CULTURE

Underperforming Athens Conservatory envisions better days

At its headquarters at the intersection of Vassileos Constantinou Avenue and Rigillis Street in the heart of the capital, the Athens Conservatory is making ambitious plans for the future.

Under the leadership of chief conductor Nikos Tsouchlos, the institution has hammered out a realistic feasibility study that could elevate this emblematic, if incomplete, white modernist structure designed by Greek architect Ioannis Despotopoulos into a state-of-the art cultural hub. The study foresees a combination of self-funding, private donations and funding from the European Union’s National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF).

Sitting in his office filled with artifacts and memorabilia amassed over the institution’s rich history, Tsouchlos speaks in a sober, substantiated manner that makes ideas sound cozy and feasible. He gives the impression that in spite of the numerous obstacles that have until now plagued the conservatory, it is about to flex its muscles and play a more influential role in the country’s musical education, the arts and – why not? – help bolster the capital’s image in the process.

Functional

The building is one of many that were envisaged by the late Greek statesman Constantine Karamanlis, who wanted to turn the area into a cultural park, and construction began in 1969. However, it was never completed according to the original plans and remains half-finished to this day.

Despotopoulos, one of the most studied Greek architects of the 20th century who had been taught by Walter Gropius in Weimar, created a rectangular building with a number of atriums and passages that add to its functionality. In terms of form, it easily ranks among the best modernist buildings in Athens.

“The Athens Conservatory is working hard to develop synergies in the field of classical music with educational institutions in Greece and abroad,” Tsouchlos explained.

“It is starting a new series of concerts and lectures. It is freshening up its programs and inaugurating a new scholarship program,” he added.

Forty children from poor families are already enrolled in the “Little Musicians” program. Meanwhile, the conservatory has inaugurated a dance school which takes advantage of the capital’s biggest ballet room, and at the same time it is developing an arts class for people with disabilities.

In addition, at a time when a number of orchestras and ensembles have been forced to close down due to the financial crisis, the Athens Conservatory is backing three separate arts initiatives: the Rosarte Children’s Choir, the Kyklos Ensemble, comprising prominent Greek soloists who have excelled in Greece and abroad, and the newly established Academica Athens Orchestra, which recently made its debut performance under the baton of Nikos Athinaios.

Ambition comes hand in hand with a desire to improve the terms of cooperation with the state. Furthermore, the planned move of the National Museum of Contemporary Art from the premises of the conservatory to its new home on Kallirois Street should free up thousands of square meters that could be used for a wide range of functions.

Culture hub

The Athens Conservatory aspires to become a cultural reference point for the capital with a key focus on the new generation as well as modernity – in line with the institution’s history and architecture. After all, this fine building is situated in an ideal location: near Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the National Gallery, the Museum of Cycladic Art and not far from the Benaki Museum and the Athens Concert Hall.

“This project is taking place thanks to the contribution of some of Greece’s most distinguished artists who teach at the Athens Conservatory under extremely adverse conditions,” Tsouchlas said.

“It is also taking place thanks to the generous support of our private strategic partners,” he added.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Greece’s Culture Ministry. On top of diminishing state funding and the problems caused by rampant red tape, the conservatory is plagued by chronic institutional snags whose resolution would be a great service to the institution and which would cost nothing.