‘Artworks Do Not Belong to Their Owners’: Dimitris Daskalopoulos Discusses Donating His Collection to Four Institutions

The NEON Founder discusses the logic of his major gift, the changing perception of contemporary art in Athens, and his belief that ‘art is a human right’

BY Dimitris Daskalopoulos AND Electra Soutzoglou in Interviews | 28 OCT 22

Electra Soutzoglou We are here, right now, at the Former Public Tobacco Factory that you and NEON have converted to an original exhibition space and the current exhibition is 'Dream On', which brings together 18 large-scale installations from the D.Daskalopoulos Collection by Greek and international artists, as well as a newly commissioned work, and 20 drawings. This year, it is also NEON’s (the Athens-based contemporary art foundation), tenth anniversary. What was your motivation for starting this?

Dimitris Daskalopoulos I created NEON foundation here in Greece, because I always feel art is a basic human need. Art is something that touches anybody even if they don't know it. NEON is dedicated to giving the opportunity to the Greek public to get exposed to contemporary art: young people, the initiated, the uninitiated, the lovers, and the haters of art. They all deserve the opportunity to get in contact with art. Art is a human right.

This fascination for art, which I also have for music, and I sometimes think it's a parallel that makes art more easily explicable to the people. Ask someone ‘Why do you enjoy listening to music? Why does it touch you emotionally? Why does it make you sing? Have they got any idea?' No. The same magic exists in art. It makes you feel, think, dream. I felt that very early in my life. And personally, through contemporary art, I think I’ve become more sensitive to human feelings, more curious about how the world works, more interested about what is to come tomorrow. And more committed to do what I can to contribute to this evolution, into this progress.

Annette Messager, Dependence/Independence, 1995/96. Photo: Angelica Ender
Annette Messager, Dependence/Independence, 1995/96. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES An incredible experience for me was the NEON exhibition — I don't even know if you can call it ‘an exhibition’, it was more like an experience — of the installation of Anthony Gormley works on the Greek island of Delos a few years ago. Being there and seeing how people interacted with this place and how his sensitivity to that place was created were such treasurable moments.

DD That is what makes me really happy. I come to our exhibitions very often, not to see the works themselves, but to see the people. When people come and say ‘I'm afraid, because I don't understand’, and then half an hour later, they see that they do understand. 

I particularly enjoy when families with young children huddle around an artwork and speak about it — even argue about it! Parents think their young kids won't understand anything. But art leaves a positive mark left in them, definitely.

Dimitris Daskalopoulos with Michael Landy, Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010. Photo: Angelica Ender
Dimitris Daskalopoulos with Michael Landy, Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES Over the 10 years of NEON, have you seen a change in the audiences for contemporary art here in Athens? And what role of organisations like NEON and other collector-led efforts played in this shift?

DD The more I look around and see what's happening overall, I think the impact we’ve had is even better than we had hoped for. We helped make contemporary art acceptable. There’s been a very healthy competition whereby many other private institutions are also doing things to attract the publics. The fact that Athens today is considered a vibrant art city is because all of this.

I think the contribution of NEON to this change was very significant over the years. We now have a public with new aesthetics about contemporary art, about the use of public spaces for art. This is all the more positive for happening in a country where the idea of culture used to be synonymous exclusively with our greatness in the fifth century before Christ.

ES It’s incredible to me now that if visitors come to see the Acropolis, they also always mention something that draws them in terms of contemporary art. I moved back to Athens three years ago and I've seen this shift only within this time. How do you think things will continue to develop from here?

DD There is a big public now that is going to push things forwards. I think they will demand more from all sorts of public institutions. I hope there will be a shift, because cultural activity is a big thing that requires the existence of the state and the support of the state and cultural policy. A healthy public demand for more support for contemporary creativity will shift more resources towards it. I think it is very important for our society to get in touch with our own contemporary creativity and become positive and proud of what we can do today and hope we can do more tomorrow.

Michael Landy, Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010. Photo: Angelica Ender
Michael Landy, Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES Separately to the efforts of NEON, you have a tremendous private collection. Your collection comprises of works by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Jannis Kounelis, Sarah Lucas, Lynda Benglis, Marina Abramović, and Matthew Barney…the list goes one. How did you begin collecting and has your conception of your role as a collector changed over time?

DD No, I say it's the same axis through all of those years. I ended up exactly where I thought it would, or at least it where it is really true to myself. I became an art lover being mesmerized by Ruben's paintings at the age of 12. From then I wanted to visit all the great artworks of humankind. When I started getting interested in buying some nice objects, for various reasons, I began with little collections of 17th century pipes. Then it was abstract works, to hang in my first house, when I built it. And finally contemporary art, which became a vocation — a second profession.       

Because I sold my company 15 years ago, some people think ‘okay, now he has money, so he started a collection’. But I was doing both things parallel all my life.


John Block, Palms, 2007. Photo: Angelica Ender
John Block, Palms, 2007. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES So, the D. Daskalopoulos Collection Gift. There was no way we weren’t going to talk about it. Taking the decision to part with and share with the world 350 works from your collection by 142 artists is definitely not something the art world comes across often. As part of The Gift, you have donated 110 works to London’s Tate, 100 works that will be shared between the Guggenheim in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and 140 works to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, EMST, in Athens. 

You have always described yourself not as the owner of the collection, but as its custodian. Still this must have been an emotionally challenging big decision to make, donating such a large part of your private collection to four museums in three countries on two continents.

DD I like to recite those exact details. Like a poem. Four museums, three countries… It’s part of the conception. But yes, as I mentioned before, this is a long-term development but along the same axis as always: and that same axis is that my belief is that art can touch and should touch everybody, that artworks are existing only if they interact with the public, that the artworks do not belong to owners…

ES They weren't made for one owner..

DD Yes. To start with the real owner is the artist, and then there are many owners: the people who interact with it and then carry something away or leave something onto the work with their own feelings. That for me was a clear path to deciding these artworks should go to public institutions, which are the ones that can keep them, expose them to the public, judge them over time, keep them in dialogue with the art of the future. No private institution can do that.


Damien Hirst, Greetings from the Gutter/Avoiding the Inevitable, 1994. Photo: Angelica Ender
Damien Hirst, Greetings from the Gutter/Avoiding the Inevitable,1994. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES I would assume it comes with a lot of logistic and practical elements. Can you tell us a little bit about how did the selection of the works in the donation come about?

DD I was happy to see that with my own team we could make a breakdown into three parts [the Guggenheim and the MCA Chicago will share a collection]. That was according to two criteria basically. Of course, we looked at what the museums we decide to give to already had. But as important was to make three groups of artworks that each could keep the spirit of the collection, its main theme and its character intact.

DD It was good to find that we had such coherent themes that even once it was broken into three parts, you could still tell three times the same story. The other part of this, as I call it, ‘poem’,  of four museums, in three countries and two continents, is that it was designed to create collaboration, synergies, bridges. I don't know what it's going to be finally realized because these are independent institutions: they have to work together. But for example, in this situation the two American museums are co-owners of the work, they have to work together to keep them, to preserve them, to show them. That's positive already for them. We have given our museum here a special relationship with Tate that they can use to learn, to collaborate, to borrow works to make exhibitions together.


Thomas Hirschhorn, Cavemanman, 2002. Photo: Angelica Ender
Thomas Hirschhorn, Cavemanman, 2002. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES You're a match maker, between museums and collections! So to EMST here in Athens, which I feel is really on its feet now, you gave 140 works, which is the largest amount of the three groups…

DD Yes, and with a lot of Greek artists in this group as well. This was important because I think during the years that they were trying to build the EMST  and set up and become operative they didn't really have a lot of capacity to follow the creative scene in Greece of the contemporary artists. Now they will have a big bunch of contemporary Greek artists, which I think will be very useful for our national region. As well of a lot of international works of an important caliber too.

ES It's been six months now since you announced the gift. How are you feeling? Because sometimes it's different when you announce it to when it really comes to it – a bit like a breakup…

DD It's been interesting. ‘Interesting’ is a very bad word which expresses exactly nothing. But it says a lot about the emotional process over the years of conceiving this donation: planning, deciding, announcing the gift. And only now experiencing the feeling. I said in the official announcement that I am parting with ‘with great sadness’ from this creation of mine. Because for me it was a creation. I'm not an artist. I couldn't create artworks. But I created a collection with a theme and a spirit. That creates emotions. But as I said I give it with great happiness to the public, where it really belongs. I think it's also a smart act, doing this while I’m still alive., so I can still  enjoy the nice moments associated with giving: going around, seeing new interpretations of the collection, seeing artwork talk with other art. I am looking forward to enjoying that in the next few years across these four museums.

I say I'd never talk about money or boast about my different way of thinking, but I do want to also want to stress that I am not claiming any tax relief and don't get any tax incentive for this donation.

ES And I believe you’re actually covering costs involved?

DD I'm covering costs and, also in the spirit of collaboration, I'm creating a network of curators that I will be funding in all four museums for a few years to integrate this gift into their collection and see how they can better use it.

ES You've thought of everything.

DD That is why I did not ask for anything. I said there are no terms in my gift. It's just the belief and the trust in the museums that they know how to do their job. Their job is to educate the public and they know best how to do it. The artworks they got from me are definitely good artworks by great artists. I didn't need to ask for anything. I think they will be used as they should be used by these serious public institutions.

Paul McCarthy, Tomato Head (Burgundy), 1994. Photo: Angelica Ender
Paul McCarthy, Tomato Head (Burgundy), 1994. Photo: Angelica Ender

ES You mentioned you are doing a book about the Daskalopoulos collection, the book together with your partner, to give people an insight to the collection, the anecdotes, the great journey. Is there anything else that you want to share for the next stage?

DD No, not at this stage. Just contemplating the past and the future with a certain sense of distance.

ES Calm maybe.

DD I've never stayed calm very long. No, something will happen very soon that will grab me by the neck and push me forward in some direction which will be fulfilling and fascinating.

‘Dream On’, a collaboration between the Hellenic Parliament and NEON, is on view at the former Public Tobacco Factory, Athens, Greece, until 27th November 2022


Main image: Thomas Hirschhorn, Cavemanman, 2002. Photo: Angelica Ender

Dimitris Daskalopoulos is an entrepreneur, patron and collector. He serves as Vice President of the Board of Trustees and Chairman of the Collections Council of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a member of the Board of Trustees of the MCA Chicago, the Tate International Council, the Leadership Council of the New Museum and is a founding partner of the Whitechapel’s Future Fund. In 2013, he founded NEON, a non-profit organization aiming to bring contemporary culture in Greece closer to everyone. He lives in Athens, Greece.

Electra Soutzoglou is a VIP Consultant for Frieze Fairs. She is the founder of Art Rug Projects, which focuses on  interactive collaboration with Greek and international contemporary artists, whose works are transformed into handmade rugs and tapestries as original works of art. She lives in Athens, Greece.