Dakis Joannou Turns Art on Its Head
By Susan Michals for the WSJ
(July 8, 2011) Dakis Joannou is far from what you'd call a traditionalist. The 70-year-old Greek-Cypriot industrialist, who lives in Athens, made his fortune in hotels and construction, and he remains one of the largest distributors of Coca-Cola, spanning 27 countries, from Greece to Switzerland to Russia to Nigeria. His hotel empire encompasses the Athenaeum InterContinental in Athens as well Yes! Hotels, which includes the Twenty One and Periscope, while his construction company, Joannou & Paraskevaides (Overseas) Ltd., works extensively in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
But it is his large contemporary art collection, with works by Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Maurizio Cattelan and Barry McGee, that has perhaps brought him the most recognition. "Dakis is completely unique and really unlike any other art collector today," adds Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "To just describe him as a collector would not be fully accurate. His collecting started out as an intellectual project. Most collectors start out because they're buying work to put in their homes or for collecting reasons. His involvement is comparable to, in a different way though, the Arensbergs' involvement with [Marcel] Duchamp. [Walter and Louise Arensberg were dedicated patrons of the artist, and at one point, he even moved in with them]. Dakis's contribution to contemporary culture is on a completely different level than most people who are simply collecting and presenting the art."
The pivotal moment in what would become a lifelong passion began nearly three decades ago. "I started collecting in 1985, when I came across Jeff Koons' 'One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,'" Mr. Joannou recalls of the Neo-Pop Art sculpture depicting a basketball suspended in a water tank.
MOCA's Mr. Deitch was beside him that day. "Dakis was just stunned by Jeff's art. He realized that by getting involved with Jeff's work and the community of artists in New York at this time, he could create this anthology of contemporary culture, through art collecting."
Mr. Joannou vividly remembers that epiphany. "From then on, it was about meeting artists, developing personal relationships and collecting their work. It all started organically; there was not a moment of 'Now, I will start collecting.'"
Of all the artists Mr. Joannou has collected over the years, it may be his nearly 30-year relationship with Mr. Koons that has become the most famous. And last year, it also became the most contentious, when the "Skin Fruit" exhibition at the New Museum in New York, made up entirely of works from Mr. Joannou's private collection, raised questions within the art world. At issue was whether Mr. Joannou, as a board member of the museum, could remain impartial and whether the exposure his collection would gain in a major museum would raise the value of his holdings. Further questions arose about the board's hiring of Mr. Koons to curate the show, as the artist's work was included in the collection.
In response to the criticism, Mr. Joannou says, "Now about the perception and so on, I'm just not interested in that. I'm only interested in the essence of the show and I'm thrilled. I considered it an excellent show."
When art forms the subject of debate, it can be healthy, says Bruce Helander, editor-in-chief of the Art Economist. "At the end of the day, Joannou loves getting the work out there, through independent decision by a distinguished artist/curator in the forum of high visibility," he says. "Obviously the work on view in 'Skin Fruit' [would] become more valuable, but what difference does it make to an industrialist who's not in it for the eventual profits? Besides, who's selling?"
Mr. Joannou's involvement with the art community began in Greece in the 1980s, when he established the Deste Foundation (which in Greek means "to see"). The exhibition program promotes emerging and established artists, and was designed to explore the connections between contemporary art and culture.
"I first started the foundation in 1982, and we started doing shows and being engaged in the art dialogue. This was three years before I started my own collection," he says. "Deste is noninstitutional. It has no formal structure and does not have a long-term exhibition program," Mr. Joannou says. "We may have a few months without a show or we may have several exhibitions at any moment."
This summer, Deste is participating in "Investigations of a Dog," an exhibition organized in collaboration with the Foundation of Arts for a Contemporary Europe that will be on display at Deste in Athens through October. There's also an installation by artist Doug Aitken entitled "Black Mirror," a multichannel video and performance installation starring actress Chloë Sevigny at the Foundation's Project space on the island of Hydra. Simultaneously in Athens is Jakub Julian Ziolkowski's "History of the Eye" (2010) and Paul Chan's digital animation "My Birds… Trash… The Future," (2004), also at Deste's main location in Athens. All told, Deste is presenting six shows concurrently.
Over the years, Mr. Joannou has cultivated a community of artists and invested in them on a personal level, not just as objects in a collection. "I think the most important aspect is it's not about the objects in the collection," says Mr. Koons. "I'm sure that Dakis does feel that he's surrounded by things that are very, very beautiful…and they are. But first and foremost, they're really just symbols of the relationships he's developed, and the type of content that he finds in the work. I really know that it's about human life and human potential. That's really what's so meaningful to Dakis."
Yet, as entrenched as he is in the art world, Mr. Joannou has never wanted to be an artist himself. "To be an artist, first of all you need talent, then you must be prepared to be totally exposed—to put your inner self, your feelings, your emotions, your ideas out in to the world and be judged," he says. "You kind of become naked, I guess. I'm not bold enough for this and I don't have the talent, so this is something I could never do, unfortunately or fortunately."