In his airy office in north Athens, Dimitris Daskalopoulos likes to point out his Ego piece that can easily go unnoticed on a back wall.
Seen from afar, the three letters integral to the painting are faintly discernible, but what the art collector takes particular delight in is how they disappear when seen at no distance at all. “Look,” he says, his eyes twinkling as he appreciates the work close-up. “The ego has gone, there’s nothing to see, nothing at all.”
The trick sums up the Greek industrialist’s mood. Three decades after he began assembling his internationally acclaimed collection – initially while running his family’s food empire – Daskalopoulos has decided to offload.
Few in the world of contemporary art have accrued so assiduously: Louise Bourgeios, Marina Abramović, Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Matthew Barney are just some of the artists whose works he has bought.
Determined that they have a future beyond his lifetime – and in tune with his conviction of sharing art with the public – the entrepreneur is giving away “the better part” of his collection. It is a decision with ramifications for art lovers on both sides of the Atlantic and public institutions set to benefit from the donation.
Of the 350 works by 142 artists that Daskalopoulos will part with, 110 will go to London’s Tate; 100 will be divided between the Guggenheim in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, with the rest being kept by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, EMST, in Athens. In scale and scope, few donations have been as generous.
For a man who admits that his gut instinct played a primary role in selecting pieces by some of the world’s best known contemporary artists, it is an extraordinary feat.
The gift also comes with the creation of a network of curators that he hopes will lead to a flourishing of exchange, especially between the Tate and EMST, at a time when contemporary art in Greece is showing dynamism and promise.
Other than that, no conditions have been set. Instead, it is the art and “the dialogue” he has attempted to create within the collection that has had the last word.
“I never felt like an owner of the works,” he explains with unexpected joviality. “The actual decision that I was going to give to the museums was taken at least eight or nine years ago. I always felt like a caretaker, a custodian of the creativity of other people.”
In any country, the gift would make waves. In Greece, whose culture has long been dominated by the glories of its ancient past, the donation has been magnified by choices that have also inspired awe. Daskalopoulos acknowledges that his collecting practices have been inspired by the writings of Nikos Kazantzakis, the Cretan author who spoke of the “luminosity of life” between the “dark abyss” before birth and the “dark abyss” after death.
From the outset, the collection has focused on the elemental. Representations of the human body as the vessel of existential, social and ideological struggle have loomed large. Underscoring the universal issues of the human condition, loss, angst, grief but also optimism, hope and the joys of life are constant themes in artworks that have exhibited globally.
But the collector has also given emphasis to large-scale installations and sculptures that public institutions could ill afford. Many, he says, would never fit in his home. “If you are collecting contemporary art, you cannot exclude [works] because they don’t fit in your house,” he laughs. “You should collect what artists make … my criteria was never what I could put on my wall and it was never buying hot artists. It was buying works that I thought speak well together and enhance the main message about what this collection is trying to explore.”
This month, 18 pieces – some requiring up to three weeks to assemble – were brought together in Dream On, a sold-out show in a former tobacco factory in Athens. It will be the first and last time that the majority, including works by Damien Hirst and Michael Landy, are seen in Greece. Most had been in storage in warehouses across Europe.
It is the prospect of the works being given a new lease of life that enthuses Daskalopoulos, who in 2014 established Neon, an energetic NGO with the sole purpose of expanding local appreciation of contemporary art and exposing young Greeks to it.
“They’ll be reborn,” he says, adding that his motive in donating the four museums was driven to great degree by the spectre of exposure. “They’ll become accessible to an even wider audience and receive the necessary care to be preserved for future generations.”
At 65, Daskalopoulos has spent close to half his life working on the collection. The donation might be the natural end of a passion that was, he says, never pursued for financial gain – but his interest in contemporary art, at least in the beginning, was not a given. Until his early 30s, it was traditional abstract Greek painting of the 50s and 60s that adorned his home in Athens.
It wasn’t until he bought a Rebecca Horn in 1994 that more modern works beckoned. “I slowly veered towards contemporary art because it was possible to collect, but then I got fascinated by it because it is the art of our times,” he recalls.
“The value of art lies in what is created in your heart and in your head. In that sense, my collecting was not from knowledge or from reading. It was from the gut, which is easier. You don’t have to read all this crap that curators and critics write.”
A titan of Greek industry, who headed the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises while the country was embroiled in economic crisis, Daskalopoulos tells how his father, Aristides, started the dairy business, Delta, out of a small store in Athens. It is a rags-to-riches story that the entrepreneur, who has run a financial services and investment company since selling the food conglomerate in 2007, has not forgotten.
He credits the arts with making him more curious, and a bolder risk-taker. “It moves you away from your own fixed ideas. That’s why I am so grateful to contemporary art.”
Daskalopoulos knows every piece in the collection. Giving the artworks away has not been easy, either emotionally or practicably – he personally bought 99% of them, and remembers how he felt when he first saw the objects.
Knowing that he will be around to get a taste of his commitment to civic engagement, and enjoy the future life of the works, is more satisfying than any sense of rupture. While donating to four museums in three countries on two continents had not been easy – the paperwork has been punishing – the idea that a private collection will soon become a public resource has been so much better than knowing much of it is hoarded in boxes.
“There’ll be exhibitions of the artworks, there’ll be artist rooms. There’ll be dialogues and there’ll be joint initiatives by the museums … so I will see these works being active while I’m still around.”
And if there ever was a rainy day there are another 150 pieces – not least gems by Robert Gober and Bruce Nauman – in his portfolio. His offices, on a suburban street, are furnished with works, including several US dollar pieces put up partly in jest because it is his financial services headquarters. “More, absolutely, is less, and less is more,” he nods, eyeing his Ego piece. “I’ve kept some works that I like to live with … maybe [there’ll be] a second wave of gifting some time later.”