistic. If nothing else, something that I was writing about twenty years ago, with a firsthand seat to the entire odyssey, has finally taken shape. Journalism doesn’t have many happy endings. This museum is a reason for (personal) happiness.