A dedicated art collector takes his time

Ever since the establishment in the 18th century of the cabinets des curiosités, the first exposition of private collections to the public, and the foundation of the Louvre in Paris as the first great public art museum, the notion of the museum has changed and expanded to an enormous extent. But the role of private collectors as key players in the overall industry of art is one of those parameters that despite various adaptations at different periods in time, has in principle remained unchanged. Private art collections and bequests by wealthy benefactors have helped shape museum collections, particularly in the United States, but have also exerted great influence as independent enterprises, a prime example being the Saatchi collection of contemporary British art and the gallery of the same name. Individual art collectors have also been central to the establishment of Greek art museums, with Antonis Benakis whose collection later formed the Benaki Museum and Alexandros Soutzos whose collection went to the present-day National Gallery as two of the most well-known cases. But it is only in the past two decades that the number of individual art collectors has increased and that private collections have focused on modern and contemporary artwork. Zacharias Portalakis, who is presently considered one of Greece’s few significant art collectors and whose collection of works by Nicos Baikas is now on view in the city of Iraklion, is part of this trend. The founder of a brokerage house, he began building his collection in the late 1980s; it now includes entire series of works by some of Greece’s most established artists, such as Nicos Baikas, the late Alexis Akrithakis, Despina Meimaroglou, Yiannis Bouteas, Giorgos Zoggolopoulos, Theodoros Stamos, Chryssa and Kounellis. There are also works by artists of earlier generations with Eggonopoulos and Tsarouchis among the most well-known names. Unlike some collectors who quickly turn works around, Portalakis believes that building a sound collection takes time, dedication and a steady, prolonged follow-up of each artist’s work. And unlike a number of his peers, he likes spending a lot of time talking with the artists and getting a feeling for their work. For Portalakis, collecting is a slow process in which personal involvement with each artist forms an integral part. It is not a mere investment but an enjoyment which also requires much work and responsibility. Portalakis prefers the work of established artists and does not pursue the work of young contemporary artists. And, although he has recently expanded his collection to include some American and European artists, his focus is still on Greek art and his main objective is bringing attention to its artistic value. Overlapping roles In a country where fine art does not receive sufficient institutional support, largely because of the lack of museums, major exhibits or the backing of art critics, private initiative could prove a great boon for the promotion of Greek art and for its recognition in the international art market. It could assist Greek art in receiving both greater exposure as well as a more stable market value. Skeptics often take issue with how private art collectors could use art to further their own influence, but the fact is that the private and the public sectors are increasingly overlapping and the role of art collectors is becoming more significant. Portalakis, for instance, is a member of the board of directors of the National Gallery. His firm has also sponsored exhibits mounted by state museums in the past and is still active in sponsoring art events. Drawing on this experience, he feels that private sponsorship of art should be made tax exempt. Defining the role of private collectors in the intricate art industry is a complicated business with as many positive as negative aspects. Portalakis seems to believe that art should, through private art collections, be circulated among the public. He feels that his role as a collector is to make his holdings accessible to the public and, with that in mind, he mounts temporary exhibits of his possessions for public view. (An exhibition of Theodoros Stamos’s work preceded the present one of Baikas, while future exhibits involve the art of Chryssa and Akrithakis.) He also hopes that the present exhibit will help educate the population of Iraklion on modern art, his ultimate wish being to someday donate his collection to the city which is also his birthplace. Other thoughts of establishing a museum in Athens are still distant, though Portalakis has already bought a large building in the district of Kallithea which will serve as a storehouse but could eventually be renovated into a museum open to the public. The urban crowd in Athens would almost certainly appreciate an accumulation of works by some of the country’s most important artists but it is Portalakis’s profound wish to ultimately donate his collection to Iraklion. It is this steadfast commitment to his own city, his indebtedness to his roots, as he calls it, that makes him such a distinctly considerate collector. Olympic Airways will now have to review its objectives. A decision needs to be taken as soon as possible on its privatization while Axon Airlines’ and other bidders’ business plans are now negated by the new developments.

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