ATHENS – On a recent afternoon, Pennsylvania-born, Athens-based artist Jennifer Nelson was toiling away in a spacious temporary studio on her new project. In one corner were overflowing garbage bags of different colors, the contents of which were to be used in their installation Waste (Inheritance).
For the past year, Mrs. Nelson has been collecting her family’s packaging and material waste. Until September, she will transform household rubbish into a giant sculpture that she will wrap herself in during a performance at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST). It’s her way of raising awareness of the garbage that humans produce and the burden it causes for future generations.
The Waste Workshop is one of seven exhibitions celebrating the rebirth of EMST, a museum for international and Greek contemporary art.
Established in 2000 as a nomadic institution, it moved to its current premises seven years ago. But due to the Greek economic crisis, bureaucratic delays and the pandemic, the EMST had its official opening as a fully operational museum earlier this month. Celebrations took place on its grounds: a converted brewery with a grand foyer, multiple gallery levels, and terraces with panoramic city views.
Another reason the opening was delayed was that “in this country, successive governments have frankly shown no interest in contemporary art,” said Katerina Gregos, the museum’s artistic director last year. The focus so far has been “on our classic heritage and on antiques. There’s a lot you need to protect and we’re a small country.”
Ms Gregos also noted that there is a “massive gap in education” when it comes to modern and contemporary art. Greece “never really experienced modernism” and if you wanted to make a career as an artist in the 1960s “you had to go abroad”.
She said attitudes have changed under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has been in power since 2019. His government persuaded her to move to Athens from Brussels, where she had lived and worked since 2006, and gave her the means to run the institution, she added: an annual budget of 9 million euros (9.5 million euros). US dollars), about twice as much as before.
Ms. Gregos is the curator of EMST’s main inaugural exhibition, “Statecraft and Beyond” (through October 30). It is a group exhibition that examines how authority is exercised by nation-states and governments and how it is challenged by technology, globalization and extreme nationalism.
A large wall covers Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s work The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021): close-ups of the hands of male leaders (mostly dictators), often raised in a salute to patriarchal power represented.
On another wall, German artist Thomas Kilpper is showing 90 charcoal drawings depicting right-wing extremist attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in various locations in Germany.
The Greek state may have been late to the contemporary art party, but private foundations funded by the country’s largest fortunes have struggled to make up for it. The Deste, Neon, Onassis and Stavros Niarchos foundations organize shows and cultural programmes, distribute grants and finance residencies for artists. (A new commercial gallery district has also recently sprung up in Piraeus, the port of Athens.)
This summer, the foundations are offering a diverse cultural program.
In its distinctive post-industrial space, a former tobacco factory, Neon – founded by Greek billionaire Dimitris Daskalopoulos – is showing “Dream On” with 18 large-scale installations by artists including Thomas Hirschhorn, Annette Messager and Paul McCarthy. The artworks come from the collection of Mr. Daskalopoulos, who donated more than 350 works to four museums including EMST, Guggenheim and Tate in April.
DESTE, founded by Greek Cypriot billionaire Dakis Joannou, is hosting a tribute to Californian artist Kaari Upson, who died last year at the age of 51 and whose work has included sculpture, video and drawing.
And the Onassis Foundation — named after the son of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and headquartered in a massive building that opened in 2011 with exhibition galleries and two theaters — is hosting an exhibition of digital art in an unexpected place: Pedion tou Areos Park.
At last week’s Art for Tomorrow conference, an event organized in partnership with the New York Times, Afroditi Panagiotakou, cultural director of the Onassis Foundation, said the economic crisis has “put Greece on the map for all the bad reasons,” but also helped the world “forget the Parthenon for a while” and focus on the urban reality of Athens.
She said that the recession and the collapse in real estate prices, as well as the 2017 Documenta exhibition (partly held in Athens) prompted artists to move to Athens and build an offbeat art scene.
“Right now, the big question is: how do we keep ourselves relevant?” she asked. “How can we keep the interest of the international scene in Athens now that the crisis is not here in the same way?”
Mareva Grabowski-Mitsotakis, the prime minister’s wife and an advocate of Greek culture and crafts, agreed that it was important to “maintain the current momentum where the arts scene is thriving”. She suggested that Athens should become a bridge between past and present, the center of “a dialogue between our classical heritage and contemporary creativity”.
“Even though it’s a city on the periphery,” she said, “Athens is one of the most important cities in the world because of its cultural heritage.”
Nicholas Yatromanolakis, the country’s first-ever deputy culture minister for contemporary culture — a Harvard University graduate who was appointed to the role last year — said he was angered by occasional parallels between Athens and global capitals like Berlin.
“The goal is not to make it the new New York, the new London, or the new Paris,” he said.
He described his mission as helping artists from across the cultural spectrum “make a living from their art and craft” and “show what they can do beyond the borders of Athens or Greece”.
“We should make Athens the best version of itself,” he said.