Athens: city of new museums

The city of Athens was heavily transformed for the 2004 Olympics. Improvements in the road system and the city’s overall infrastructure were further complemented by new cultural venues. On the cultural front, the big winners were in the broader area of Thiseion and Keramikos. The Benaki Museum on Pireos Avenue inaugurated a new wing as well as an annex, the Museum of Islamic Art. At Asomaton Square, sculptor Alex Mylonas is now housing the artistic creation of a lifetime in a revamped neoclassical building. On one of Thiseion’s calmer streets, Herakleidon, Greek-American collector Paul Firos opened a small contemporary museum called «Herakleidon: Experience in Visual Arts.» Positive roundup A year later, the new Benaki wing on Pireos has established its reputation within the art-loving crowd through prominent exhibitions such as «Ptychoseis – Folds and Pleats: Drapery from Ancient Greek Dress to 21st Century Fashion» and its cafe and shop. The same goes for smaller venues. The Museum of Islamic Art and its permanent collection saw 22,600 visitors in 12 months, while the Herakleidon museum had 19,500 visitors at its debut exhibition, «The Art of M.C. Escher.» Anna Balian – who together with Mina Moraiti co-curated the current exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art, which features items from the permanent collection – is very pleased. «We are very proud of the fact that a new museum acquired a steady following so quickly,» Balian told Kathimerini. «We don’t take anything for granted and we are constantly trying to come up with fresh things in order to renew our visitor’s interest. Our more recent effort, for instance, is a small guide to the museum introducing our visitors to the idea of Islamic art.» According to the curator, the museum’s success is not only reflected in increased attendance, but also through a stream of donations of works, mainly from Greeks who lived in Eastern countries. Furthermore, Balian considers the development of a venue dedicated to Islamic art of prime importance, given that today the world of Islam is under attack. «People don’t necessarily need to be persuaded of the beauty and wealth of Islamic aesthetics to simply come through the door,» Balian said. «Those who are prejudiced will say, ‘Why do we need this museum in Greece?’ So far, however, our visitors, both Greek and foreign, have been very pleased. In the future, we would like to attract more Muslims who live in our country. As you know, there are many immigrants from Muslim countries living in the Keramikos area. Why shouldn’t they be aware of the existence of a museum featuring works of Islamic art?» Optimism seems to be the prevailing sentiment at the Herakleidon museum as well. «The Olympic Games brought a great number of visitors to the museum, but our efforts will continue,» museum director Nicholas Kondoprias told Kathimerini. «Our strategy includes distributing material on the museum to hotels, air carriers and ferries, as a means of informing those visiting Greece,» he said. «The work of Dutch artist Escher is well-known worldwide and that adds to the increase in attendance. The cafe area will be ready in September, and we are currently preparing our educational programs. Exhibitions of other artists, whose works are part of the museum owner’s collection, will be presented in the near future.»