The buzz around Athens’ art scene has never been louder. Over the last decade, the city’s combination of accessible gallery spaces and an abundance of studios has engendered a creative new wave that is garnering international attention. The cultural conversation around Athens is exploding in part thanks to documenta, the prestigious contemporary art exhibition held every five years, which left its home in Kassel, Germany, for the first time for the 2017 edition which was co-hosted by the Greek capital.
While grappling with the impacts of austerity, Athens is once again being viewed as a focal point for inspiration and new ideas. This won’t, of course, be news to the city’s independent galleries, whose founders and directors have, for years, been influential in sparking creative discourse and shaping the cultural scene.
These creative individuals share a common history of breaking boundaries and approaching the status quo with a fresh vision. Whether reimagining gallery spaces, rethinking how local artists should be presented to global audiences, or reconsidering what an Athens-based gallery should offer, they have provided a strong foundation from which to welcome international shows and artists, as well as a vibrant ecosystem to support local artists and catalyze future developments.
REBECCA CAMHI CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY
At the root of the Rebecca Camhi Contemporary Art Gallery is a truly individual vision. After spending time in London, New York and Paris, Rebecca Camhi returned to Athens and founded her first art space in 1995, bringing the best of the international scene to her hometown. In a 14-room space on Sofokleous, she introduced a new way of enjoying art to Athens, one in which social elements and cultural context permeate the viewing experience. “The gallery, the exhibitions, it’s a way of life,” Camhi says. “I’m not a typical ‘gallerist.’”
In 2008, the gallery relocated to its current Metaxourgeio location, but the original spirit and vision remain the same. The new space has evolved to include an art and ceramics shop downstairs, as well as a garden for artists’ dinners and events. Camhi’s flexible approach has seen her extend the run of a recent exhibition to allow the artist to show more work, a rare act in a world where financial burdens are constant and audiences can be cynical. “It’s hard,” Camhi agrees. “Not that it’s hard to do per se, but it’s hard to stand up for, to commit to and to keep doing. There’s pressure to do things how they – supposedly – should be done, as opposed to how you’re doing them.”
The gallery has a reputation for bringing exciting talents to Athens, including international artists such as Nan Goldin, Julian Opie and Rita Ackermann. It has also exhibited work by renowned Greek artists such as Konstantin Kakanias and Angelo Plessas.
Camhi is keen to stress that the art world does not exist in isolation. Making the gallery an important player in a wider cultural context is a key part of her vision. “I can’t exist without the support of the city. So I put these things very closely together; my energy, my time.” In practical terms, this means investing in helping to fix the streets around the gallery and fostering community initiatives. To Camhi, it’s all connected. “Art,” she says, “is linked to life, to history, to politics, to everything.”
Info: 9 Leonidou, tel. (+30) 210.523.3049, open: Thu, Fri 12:00-20:00 or by appointment.
Rebecca Camhi recommends:
“Metaxourgeio is full of culture, but you must visit the Municipal Gallery of Athens (Leonidou and Myllerou), the Attis Theatre (7 Leonidou) and the contemporary art space Atopos CVC (72 Salaminos).” “For food, take a short walk to Seychelles (49 Keramikou), a modern Greek restaurant popular amongst the area’s creatives.”
“Jean [Bernier] and I always believed that Greece is not only a place charged with the past of its culture; it is also a country of great beauty, which artists should discover and experience first-hand,” says Marina Eliades, as she explains the motivations for founding the seminal Bernier/Eliades gallery space in Kolonaki back in 1977. “We had the conviction that art knows no borders.”
Bernier and Eliades’ approach was revolutionary when the gallery opened, bringing a radically new vision to the city’s creative landscape at a time when the Athens art scene was dominated by large institutions. Their vision set a precedent which continues to guide the gallery today. Their diverse curation has encompassed a range of works and media, with some of Eliades’ personal highlights including Richard Serra’s solo show in 1986, Jannis Kounellis’ retrospective aboard the cargo vessel “Ionion” in Piraeus in 1994, “The Art of Gilbert & George” at the Athens School of Fine Arts in 2001 and Robert Wilson’s “Video Portraits of Lady Gaga” in 2015.
As one of the first galleries to bring international artists to Greece, the legacy of their vision has been far-reaching, not only in terms of the artists exhibited at Bernier/Eliades, but also among the international community which the gallery has fostered. “When artists visit Greece, we believe they all gain something special,” Eliades says. “They take that home with them, but they also leave us with the traces of personal relationships and the imprints made by their work.”
Now housed in a beautiful neoclassical building in Thiseio, the gallery is optimally placed to welcome the renewed interest in Athens’ art scene. “I think documenta somehow repositioned Athens on the artistic map,” Eliades notes. “But the new generation of artists has the knowledge and power to keep the window on Greek contemporary art open to the rest of the world.”
Info: 11 Eptahalkou, tel. (+30) 210.341.3935-7, open: Tue-Fri 10:30-18:30, Sat 12:00-16:00.
Marina Eliades recommends:
“Our artists love to eat at To Steki Tou Ilia (5 Eptachalkou) in Thiseio and at Taverna tou Oikonomou (41 Troon) in Petralona.” “When they have time, they walk to the Acropolis and visit the Acropolis Museum (15 Dionysiou Areopagitou), then stroll through Plaka and Monastiraki.”
Rodeo Gallery occupies a spacious former warehouse nestled just a few minutes’ walk from the main port of Piraeus. Wooden rafters and exposed brick walls are a testament to the former function of the building, but the gallery itself is decidedly future-facing. “Everyone’s moving to Hong Kong, or they’re opening spaces in Los Angeles,” explains founder Sylvia Kouvali. “But that’s not what Rodeo is. This isn’t the kind of existence that I want to have.”
Kouvali, recently voted one of international art magazine Apollo’s “40 under 40,” founded the gallery in Istanbul in 2007. In 2015, Rodeo opened a space in London and closed in Istanbul – the pressures of the political landscape rendering gallery life untenable. In 2018, the gallery opened its space in Greece.
Operating on the periphery is key to Rodeo’s identity. While considering locations in Athens, Kouvali was conscious of finding a space far from the “Airbnb-ization” of the city center, as she describes it. The space itself is important, too: Kouvali likes to explore how work is received in the different venues of London and Athens. A recent exhibition in Piraeus featured the work of Liliane Lijn, whose use of LED lights and kinetic sculpture – radical when the technology was introduced in the 1980s – remains just as compelling today. “I’m very interested in how a work is seen here [Piraeus], and how a work is seen elsewhere,” she says. “The framework of the gallery, the location, the city, it all becomes a frame.”
For outsiders, documenta may have seemed a high-water mark, but the local scene has, in fact, been growing ever since, and Rodeo’s arrival is one of many signs that Athens continues to attract exciting new voices. Kouvali didn’t want to crash the documenta party, but she appreciates the energy it gave to the local ecosystem, reshaping the narrative around Athens in the eyes of the world. She believes links made and knowledge shared will carry on paying dividends for Athens’ creative scene for years to come: “[It’s about] the micro realities of making things happen. There are relationships that have been created that aren’t visible. This is what forms this community.”
Info: 41 Polidefkous, Piraeus, tel. (+30) 210.412.3977, open: Wed-Sat 12:00-19:00 or by appointment.
Sylvia Kouvali recommends:
“The port is a marvelous rediscovery. Anywhere in Piraeus is beautiful. The restaurant next to my gallery, Paleo (39 Polidefkous), is beautiful. They have an amazing selection of wines and you always meet cool people.”
For a contemporary art gallery, Zoumboulakis Galleries is steeped in history. Its seeds were sown at the start of the 20th century by Theodore Zoumboulakis, who opened an antiques shop in the heart of Athens. In the 1960s, Tassos Zoumboulakis and his wife Peggy created an art space in the heart of Kolonaki. Now housed in a larger space in the same area and run by Daphne Zoumboulakis, the gallery exhibits work by celebrated artists of the past and the present. In addition to the gallery, Zoumboulakis runs a multidisciplinary events space in a loft on Pireos Street and deals in antiques.
Over the years, the gallery has exhibited works by an impressive range of renowned international artists, including Magritte, de Chirico, Picasso and Warhol, as well as pieces by influential Greek artists such as Yiannis Moralis, Yannis Tsarouchis and Takis. The variation in styles between these exhibitions speaks to the discerning audience that Zoumboulakis Galleries has cultivated over the years. “From the outset, we’ve respected our public and – despite a number of difficulties – worked to introduce a variety of quality artists and artworks,” Daphne Zoumboulakis says. “Given the city’s current lack of a public contemporary art museum, the few private art galleries [in Athens] have played an important role.”
Today, Zoumboulakis is both realistic and confident about the future of the city’s art scene. Knowing the economic constraints, she hesitates to call the recent upsurge a “great revival,” but she is enthused by the fresh energy of the new wave of creative artists: “Athens has entered the international art scene, but remains ‘small-town’ compared to other European cities. An increasing number of younger foreign artists are finding Athens to be an inspiring place. My positive nature leads me to think that art is always inventive, despite difficult times.”
Info: Contemporary Art: 20 Kolonaki Square, tel. (+30) 210.360.8278. Art, Design, Antiques: 6 Kriezotou, tel. (+30) 210.363.4454, (+30) 210.364.0264, open: Mon & Wed 10:00-15:00, Tue, Thu & Fri 10:00-20:00, Sat 10:00-16:00, Sun closed. Multiple event loft/Pireos: 37 Agathodaimonos & 1 Orestiou, Petralona, tel. (+30) 210.341.4214, open: Mon-Fri 08:30-16:30, Sat & Sun closed.
Daphne Zoumboulakis recommends:
“A stroll around the city’s historic center, the treasures of the National Archaeological Museum (44 28is Oktovriou) and the ancient Kerameikos Cemetery (148 Ermou).”
THE BREEDER GALLERY
In the heart of Metaxourgeio, behind a dark metal door and a commanding exterior, you’ll find The Breeder Gallery, housed in a sprawling space that was once an icehouse. The gallery opened in 2008, but the main gallery space is just one element in The Breeder’s extensive program, which includes the pop-up Breeder Feeder as well as The Breeder Skin, a project featuring public art installations on the façade of the building. The gallery also collaborates with leading Athenian institutions, such as the Hilton Hotel and the restaurant Vezené.
George Vamvakidis and Stathis Panagoulis started The Breeder in 2002; it was an art magazine which evolved into a gallery. They were driven by the desire to represent exciting artists internationally, while at the same time fostering a creative dialogue within the city.
“From the outset, The Breeder didn’t differentiate between local and international artists,” says director Nadia Gerazouni. She points out the range of artists the gallery represents, in which Athens-based British creators such as Navine G. Khan-Dossos and Zoë Paul join Beijing-based Tao Hui and Brooklyn-based Kalup Linzy. “What unites them,” Nadia says, “is that they are all bold in the visual language they use to realize their ideas. This fearlessness is what has come to define the gallery.”
Audiences can expect to encounter something completely different upon each visit. This dynamic approach has seen the gallery thrive in challenging times. “The economic crisis in Greece shifted foundations and made room for a lot of changes,” Nadia explains. “At the same time, it undermined the financial support system that local artists had through private collectors and a market for their work.”
Despite ongoing financial challenges, the current outlook is markedly positive. “Many galleries from our generation have closed,” Nadia says. “But a number of energetic new artist-run project spaces are flourishing, which is truly exciting. Being an ‘Athens-based artist’ has never been more relevant than now. Athens is rapidly becoming a hub for artists, curators and creative people from all around the world, resulting in a Greek art scene that is, in fact, undeniably international.”
Info: 45 Iasonos, tel. (+30) 210.331.7527, open: Tue-Sat 12:00-18:00.
Nadia Gerazouni recommends:
“Across from The Breeder is a very charming café called Arta (Iasonos 52). It’s well known for its homemade meatballs and it embodies the essence of Metaxourgeio: a collage of old and new, where artists and art lovers mix with elderly local residents.” “Enjoy the best brunch in Athens while watching skaters try new tricks at Latraac Cafe & Skate Bowl (63-65 Leonidou).”
The Athens branch of Kalfayan Galleries opened in 2000 – founders Arsen and Roupen Kalfayan launched their first gallery in Thessaloniki in 1995.
The Kalfayan brothers began by representing Greek artists but expanded to feature a more international roster shortly after their arrival in Athens. “There weren’t that many galleries in Europe which were involved in the Middle East,” Arsen Kalfayan says. “There was a gap between the Middle East and what we call the West, and Greece could bridge it.”
This positioning has proved incredibly successful, and the gallery enjoys a leading position within the Greek art scene. Previous exhibitions in Athens include works by Panos Tsagaris, Nina Papaconstantinou, the late Nausica Pastra, the Beirut-based artist Vartan Avakian and the art collective Slavs and Tatars. This diverse roster of artists from across a broad region means that stepping into the gallery can take you far from Athens – and the gallery works doggedly to build a global audience for their artists. Art fairs have become a key part of the gallery’s cycle and the team exhibits across Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East.
“We started taking part in Art Dubai, and from there we moved to Hong Kong,” Arsen says. “We’re promoting Greek art in all these places where it’s not easy to access what’s going on in Greece.” Raising the profile of Greek artists internationally is a sound business strategy; it’s an important reason why Kalfayan Galleries has weathered the economic crisis, while many other local galleries closed.
Alongside its contemporary artists, the gallery has used its global platform to promote Greek artists from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Yannis Tsarouchis, whose work the gallery exhibits at fairs such as Art Basel and The Armory Show – to extremely positive receptions. “That’s something we appreciate, because we can now see how important it was to work with these artists,” Arsen explains. “It gives us additional energy to continue.”
Info: 11 Haritos, tel. (+30) 210.721.7679, open: Mon 11:00-15:00, Tue-Fri 11:00-19:00, Sat 11:00-15:00.
Arsen Kalfayan recommends:
“Da Capo (1 Tsakalof) at the heart of Kolonaki is where you’ll find the Kalfayan team most mornings, taking early meetings over the café’s famous coffee.” “Keep it local with dinner at Papadakis (15 Fokilidou), the classic Greek kitchen run by celebrity chef Argiro Barbarigou, or Abreuvoir (51 Xenokratous), a Kolonaki institution famous for its meat.”