A new home for Greek photographs

One of the most frequent arguments heard about artistic practice in Greece is that it usually incorporates the trends that happen abroad after some delay. For a country on the artistic periphery this is perhaps unavoidable, and even though communication has lessened the time gap, Greece still lags behind for reasons that, nonetheless, may often be well justified. This delay applies not only to artistic production but also to art’s infrastructure; and the prolonged lack of a museum on contemporary art has been, in this respect, a typical example. But at times when culture is rapidly expanding to become almost a fashion and museums are emerging in unlikely places, Greece was pulled along and finally acquired two museums, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens and the State Museum in Thessaloniki. The establishment of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography two years ago is another positive indication of change. It is a belated sign of appreciation for photography, a medium that was booming as far back as the ’60s and ’70s. Still, it is a start that may evolve into a creative venture. As usually happens, the museum came about through a combination of coincidence and the commitment of certain people in photography. In 1997, photographer and writer on photography John Stathatos organized a large exhibit that surveyed Greek photography over the course of two decades beginning in the mid-1970s (it was called «Image and Icon: The New Greek Photography, 1975-1995»). The exhibit was hosted by the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in the context of the Thessaloniki Cultural Capital events. A year and a half later the Ministry of Culture announced the foundation of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, and one of the first responsibilities that its director, Aris Georgiou, was designated to handle was a worldwide tour of the exhibit curated by Stathatos (the tour actually ended this year at the Ontario Royal Museum in Toronto). As director and founder of the Photo Synkyria, a photo exhibit since 1988, Georgiou made the organization of the annual exhibit another of the museum’s activities. (The forthcoming Photo Synkyria will spread all over the city and will begin in mid-February.) Expansion necessary The paradox is that, at the time, the museum existed only on paper, having acquired permanent housing only recently, some three years after its official establishment. It now occupies the second floor of a building which also houses the recently established Museum of Cinema and is one of the city’s converted port warehouses. The space capacity is, however, limited and as the museum’s permanent collection grows, expansion will be necessary to allow for a simultaneous display both of the collection and temporary shows. Despite these difficulties, the museum may gradually help boost Greek photography, especially its contemporary output. If nothing else, it currently stands as the State’s acknowledgement of photography as a distinct medium, an idea which germinated in the early ’90s but only gradually materialized. According to Stathatos, the first Greek minister that became systematically concerned with photography was Thanos Mikroutsikos. Under his cabinet, the ministry had a special adviser on photography and had helped organize a working party to propose and develop a cultural policy for photography. Moreover, Skopelos became a Center for Photography in 1997, in the context of the Cities’ Cultural Network (a cultural policy aimed at decentralizing cultural activities by selecting a number of cities to host exhibits in different fields of art) and a large annual photo exhibit was instituted on the island. Before that, much had already been done for Greek photography but only through private initiative. One pioneering venture was the foundation of the Photography Center of Athens in the late ’70s – two years after the magazine Photography was established – mostly by photographers who had studied abroad and sought a base at home. During the ’80s such ventures multiplied; the Hellenic Center for Photography was created (the annual Athens Month of Photography is since then one of its activities) and so was the Photographic Circle, another workshop and exhibition space for photographers. Diversity and growth Such initiatives helped pave the way for the foundation of the current museum. But in some respects photography is still rather elbowed aside by museums, as it forms a minor part (if that) of Greek museum collections. A bright exception is the Benaki Museum, whose photo archive documents the classics of Greek photography. Chronologically this equates to photography from the ’30s until the ’50s and includes the work of photographers like Voula Papaioannou, Nelly’s and Spyros Meletzis. The angle, however, is a retrospective and more historical one which leaves out the contemporary generation. This is a gap that the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography could substantially fill. «New Images,» the exhibit which is currently on, for example, consists of works from the mid-’90s to the present, all by contemporary, young artists. In a way this comes as a continuation of the «Image and Icon: The New Greek Photography, 1975-1995» (the exhibit which inaugurated the museum) and, like the one before it, is also curated by John Stathatos. The point of the exhibit is to show the kind of diversity that exists in contemporary Greek photography, but to also point to the medium’s growth in Greece during the past decade, especially since photography has become an independent and specialized area of study. (That said, the institutions of higher education in this country still seem to treat photography with a lingering bias, which explains why photography is still not a specialized area of study at the Athens School of Fine Arts.) With «New Images,» the Museum of Photography is making a statement both about Greek photography but also about its own targets. A number of the works included in the exhibit will be bought by the museum to form part of its permanent collection, which with luck will grow to help establish contemporary Greek photography and gradually document its course.

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