A gallery of many dimensions

A playful exhibition, well timed to welcome spring, brings humor to the current art scene through the work of three artists: Constantinos Kakanias, Tassos Pavlopoulos and Yiannis Pavlidis. Held at the Kalfayan Gallery here in Athens, «Encounters,» the title of the exhibition, shows just one aspect of the kind of art represented by this multidimensional gallery. At the end of the week, an entirely different exhibition opens at the Kalfayan Gallery in Thessaloniki. Organized to reflect the Easter spirit, the exhibition puts on view Greek post-Byzantine icons, a field in which the Kalfayan has specialized for decades now. Dealing in a broad gamut that stretches from contemporary artworks through old masters, antiques and religious icons is what gives Kalfayan Fine Arts a distinctive position in the Greek gallery scene. Theirs is an eclectic approach that shows an appreciation for all periods in art but is also based on connoisseurship. Of Armenian descent, brothers Roupen and Arsen Kalfayan were born into a family of antique and art collectors that goes back a couple of generations. Their mother, an archaeologist, opened an antique shop in Thessaloniki in the mid-’80s, and the Kalfayans, who have the official and limited permission to deal in antiquities and icons (permission having been granted by the Greek Ministry of Culture), were among the founding members of the antique fair exhibition in Athens. In London at the time, Roupen was studying prehistoric archaeology of the Middle East and Islamic archaeology while Arsen was specializing in paper conservation. Shortly after their return to Thessaloniki they opened a contemporary art space (in 1995), and four years later began their operation here in Athens. Dealing both in the primary and secondary markets, they have the exclusive representation of contemporary artists such as Tassos Pavlopoulos, Lambros Psirrakis and more recently, Marios Spiliopoulos. Other collaborators include Edouardos Sakayan, Constantinos Kakanias and Miltos Manetas. Besides exhibits on contemporary artists, the Kalfayans have established an annual exhibition on Greek modern art. Works by artists such as Alexis Akrithakis, Thanassis Tsingos, Yiannis Spyropoulos, Yiannis Moralis and Nikos Kessanlis were part of this year’s exhibition. «Through these exhibitions we would like to show the continuity between modern and contemporary art and connect what is happening now with the works of the recent past,» Roupen Kalfayan explains. Also set on an annual basis is the exhibit on post-Byzantine icons. «We really think that icons are undervalued in the art market. It is amazing what one can buy with the same amount that one would spend on a contemporary artwork,» Roupen comments. The tight strictures and licensing requirements placed on owning and marketing icons is the main reason that discourages dealers from buying and selling religious icons. Drawing on their resources and motivated by an interest in all periods in art, the Kalfayans have also dealt in Greek late 19th and early 20th century masters (such as Constantinos Volanakis and Nikolaos Gyzis), a field in which international auctioneers have shown an interest in recent years (the annual Greek sales at Sotheby’s and Bonham’s are an example). The auctions, which began as a response to a demand that a mostly Greek public living abroad have for these works, have created further demand and stimulated competition in the field. «Today auction houses have ended up selling more expensively than gallerists. In recent years auction houses have become something like retail outlets, which is not what they were in the past, when their role was to sell to the dealers and not straight to the collectors. But auctions are now very much in fashion so everybody runs to them. There is always the incentive that a work might sell at a record price, but the problem is that the percentage of the auction house’s commission is really very high,» says Roupen. «There is also the problem that the guarantee of authenticity that an auction house provides usually expires after five years, which is not the case when a gallerist sells to his client. Also with the auction houses, if some kind of question comes up concerning the authenticity of the work, the customer has to prove it himself. Things are much more flexible and negotiable between professional gallerists and their customers. The relationship is more personal, more customized,» Arsen Kalfayan explains. The growing competition in the art market is one of the many signs of how art is increasingly becoming a commodity. «Most people do not approach art for the sheer pleasure of art but are concerned with profit. In the past, collectors were more of the connoisseur type,» says Roupen. «Nowadays, there are many patrons of the arts, but financial figures are very much something in their mind,» adds Arsen. As far as the Greek market is concerned, the Kalfayans believes that it is consistently expanding as new collectors are emerging and galleries becoming more professional. But they are also skeptical about the efficacy of the attempts – notably last year’s Greek representation at Madrid’s Arco fair – that have been made toward giving Greek art international exposure. Both Roupen and Arsen Kalfayan will agree that most of these moves are more about politics and lobbying, about advancing the interests of a clique. «With all that money having been spent at the Arco, we should really expect better results, like seeing more Greek artists being represented abroad. Moreover, if the Arco was such a success for the Greek galleries, I wonder, why is it that no Greek gallery participated in this year’s event?» asks Arsen. Strangely for a gallerist, the Kalfayan is also against the state subsidizing Art Athina, the annual Greek art fair. «Why should the Greek state keep spending money in order to support a commercial event from which galleries profit? Everybody raves about how the success of Art Athina is increasing by the year. With all this success, why isn’t the event self-supported?» Arsen inquires. Supporters of sponsorship coming from the private sector, the Kalfayans believe it is time for visual arts events, institutions or galleries to become more self-dependent and less reliant on political decisions and liaisons. They also believe that there should be a wiser distribution of money across art projects and better planning. «When in Thessaloniki one museum opened after the other, everybody was pleased, but now they all complain about meager budgets. Back then, I proposed that the two museums, the Macedonian and the State Museum, become one,» says Arsen Kalfayan. Compared to the past, the visual arts scene in Greece has of course changed for the better, and the Kalfayans will admit that with no reservation. There is more to see, greater variety and different angles. Kalfayan Fine Arts provides an example of this broader phenomenon. Run by two driven, educated people with strong beliefs about the field of art, it brings different perspectives to art and connects the art of the present with that of the past. «Encounters» at the Kalfayan Gallery in Athens (6 Kapsali, 210.721.7679) through 14/5. Greek post-Byzantine icons in Thessaloniki (43 Proxenou Koromila, 2310.231.187) from 16/4-14/5.

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