Ambitious plans to realize Alexandros Iolas’s vision

One of the most fervid wishes of Alexandros Iolas was to bestow his collection of antiquities – a rich and rare compilation from eastern and western civilizations – to the Greek state. It was with the same enthusiasm that he also hoped to donate his estate in Aghia Paraskevi to the local municipality and turn his home, together with its rich collection of contemporary art, into a state-owned museum that would bear his name. In life, Iolas never saw his wish fulfilled. Ironically, in fact, he was accused at various times of illegal trafficking in antiquities, an accusation which, however, was never substantiated. The Iolas case was veiled in mystery and soon passed over in silence. Whether out of negligence, procrastination or false calculations, the Greek state ended up missing out on what was a rare and inestimable collection. It also relinquished an opportunity to acquire a museum of modern and contemporary art which, because of its owner’s clout and prestige, would have attracted international attention to Greece. Iolas died in bitterness, his collection was looted or dispersed by his heirs across the world and instead of a museum, his now-ravaged house ended up being a sad reminder of past glories. But his initial wish was never fully forgotten. Even before Iolas’s death, Nikos Stathoulis, an art critic, owner of the Downtown gallery (one of the first «alternative» galleries in Athens) and author of a biography on Iolas, has been fighting to make the Alexandros Iolas museum a reality. Stathoulis met Iolas in the early 1980s when the latter asked him to write his biography and also commissioned him to write a second book on his life, which, both agreed, would be published at a certain point after Iolas’s death (release of the second book is expected in the near future). Stathoulis experienced from close-up episodes in the life of this gifted man, his dream of donating a museum to the Greek state, and his consequent disillusionment. Since then, he has tried to reinstate something of this original wish. Equipped with a clear sense of Iolas’s ideas on art and an understanding of his personality, Stathoulis has been working toward the creation of a lively, dynamic museum that will house a prestigious collection while also carrying Iolas’s legend. Stathoulis has helped the Greek Ministry of Culture realize the importance of buying the estate from its present owner, Spyros Georgiou, a civil engineer to whom Iolas’s sister sold the property for 500 million drachmas (1.46 million euros) around seven years ago. Once in the state’s possession, the plan is for the estate to be handed over to the Municipality of Aghia Paraskevi for hosting cultural events, which is roughly what Iolas wanted to do with it while he was still alive. (He had also bought four acres on a site located across from his estate and donated them to the municipality for the purpose of a public park, and commissioned large sculptures for the park, which, however, were never placed in situ). Rather than turn the estate into a local cultural center, however, Stathoulis is opting for a sophisticated, international museum on modern and contemporary art modelled after the vision of Iolas. The museum’s art collection will consist of artists’ donations and works on loan from major foundations and institutions worldwide, such as the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Dominique de Menil Foundation in Texas. Stathoulis has been in constant contact with such foundations and museums internationally as well as with artists that worked with Iolas. Iolas’s legendary name and the respect it commands have already sensitized people in the arts internationally to help toward realizing the museum. Coupled with Stathoulis’s commitment and sophisticated vision, this is how works of great artistic worth – similar to those by Magritte, Warhol, Matta, Niki de St Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and De Chirico – may become accessible to the Greek public. The museum is also planned as a dynamic, lively institution that will promote the works of young artists. According to Stathoulis, this sense of dynamism comes close to Iolas’s vision. Almost two decades down the road, the potential for the Alexandros Iolas museum seems brighter than ever. For the past five years the current mayor of Aghia Paraskevi, Antonis Sideris, has been a major supporter of the project. During the past month, Stathoulis, together with Sideris, have drawn up an honorary committee for the museum: artists Takis and Pavlos, director of the Benaki Museum Angelos Delivorias, and Niki Goulandri, founder of the Museum of Natural History, are among the members that make up this eminent committee. They have responded enthusiastically to the idea and so have people in the arts internationally, such as the director of the National Museum of Modern Art of the Centre Pompidou, Alfred Paquement, and Jack Lang. The fact that the project has the support of an eminent committee may help resolve the major problems that hinders the museum’s establishment, namely that the property (around seven acres in total and a total of 1,400 square meters for the house alone) has still not been bought by the government. Back in 1998 and mainly through Stathoulis’s concerted efforts, Iolas’s home was declared a listed building. Shortly thereafter, the land was deemed suitable of expropriation. Moreover, plans were made for including the museum project in the Cultural Olympiad budget, but they never came through. In 2003, a purchase price of 9 million euros was decided for the property. The government guaranteed 4 million euros out of the total price, with the remaining 5 million still pending before the property becomes state-owned. Luckily, things look positive and there are good signs that the government will actually come through with the payment. When that happens and the property becomes state-owned, Stathoulis and his team will start working on making a dynamic, international museum. It will be a tribute to Alexandros Iolas and, potentially, a substantial contribution to Greek cultural life.