Art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos on the donation of hundreds of works to museums around the world – 71Bait

On a sunny spring morning in his Athens office, Dimitris Daskalopoulos waves his hand in a gesture that somehow combines happiness with a soft undertone of sadness. “In a way, we’ve built on this moment for 35 years,” he says with a big smile. The “moment” is this week’s announcement that Daskalopoulos, one of Greece’s leading business figures and a notable collector of contemporary art over the past three decades, is giving away more than 350 works, the bulk of his cherished collection, to a small group of public museums .

The works will be divided between the Tate in London, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The donation includes pieces by some of the biggest names in contemporary art – Louise Bourgeois, Jannis Kounellis, Steve McQueen, Matthew Barney – and was warmly welcomed by all four institutions. Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate, described it as “an extraordinary act of generosity”, while Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, said the gift would “enable a rich expansion of the narratives to unfold in our permanent collections”.

The donation was announced today at a ceremony in Athens attended by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He described the donation as a “gift to current art lovers and future generations of aspiring art lovers” for whom art’s “lingua franca” is “needed more than ever in these dire circumstances.”

Daskalopoulos, founder and chairman of DAMMA Holdings, a financial services and investment company, speaks about his decision with rare clarity and candor. He says he decided a few years ago to stop expanding his collection, which includes work by 142 artists. “There’s no point in collecting objects when you’ve said everything you had to say with your collection,” he says. “I made my statement.”

Untitled (Volcano Series No 2) (1979) by Ana Mendieta © Michael Bodycomb

That decision, in turn, was thought-provoking: “At some point, when you’re building a big collection, you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? What is this about?’ Suddenly you have these 300 works. . . and you’re like, ‘Is it an investment? Is it an inheritance for my heirs? For my ego? And how big is my ego?’

“And for me the answer became very clear: These are works made by creative people and who own them in the first place. And then a work of art only has meaning when it interacts with a viewer. So who am I? I see myself as a temporary caretaker. And now I’m giving it back to the public to give more people the opportunity to be inspired.”

I ask Daskalopoulos about his cultural beginnings. When we were young, I say (we’re about the same age, born in the late 1950s), we were obsessed mostly with rock music and movies, and not many people knew the mysterious ways of contemporary art. “I was very into rock music,” he replies eagerly. “When I was 12 or 13, my father would always bring back albums by Uriah Heep and Atomic Rooster from his travels.” A trip to Munich and the Glyptothek there soon after sparked his interest in the visual arts. “I froze for hours in front of the paintings. It was in there somewhere,” he says, pointing to his heart.

A large mannequin of a child, naked from the waist down, with a tomato on her head

Tomato Head (Burgundy) (1994) by Paul McCarthy © Courtesy the artist/Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

A body cast of the artist on a canvas

Untitled (1975) by David Hammons © and courtesy of David Hammons. Photo: Alexandros Filippidis

His first major purchase was a sculpture by German artist Rebecca Horn at the 1993 Cologne art fair (“I was an early victim of art fairs, which I stopped fairly early in my collecting career,” he says wryly). I ask what made him collect contemporary work rather than something more traditional, and he says it was the way he asked himself questions: ‘What is art, how can it be useful, how can it be be pleasant? Does it affect society or not, does it anticipate what is about to happen, or is it driving something forward? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an exciting process.”

Daskalopoulos’ business career blossomed – he was the main owner, chairman and managing director of Delta Holdings/Vivartia SA, the largest food conglomerate in Greece, until 2007, and then chairman of the board of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises during the crisis-ridden years of 2006 -2014. Likewise his deepening interest in these artistic questions.

Running a company and thinking philosophically about the meaning of art are worlds apart, I suggest to him. “These are opposite mentalities. But there were two parallel worlds in my psyche that complemented each other very well.”

Officially established in 1994, the D Daskalopoulos Collection has supported a number of museum initiatives around the world, including the establishment of curators at the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In recent years he founded a cultural center, NEON, and a research think tank, diaNEOsis, in his home country.

Wine bottles hanging upside down over a shiny plate
Exhuming Gluttony: A Lover’s Requiem (2006) by Wangechi Mutu © Erika Ede

I ask what determined the choice of museums for his donation. “I wanted to present these works as well as possible to as global an audience as possible,” he replies. “And then there was the practical consideration: there was no place that could accommodate all of this work.”

Wasn’t he tempted to build his own museum, which is a bit hip these days? “It never appealed to me at all. For two reasons: First, having your own museum is like having a mausoleum, and one of those already exists in the First Cemetery [in Athens]that my mother built for my family and I didn’t want anyone else.

“Then I firmly believe that a collection is a personal passion and unless you are there there is no structure that should attempt or be able to carry your own passion through the ages. It is therefore important that these works go to public museums. They will be there in 100 years when my name will be completely forgotten.

“You’ll be better able to judge the value of the works because they’re not necessarily all like the ‘Mona Lisa.’ Some will never come out again in 200 years, some will hang somewhere permanently. Museums can decide that better than any private institution, and they will be able to put them in dialogue with the art of the future.”

Black and white photo of a naked woman and man standing in a narrow doorway while a man tries to squeeze between them

Imponderabilia (1977) by Marina Abramović and Ulay © Giovanna dal Magro/Lisson Gallery, London, courtesy Marina Abramović Archives

Sculpture of a woman's bottom half made out of pantyhose

Bunny Gets Snookered #10 (1997) by Sarah Lucas © Sarah Lucas, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

Daskalopoulos says he hasn’t placed any strings on the museums that receive his donation (“It means they don’t have to constantly look at their contracts to see what they need to do”), but he hopes they curate and preserve the work. The gifts to the Guggenheim and the MCA Chicago are to be held in common ownership. “I think they’re very excited to be working together,” he says. “It’s good to get different perspectives on things.”

The EMST and Tate will also work together on mutual loans and exchanges. He says the Greek Museum is in good shape after a “troubled” period and he is generally optimistic about his country’s future. “I think there is a pragmatism, not only in government but also in public expectations. We move much better.”

One of the highlights of Greek cultural life before the Covid lockdown was the installation of a group of sculptures by Antony Gormley on the island of Delos, commissioned by NEON. Daskalopoulos admits to being “concerned” – the uninhabited island is considered sacred territory and there are strict rules governing its use – recalling Gormley’s words to him when they visited the site. “He said, ‘On this island, out of respect, you can only whisper.’ And that was his job. A strong whisper.”

He finally admits that he feels a certain sadness at parting from his collection, calling it a source of great “psychological and mental richness”. But his thoughts are on the artworks: “[They] deserve to be out there, interacting with the world and evoking emotions in other people. So I’m glad this is happening.”

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