A fixture on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list until he stopped acquiring art three years ago, businessman and entrepreneur Dimitris Daskalopoulos recently decided the future of his art collection, gifting more than 350 works by 142 artists to four institutions: 140 pieces will go to the Greek National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST); some 100 of them will be jointly owned by the Guggenheim and MCA Chicago; and 110 are headed to Tate.
Daskalopoulos, who started collecting in 1994, has long served on the boards of these institutions, as well as on the Leadership Council of the New Museum. He is a founding partner of the Whitechapel Gallery Future Fund, and is also responsible for establishing NEON, a nonprofit committed to bringing contemporary culture to audiences in Greece.
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What distinguishes his collection is its focus on large, complex, and difficult artworks, such as Helen Chadwick’s 1991 Piss Flowers sculptures, cast in bronze from patterns made by the material in their title, and Annette Messager’s sprawling 1995 installation piece Dépendance/Indépendance, which comprises fabric, photographs, ropes, fishnet stockings, stuffed animals, netting, plastic, and lamps. The following is condensed from an interview with Daskalopoulos conducted by ARTnews editor-in-chief Sarah Douglas at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice this past April.
My collection was about contemporary art from the beginning. It wasn’t about my home, it wasn’t about wealth creation. That’s why I was bold enough to buy all kinds of big works. I believe my collection became respectable because it has coherence. It never deviated into must-have artists or the new artist or the new star. It was very clear to me what to buy and what to reject. I always say, when you’re building a collection, it’s more important what you reject than what you buy. A few years ago, I stopped collecting when I came to feel that my collection says what it has to say.
Because my collection comprises mainly very large artworks, I—perhaps more quickly than someone who has 25 great paintings in their home—came quickly to a sense of responsibility for these artworks. I have given the bulk of my collection—350 artworks, all the most important—to the EMST, the Tate, the Guggenheim, and the MCA Chicago. I’ve kept some things that I love to live with. And I’ve kept some things that may eventually become a financial asset, or go into another gift or public benefit activities in the future.
As a collector, my starting point was always a particular notion that, although I was buying artworks and had title of ownership, I never felt I was the owner. I felt a respect for the artwork; I always bought artworks for their power of expression. I respect that power, and I think of the artist behind it, the human being who struggled, perhaps, or got inspired, and made this thing.
Another important value of mine is how I’ve always admired the interaction of human beings with art. As much as I look at artworks, I look at people looking at them, conversing with them, and conversing among themselves. Art is important to many people for unknown, magical reasons. That too is something that pushed me to the idea that I cannot own these works and just do whatever I want with them. When you put together an important number of artworks, I think you have a responsibility for their future. I think it is wrong to say, as too many collectors do, “I don’t care; my inheritors will figure out what they want to do.”
Ten years ago, I created a foundation, NEON, with two founding principles: it will not have its own space, and it is not about promoting my collection. It is about exposing the public, from Greece and elsewhere, to the challenges and ideas of contemporary art. That was my mantra. I avoided lending to the foundation from my collection, because I wanted it to be very clear what the foundation does: at NEON, we commission new artworks and borrow works from others with the purpose of making exhibitions for the people. It’s not about showing the artworks that are in my collection—though we did present one exhibition from the collection itself, and now a second one, currently titled “Dream On.”
As for my conviction that I didn’t want to have our own space, I had seen a lot of collector friends doing that. It is a very noble undertaking to want to show your art and open it up to the public, but I never felt it worked. I always felt there was an anxiety in these organizations to merely create something that is attractive, and to repeat something that is attractive if they have a success. I felt they were stuck in their own construction—whether a building, a museum, or whatever—shouting to the outside world, “Please come see, we have nice things here!”
Creating a private museum is a very expensive exercise if you want to do it right. You have to endow it—not just with money but with management capabilities. And my business background says that good companies and good foundations are run by the people who start them and are passionate. They are never run by boards or family. Those people lose track after a while—think of foundations that have no compass, no money, and no connections to the management originally dictated by the founder. You can then get situations where there are multiple legal issues having to do with trying to interpret the founder’s intentions long after they are dead. Trying to hear a voice from the grave is a grave mistake. The world changes.
And then, when you look at Greece specifically, my small country has its own contemporary art museum, which doesn’t need competition—it needs support. If you want work to be seen by people, and for those people to be kept in dialogue with other important art in a way that allows them to keep conversing with art that is yet to come, there is no better solution than public museums.
In the gifts I have made, there are not stipulations as to how often the works need to be on view. I have heard all the negative criticism of collectors who do that and of museums that accept those kinds of terms. It is something that irritates museums and the public and everybody. I’ve been on museum boards, so I know how tough it is for museum management to follow these kinds of rules.
And, anyway, it doesn’t fit with my character. Why would someone impose things on a museum? For egoism and personal vanity? When museums and curators who love the artwork feel the work belongs to them, they are more motivated to do things with it. They want to put it to use, to show it to the public, to encourage dialogue, to get new people and new ideas involved, instead of having to read a contract every month to see what they can or cannot do. I want to give museums and their audiences freedom to enjoy the benefits that artworks have to offer.
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Give and Let Live.”