Greek billionaire Dimitris Daskalopoulos to convert Athens Tobacco Factory into a Cultural Centre

Dimitris Daskalopoulos,
Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the founder Neon. Credit: @diaronique photo by Trevor Leighton

World-renowned Greek art foundation Neon, established by billionaire financier and art collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, will convert Athens’ historic Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory into a venue for a contemporary art exhibition called ‘Portals’ next year.

Built between 1927 and 1930, and designed by civic architects Pavlos Athanasakis and Antonis Ligdopoulos, the Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory was declared a historic monument by the Greek Ministry of Culture in 1989.

Renovations on the property began in 2000, but efforts were slowed by the Greek financial crisis of 2009.

Comprising a city block, half of the building is currently home to the library of the Hellenic Parliament.

The Neon funded conversion of the remaining half of the premises into a cultural venue will cost €1 million ($1.2 million) in renovations.

The exhibition and conversion of the space will coincide with the bicentennial celebration of Greece’s War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 that led to the foundation of the modern Greek state.

The Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory
The Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory, Athens. Photo ©Efi Syrigou, courtesy of the Hellenic Parliament and Neon

Dimitris Daskalopoulos. The Greek billionaire behind the €1 million conversion of the Tobacco Factory into a culture venue.

Dimitris Daskalopoulos established the non-profit contemporary Greek art foundation Neon in 2013 with the purpose of bringing art to the public through providing much-needed support to the contemporary art scene in Greece.

Daskalopoulos is an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the Greek food industry. Born in 1957, he was the principal owner, Chairman and CEO of Delta Holdings/Vivartia SA, Greece’s largest food conglomerate from 1983 to 2007.

Founder and Chairman of DAMMA Holdings SA, a financial services and investment company, Daskalopoulos served as the Chairman of the Board of the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV) for the eight consecutive years between 2006 to 2014. He is SEV’s Honorary President.

From 2013 to 2015 he served as BusinessEurope’s Vice President and he is the founder and Chairman of diaNEOsis (2015), a research think tank in Greece, which commissions studies and makes policy proposals on the major social and economic issues in Greece.

Daskalopoulos is a trustee of the Guggenheim Foundation as well as chairman of its collections council, a member of the Tate International Council and the New Museum’s leadership council.

Daskalopoulos developed an early aesthetic curiosity at the age of just 12 when he began to visit museums.

He bought his first work of art whilst travelling through Thailand with his parents at the age of 17 – a statue that he carried with him under his arm for a week as it didn’t fit in his suitcase.

Before long he developed a “collecting vocation” which  became “a way of channelling  his own creativity”, as he told B Beyond magazine in a 2018 interview.

Daskalopoulos’s ensuing collection has been the basis for exhibitions at the Guggenheim, Bilbao, the Whitechapel, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Athens-based Daskalopoulos says that he hardly lives with any of the nearly 500 works he has collected over the past twenty years.

“Most of the collection is large installations and sculpture. I’d have to move out to put even a couple of them in my home,’ he told artnet.com in 2014.

Dimitris Daskalopoulos
Dimitris Daskalopoulos Credit: @bbeyondmagazine

Neon. The not-for-profit contemporary art foundation bringing art closer to the people of Greece.

Since its inception, Νeon has been realizing the aspirations of its founder to bring contemporary art closer to the public, collaborating with cultural institutions to make use of venues that often remain untapped.

“Νeon’s mission is to highlight these venues of historic value, and bring them to the forefront of cultural activity in an effort to enhance the citizens’ everyday experience through encounters with contemporary art within the city,” says Daskalopoulos.

Neon completed one such transformation on behalf of the government at the Athens Conservatory in 2016.

The renovation transformed a basement, which had been abandoned for forty years, into an exhibition space.

Neon funded the €180,000 refurbishment after which the space remained under the cultural programming of the Athens Conservatory, a music and drama school.

“Νeon, in keeping with its principle that ‘our space is the city’, revives one more unknown space of Athens,” Daskalopoulos in a statement issued at the time.

“When I first saw this abandoned venue, so full of potential, I considered it my obligation to undertake its restoration. It is a great joy for me that our refurbishment program has resulted in a new cultural venue which we are now handing over to the public of Athens,” he said.

“I hope that at this adverse juncture, the exquisite venue will be a positive contribution to the Conservatoire’s ambitious program of cultural activities.”

Νeon has organised public exhibitions and contemporary art events in Athenian landmarks including the Gennadius Library and the French School at Athens, and in archaeological sites including the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora and Kerameikos Cemetry.

The art foundation also staged a public show of sculptor Sir Antony Gormley’s work amidst the ancient Greek ruins on the island of Delos last year.

‘Portals’. The inaugural exhibition of the Tobacco Factory.

Once renovations of the Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory are complete, the debut exhibition ‘Portals’ will feature work by over 40 of some of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists from Greece and abroad, including Michael Rackowitz, Danh Vo, and Glenn Ligon, from June to December, 2021.

‘Portals’ will be curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Neon director Elina Kountouri and will be showing from June to December 2021.

Daskalopoulos Tassoulas Kountouri Kafantaris
Dimitris Daskalopoulos, the founder Neon; Constantine A. Tassoulas, president of the Hellenic Parliament; Elina Kountouri, director of NEON; and Fanis Kafantaris, from Neon’s exhibition design department, inside the Lenorman Street Tobacco Factory, Athens. Photo ©Efi Syrigou, courtesy of the Hellenic Parliament and Neon.

The venue “is remarkable for its deep economic, political, intellectual, and historic roots,” says Grynsztejn in a statement.

“Contemporary art thrives in a context so profoundly resonant; it marries the past to the present while reconciling our prevailing paradoxes and pointing to the future.”

The exhibition hopes to replicate the success of a show staged by the Greek state at La Boétie art gallery in Paris in 1919, during the peace conference held following the conclusion of World War I.

“Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos inaugurated an exhibition of 200 paintings and sculptures by the ‘Omáda Téchni’ (Art Group), an association of young Greek artists of the time who were linked to the avant-garde and Modernism,” said Hellenic Parliament president, Constantine A. Tassoulas.

Like the historic show at La Boétie art gallery, ‘Portals’ aims “to highlight how Greece, its history and its prospects inspire the contemporary, domestic, and international avant-garde.”

After the exhibition ends, Neon will very generously gift the venue back to the Greek state for future use as a permanent cultural centre.

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