My collection is a repository – The Greek collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos is known not only as the owner of one of today’s conceptually strongest collections of contemporary art but also as one of the most influential personalities on the current art scene in general.
A visionary and patron, Dimitris Daskalopoulos is a Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Chairman of the Collections Council of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and an active member of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Tate International Council and the Leadership Council of the New Museum and a founding partner of the Whitechapel’s Future Fund. In 2013 Daskalopoulos founded a non-profit cultural organization called NEON, whose goal is to support and promote contemporary art in Greece and particularly Athens.
Even though Daskalopoulos’ collection of 500+ works of art by 220 artists from Greece and abroad (Marina Abramović, Robert Gober, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, David Hammons, Matthew Barney, Martin Kippenberger, Annette Messager, Mona Hatoum, Bruce Nauman, Ernesto Neto and others) might seem like a real “Who’s Who” of the art world, the collector has never been one to amass trophies. The conceptual foundation of his collection has been influenced by the works of Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, who spoke of life as a “luminous interval” between birth and death and the human body at its center as a “source of creativity and the vessel of existential, social and ideological struggle”.
Large installations and sculptures make up the majority of works in the D.Daskalopoulos Collection, although it also contains drawings, collages, films and video. At 450 square meters, one of the largest pieces of artwork is Christoph Büchel’s installation titled “Unplugged (Simply Botiful)” (2007).
Born to a working class family, Daskalopoulos went on to turn his family’s dairy business into Greece’s largest food empire, Vivartia, and in 2007 he sold his share in the business. He says his passion for collecting began already in childhood, and his relationship with art began at age twelve, when he spent two hours completely spellbound by Rubens’ paintings at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. At the beginning of his career as an art collector, he concentrated on Greek painting from the 1950s, and he only turned to contemporary art in the early 1990s at the age of forty.
I met Daskalopoulos in central Athens and immediately he speaks openly, slowly, deliberately and very constructively, as if he has already formulated his answers to most of life’s questions long ago. But every once in a while his seriousness is interrupted by a spontaneous spark of humor that reveals a man with a very strong personality in which a strict businessman coexists with an artistic sensitivity.
When speaking about your collection, you often refer to the Greek etymology of the verb “to collect”, namely, “to say something with.” What do you see as your mission as a collector and what do you wish to tell the world with your collection?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
I use the Greek etymology of the word because that was what I discovered I was doing when I was collecting. I was choosing artworks that speak with each other, artworks that carry the same central message and artists and artworks that can add to the exploration of this general message. My collection is actually very focused; it is very centered around the main issue of the human struggle and the human ability to create. The creativity of a being that has a very short life span and knows about the limitations and the short amount of time we have here in this world. But despite that, we are full of energy to create new things, to progress. These are the kinds of works I’ve always selected, works from artists who talk about this subject – the examination of human fragility together with human strength and creativity. And that’s why the Greek etymology of the word “to collect” is very present in my collection.
Are these the questions that are also very important for you in your own life? Maybe through collecting you are trying to find the answers?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
My business life has been one of constant progress. Sometimes you stop and wonder – where does this energy come from, where does it lead, why are we so motivated and committed? It’s the marvel of human existence. That’s what I really admire. Of course, my collection has an emphasis on fragility, which exists just to expose this marvel. Because it’s precisely despite this fragility that we are so committed to the struggle – to create, to be, to leave a footprint, to leave something behind.
The year 1999 was a sort of turning point in your collection. That year you bought a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s original “Fountain” at auction for 1.76 million dollars. You now own the piece numbered 5. What captures you in this work of art, besides its iconic status?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
It was not a turning point in the sense of what my collection is trying to say. It was more of a turning point in the sense that the collection was already big enough and it was a decision, a fresh call, to move from being an amateur who likes and collects things to making a commitment to become a serious collector. It was a shift, an adjustment that I made myself. I said, “I can stop here, I can be happy as a person, as a collector. But if I go on from here, it will be something very big.” And I decided I wanted the collection to be big. And now, of course, ten years later this has all been realized. My collection is being asked for by museums, for exhibitions and is respected as something beautiful and for its central message.
The first piece of contemporary art you bought was the kinetic sculpture “The Painting in the Inner Egg” (1993) by Rebecca Horn.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
That was also because it was a painting. It’s an artwork that in a certain way does away with painting, an issue which has been very critical for me because I realized my love of art through painting, of course.
Because that was easier in some way?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes, because when you go to museums, you see great painting. Of course, you can’t ignore the great history of beautiful art that has been done on canvas. But as I looked at contemporary art, I realized I was much more interested in what contemporary creativity can do with expanded media and what it can say about the world of today. In one sense, Rebecca Horn’s piece was a symbolic gesture: a painting on a white canvas and an egg. In effect, painting was put away in an egg – in order to continue on. To continue towards other expressions of contemporary creativity. That’s why there are very few paintings in my collection since then. I very often go to great museums and, as I said, what I see there humbles me. But that is exactly where the great paintings belong.
Now you have everything in your collection, from big sculptures and installations to digital works. Does that mean that the most essential thing for you is the message, not the form?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Well, it’s definitely not the financial aspect, nor the easiness of looking at something, nor the pleasure of living with your artworks. Those things are much less important for me. When I display some larger installations, which, of course, are harder to find and see, and afterwards I go there and see the reactions of people, the emotions they create in people, that’s what makes me happy. Much more than looking at a painting on my living room wall every day.
That is the difference between you and another Greek art collector, Mr Dakis Joannou, who has a beautiful house full of artwork, which I visited just yesterday. You have no need to be surrounded with artwork in your everyday life? Is that not important to you at all?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
No, and that’s why I keep saying that my collection, for me, is not an asset that I feel is mine in the sense that I want to play with it and show it off. I feel that I have an interest and the financial means to put together a good expression of the creativity of other people, and for me it’s there to be shown, to be loaned, to be open to the public. And this leads to another activity of mine, which is completely different from collecting: the non-profit cultural organization NEON (from the Greek word for “new” – U.M.), which I established five years ago and whose goal is to expose people to contemporary art and its ideas, to stimulate them to think and to rouse in them the emotions that can be brought about by contemporary art. NEON is completely unrelated to my collection, and that’s also the reason I’m not planning to create a special space to exhibit it.
And that’s despite the rumors in the media that you’re looking for a permanent space to display your collection?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
No. My collection is a repository. It’s available to museums, for loans, and I give it out as much as I can. The NEON organization is about helping people to come in contact with contemporary art. And I feel I don’t need my own space to do that. There are public institutions, there is public space available and initiatives by other people, and I support those, as well as instigating my own. So, one of the things we’ve recently done is to announce an important support program for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as several education programs, etc.
You have called the current economic crisis more of a crisis of civilization.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes, and a cultural crisis.
I heard the shocking statistics that in Greece only 16% of the people go to museums. How can this be in a country with such deep cultural traditions?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
It’s because we’ve taken our cultural heritage for granted. And that is the reason why contemporary art is even more important in terms of influencing our culture. We were great achievers historically – in art and creativity, in philosophy and democracy – but we are now living in the 21st century. And if we want to live better and prosper in our own time, we have to create the circumstances for it in this century. For me, culture is fundamentally important in this process. Especially given the fact that we have such a great history, which is embedded deep in our souls. That’s why we don’t have a need to go and see it, because it is inside us.
In your blood and genes?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
(Laughs) Yes, we have the direct bloodline of Phidias, who built the statues for the Acropolis. We feel that we have historically done everything in the realm of culture. But nowadays – if we are able – we need to become relevant, creative and special again, in the culture of today. We cannot just carry the laurels of a great past. That’s not enough for us. And I must say, there is a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation going on in this city, and what we need is to just make it a part of everyday life. Much more than it is today.
Do you think art nowadays has the power to change something in society?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes. Not art in and of itself, not a specific work, not a specific exhibition but the fact that somebody will become exposed to – and maybe obsessed by art, will try to understand, will speak with his friends and his family about a new idea, sort of squeeze his mind in a different way, outside of the routine. That is the value of art.
Is it important for you to meet the artists whose works you have bought or are thinking to buy?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
No, I do not see it as a prerequisite. Because, you know, I seek the power in the artwork itself. I have a very sensitive mechanism here inside me (points to his chest – U.M), which responds very strongly when an artwork touches me. Of course, I respect the personality of the artist. If somebody can make a powerful piece of art, obviously there is something in this personality that is interesting and powerful. But I don’t need that, because the artist is making the artwork and then, later, there is time to let the artwork itself speak. And if the artwork speaks, we don’t necessarily need to have an extra debate with the artist. Because a powerful piece of artwork has a life of its own. Inside each one of us. And inside each one of us it is different. We all react differently to an artwork. We all interpret it in a different way, it means different things to us. A powerful artwork doesn’t need an artist to be present to explain it.
Speaking of the relationship between an artwork’s value and price. Is there a correlation between the two, and how important is it? Hasn’t the irrationality of the market turned some of the artists into manufacturers, by pressing them to create more and more artwork?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
I think Michelangelo would be complaining as well. And Mozart, who was asked to write one symphony for this emperor and another symphony for that aristocrat. But in the end, we are left with some masterpieces that we love to hear.
Not all of them are masterpieces, of course.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Of course not, but time makes the distinction quite accurately.
Speaking about time, what do you think – how many artworks from your collection will pass this test of time? Especially as there is an opinion that most of the contemporary art we value at the moment will become historically insignificant in the future and end up as garbage.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes, a lot of what we buy is real garbage and won’t last anyway. But I’m not looking very seriously at conservation issues. I don’t mind if an artist makes a work that is designed to be flimsy and temporal – that’s fine with me. If I buy something and then, five or six years later, it doesn’t exist anymore, that’s not a problem. I have a lot of artwork by artists who did not develop further or did not become very famous, but I still have absolutely no regret about buying anything. I remember a work that I bought twenty-five years ago by a Luxembourgian artist that I never heard of again. But I’m longing to see it in an exhibition because I think it is a great work of art. So I think that would be my message to anybody who thinks that art collecting can be done as an investment. It cannot. If you are passionate and create a collection, you may be lucky and have your good moments of great revaluation. But overall, collecting is mostly about the love with which you put things together, and in the end it’s an investment like all others – with very long and very average returns.
Have you sold anything from your collection?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
I’ve only sold about ten pieces over the course of twenty years. Especially when I decide to move on with an artist and in that way I get better works by that artist. Or purely conceptually – some of the artists I paid attention to when I began collecting are no longer significant now that my collection has become larger and more established. Otherwise, I do not trade in art.
How have you trained yourself to distinguish good art from bad art? Some collectors have told us that this is a lifetime process.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
You get better and better all the time. But in the end, I think it’s something in here (touches his heart – U.M.). I think we all make mistakes and there are better collections and worse collections, but in the end it’s the collector’s ability to decide between things. It’s more important what you reject, rather than what you buy.
If your collection is more about the human life span, this short period between life and death, is it important for you what happens with it after you will pass away?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes. Especially because, as I said, I don’t think the collection belongs to me alone as an asset. I think it belongs to the artists, to the public, to the world of ideas. And it should stay there somehow, to create a reaction. I think the future of my collection is clearly associated with public institutions. But which ones – I have yet to decide. However, I think a collection is clearly associated with and lives because of the passion of its creator. And when you are no longer there, the collection is also not there anymore; it becomes a time capsule of the past that nobody can keep alive. It’ll probably be better to put it back where people can see it. At least some of the artwork.
When you buy a new piece of artwork, where do you look for it? In auction houses, artists’ studios, galleries etc?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Some collectors compare this process to hunting. Especially men, because they say that deep down in their souls all men are hunters and all of them in some way like to own things.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes, but there so very much game out there, millions of opportunities to hunt and acquire. And, you know, anyway you will only get a very small part of it. Therefore you shouldn’t worry so much about if you’ve missed something or have not gotten the best price, or about whether you’ve prevented someone else from getting what you’ve desired. In any case, no matter what you do and how much you can invest in art, you are only making a small imprint in some little corner of this huge universe of creativity. It’s a matter of luck, and that’s also the fun of it. I have had works offered to me that I didn’t buy and now I want them, and I have works that I know other people would have killed for that in the end went to me, but that’s the reality.
Do you take advice from art consultants?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
Yes, I have a small team of people. We talk; we go through the collection all the time. We find the central themes; we make lists of artists that we need to explore. We evaluate the artists represented in the collection from the standpoint of which works from specific periods of theirs we may still be lacking. And then, you know, one day you go out and there is something sitting in a corner and you think, “Perfect, this is for my collection, I will get it.” No discussion with anybody.
You once stated in an interview that in order to decide to buy a certain piece of art, you need to feel this special vibration in your stomach.DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
You know, the stomach is there and it functions all the time. That’s why we get hungry after a few hours. It’s the same with art. It stimulates a reaction in the stomach. The emotion that art can generate is everywhere here – in the heart, the lungs, the stomach, in the center. Or maybe it all happens in the unexplored and remarkable human brain, which we might call the heart or soul. I don’t know. But I enjoy getting a reaction and I trust it.
Is collecting in some way your refuge from business?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
I’ve collected art as passionately as I’ve done business. And I think it’s been with a lot of success as well. Maybe the business was a refuge from my passion for art, who knows? Why do I assume that business is my main activity? I’ve done it all with a lot of interest, with a lot of love and passion. They’re inseparable; these two worlds are a part of me.
What advice do you have for young collectors?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
If you love it, do it. Otherwise go surfing.
Is there any piece of art you wished you had in your collection but couldn’t afford?DIMITRIS DASKALOPOULOS
(Laughs) Many things. I sometimes get a sinister urge to grab things from museum walls and put them in my pocket and leave. Don’t you, too? As I said, there is so much good art and that’s why it’s good where it is. The work that created such a reference for me is the Bernini sculpture. I could look at it every day.