Despite the headline-grabbing economic crisis, Athens is flourishing as a fertile stomping ground for the creatives. The long-awaited opening of major cultural venues, the rise of world-class street art and a flux of independent galleries are proof that creativity can make a difference even in the toughest of times.
In some ways parallel with its ancient past as the birthplace of Western culture, Athens is defining a new era for itself as a mecca for contemporary arts. Inspiration is ripe in this city of contrasts: social tensions remain high, demonstrations are dramatic, rich Mediterranean culture thrives and stunning landscapes are within easy reach. What makes 2017 even more inspiring for Athens’ growing art community is the arrival of the Documenta (documenta14.de) exhibition to the Greek capital. One of the world’s leading contemporary art events will be held outside Kassel, Germany, for the first time in its history.
Kolonaki, the city’s upmarket neighbourhood known for boutiques and well-to-do flats, is also where independent galleries are finding an audience. In the Depot Gallery’s (depotgallery.gr) whitewashed space, international and Greek artists straddle the line between art and design. At the Pulse (facebook.com/thepulsekolonaki), photography and contemporary art merge so well that a hotel and restaurant are in the works, designed with professional visual artists and art lovers in mind. The Elika Gallery (elikagallery.com) and the Medusa Art Gallery (medusaartgallery.com) also offer an innovative perspective from Greece’s most talented contemporary artists, including painting, sculpture, installations and photography.
Across the city centre, Metaxourgio is still in a state of limbo – neither commercial nor residential, but it’s both edgy and trendy. The up-and-coming neighborhood is awaiting its turn for full revitalisation; until then, refurbished art spaces breathe new life into once crumbling 19th- and 20th- century homes. Both international and Greek artists exhibit in the Breeder’s (thebreedersystem.com) contemporary space; the gallery’s hip pop-up restaurant, the Breeder Feeder, takes up the 2nd floor. At the Rebecca Camhi Gallery (rebeccacamhi.com), painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, drawings and engravings take turns in the spotlight. You can also admire avant-garde Greek and international art in neighbouring Psyrri district’s AD Gallery (adgallery.gr).
The street art scene
The end result of pent-up local creativity can be seen freely and easily around Athens, right on its skin – the public walls. Urban artists have stories to tell and messages to send, and they are louder than ever in Athens’ historic core: Monastiraki, Thiseio, Gazi, Psyrri and Exarhia. Yes, the street tag scribble is dizzying, but beyond that a new generation of artists and designers are mapping out their thoughts in the form of colourful, intricate and eye-catching murals. Some are comical, satirical or entrenched in social and political events, and they often make heads turn; so much so that Athens is being touted ‘the new Berlin’ these days. For an informed insight into the city’s vibrant street art, join one of the themed tours offered by Alternative Athens.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC)
The massive and impressive Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) – built by the foundation bearing the late Greek shipping magnate’s name and designed by famous Italian architect Renzo Piano – is the latest addition to the capital’s burgeoning art and culture scene. From February 2017, it is the new, state-of-the-art home for the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece, with a two-million-books capacity. The 170,000-sq-metre green park is already in full use, while temporary art exhibitions are scheduled to take over its gallery space and free public events will gather Athenians to enjoy music, readings and more.
National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST)
After years of bureaucratic and legal setbacks, the new building of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) ‘softly’ opened its doors to the public in November 2016. Not all spaces are filled yet, but visitors are welcome and, so far, impressed. Temporary exhibitions and collaborations with contemporary art museums around the world are the precursor to the much-anticipated official grand opening in the autumn of 2017.
A modern reconstruction of the historic FIX brewery, the museum is a confluence of glass, metal and interior spaces that glow with natural light. Acclaimed for what has been accomplished already, the EMST is expected to become one of the most popular contemporary art spaces in the world – Athens’ bold answer to London’s Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art all in one.
It’s a position that the EMST’s director Katerina Koskina is aiming to live up to in 2017, with the Documenta art exhibition set to take place here, in the face of a social crisis. ‘Art cannot resolve problems, but art can give you the ideas and messages to think about a serious issue – in a different way. For that, the EMST is just one of the many reasons to visit Athens today’, says Koskina.