Art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos donates hundreds of works to museums around the world

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

The works will be distributed 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 from 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 act of extraordinary generosity”, while Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim, said the donation would “facilitate a rich expansion of the stories that can unfold in our collections. permanent”.

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 budding art lovers”, for whom the “lingua franca” of art was “needed more than ever in these dire circumstances. “.

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

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

This decision in turn prompted further thought: “At some point, when you build a large collection, you say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? What does it talk about?’ Suddenly you have these 300 works. . . and you think, ‘Is this an investment? Is it a legacy for my heirs? For my ego? And how big is my ego?’

“And for me, the answer became very clear: these are works that are made by creative people, and initially they belong to them. And then a work only has meaning if it interacts with a spectator. So who am I? I consider myself a temporary guardian. And now I’m giving them back to the public, to give more people the opportunity to get 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 mostly obsessed with rock music and movies, and few people knew about the mysterious ways of contemporary art. “I was very in rock music,” he replies eagerly. “When I was 12 or 13 years old, my father brought back from his travels the albums of Uriah Heep and Atomic Rooster.” It was a trip to Munich and its Glyptothek museum shortly after that sparked his interest in the visual arts. “I froze in front of the paintings for hours. It was in there somewhere,” he said, pointing to his heart.

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

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

A body print 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 Cologne Art Fair in 1993 (“I was one of the first victims of art fairs, which I stopped be quite early in my collecting career,” he says wryly). I ask him what prompted him to collect contemporary works, rather than something more traditional, and he says that’s how he asked himself questions: “What art, how can it be useful, how can it be pleasant? Is it or is it not impacting society, or is it predicting what is going to happen, or is it driving something? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an exciting process.

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

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

The D Daskalopoulos collection was officially established in 1994 and has supported a number of museum initiatives around the world, including the establishment of curatorships at the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art . In recent years, he has founded a cultural center, NEON, and a think tank and research group, diaNEOsis, in his native country.

Bottles of wine hanging upside down on a sparkling slab
‘Exhuming Gluttony: A Lover’s Requiem’ (2006) by Wangechi Mutu © Erika Ede

I ask what determined the choice of museums for its donation. “I wanted to give maximum visibility to these works with as global an audience as possible,” he replies. “And then there was the practical consideration: there was no one place that could take all that work.”

Wasn’t he tempted to build his own museum, which is a bit common these days? “I never liked it at all. For two reasons: firstly, having your own museum is like a mausoleum, and there is already one in the First Cemetery [in Athens]that my mother built for my family, and I didn’t want any other.

“Secondly, I firmly believe that a collection is a personal passion, and if you are not there, there is no structure that should try, or be able, to bring its own passion to life through the centuries. This is why it is important that these works go to public museums. They will be there in 100 years, when my name will be totally forgotten.

“They will be in a better position to judge the value of the works, because not all of them are necessarily like the ‘Mona Lisa’. In 200 years, some will never come out again, others will be permanently suspended somewhere. Museums can decide better than any private institution, and they will be able to put them in dialogue with the art of tomorrow.

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

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

Sculpture of the lower half of a woman made of pantyhose

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

Daskalopoulos says he hasn’t placed any conditions on the museums that receive his donation (“It means they don’t have to look at their contracts to see what they have to do”), but he hopes they co – participate in the preservation and preservation of the work. Donations to the Guggenheim and MCA Chicago must be co-owned. “I think they’re excited to work together,” he says. “It’s good to have different points of view on things.”

EMST and Tate will also collaborate on mutual loans and exchanges. He says the Greek museum is doing well after a “difficult” period and he is optimistic about the future of his country in general. “I think there’s a pragmatism, not just in government but in public expectations. We are progressing much better. »

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

Finally, he admits to feeling a certain sadness in parting with his collection, describing it as a source of great “psychological and mental wealth”. But his thoughts go to the works:[They] deserve to be out there, interacting with the world and creating emotions in others. So I’m glad that’s happening.

Norma D. Ross