Greek Business File, April-May 2020, No 125

By Lalela Chryssanthopoulou

Exhibitions and dialogues about Antiquity, Renaissance and modern art

In this exclusive interview professor Nikos Stambolidis shares his experience as director of the Cycladic Arts Museum for almost a quarter of a century and gives his vision for the Museum of Eleutherna and the archaeological site in the area in Crete.

The exhibition “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” that you organized last year at the Museum of Cycladic Arts stood out as one of the most memorable art events of 2019. Could you elaborate on your plans for 2020? What should we expect from the Museum at the dawn of a new decade?

The exhibition “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” indeed attracted a huge number of visitors. This came as no surprise to me because a large number of visitors had previously visited large-scale archeological and modern art exhibitions, for instance exhibitions with the universal themes of Love, Health, and Death or of Dali or Picasso’s sketches for Guernica.

What gives me great pleasure, apart from visitor attendance, is the love and the interest of visitors for the exhibition, for its ideas and its messages. For the way the combination of antiquities together with Picasso’s artwork were displayed, the texts and the exhibition’s substance and catalogue. It was so exciting and interesting to see people visiting the exhibition three/four or even five times, bringing with them their questions, their discussions and their friends. They reminded me of Aristotle’s quote: “All men by nature desire knowledge”. This is what makes an exhibition successful and, of course, the more people care about the substance, not only does the level of knowledge rise but the level of aesthetics rises too…

Three exhibitions coming soon

For the year 2020 three exhibitions are being prepared for display. One in the spring for Takis in collaboration with The Tate Gallery, London with which I’m not personally involved, and two more in the autumn. One will be held in the well-known Dolly Goulandris wing, and the other in Stathatos Mansion.

The first exhibition is the continuation of a previous exhibition. It is actually the second exhibition of the sequel “Barren Line”, which this time will include the small, border islands of the East Aegean: Kalymnos, Telendos, Patmos, Lipsi, Leros, Fourni, Agathonissi, Farmakonisi namely our small Greek Polynesia, the great majority of which were, in ancient times, connected to Miletos, situated on the coast of Asia Minor. In addition, we will go further north as far as the island of Psara. The exhibition, in collaboration with the Ephorate of Antiquities of Dodecanese, the Ephorate of Antiquities of Chios, and the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities references several shipwrecks in this area, and similarly to the previous exhibition, involves the meticulous and careful work of my long-time associate Giorgos Tassoulas.

The second exhibition is entitled: “From Archaeolatry to Philhellenism”. Under the supervision of Fani-Maria Tsigagou, it is the introduction to the celebrations for the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution of 1821, with prerevolutionary and post-revolutionary objects from the amazing Thanassis and Marina Martinos Collection including paintings, engravings, fi gureheads, and everyday objects. In addition to these there will also be some statuary antiquities, such as the great Amazon by Phidias, which matches a similar fi gurehead. However, authorization from Italy is still pending. In this way, an entire period of history and the way in which European societies advanced from archaeolatry to Phihellenism can be properly understood.

How do you see the dialogue between “classic” antiquities and modern forms of art evolving?

As you may be aware, the Museum of Cycladic Art had begun quite early on to develop exhibitions and dialogues, not only about Antiquity but also about Renaissance and modern art.

I would like to highlight the Dali exhibition which was held in Stathatos Mansion in 1999, where the queues of people waiting in line reached as far as Vasilissis Sofi as Avenue, and the exchange of Picasso’s Sketches for the Guernica for the Cycladic Figurines that we sent to Reina Sofi a in Madrid in 2000.

The first dialogue between the ancient Cycladic and Greek art and the artworks by Brancusi, Moore, Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, and Hepworth took place in our museum in 2006, courtesy of the Stavros Niarchos foundation.

The intensity and the development of similar exhibitions – the sequel “Divine Dialogues” – Cy Twombly and Antiquity and Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay derives not only from the renowned approach of the President and the Governing Board of the Museum, but also from a substantial and scientifically documented collection that requires knowledge, imagination, combinatorial reasoning, and a different aesthetic view from the curator of each exhibition to create something that the visitor’s infallible criteria can conceive purely.

You have been at the helm of the Cycladic Arts Museum for almost a quarter of a century. How has the Museum evolved over this period of time? What are your goals for the future?

This question brings back so many memories! My fi rst meeting in 1992 with the dearly departed Dolly Goulandris when, together with the master George Despinis, Angelos Delivorias and the sculptor Stelios Triandis, we debated about whether the Getty Kouros that came to the Museum of Cycladic Art was authentic or not. Since then, and until 1996, the dearly departed Dolly Goulandris made every eff ort to bring me to the Museum of Cycladic Art as a director, and she finally managed to convince me when she made a compelling argument: “you will make your dreams come true”. It’s going to take me too far afield to talk about this creative quarter of a century (1996- 2020) in detail here, but you can read about this life experience in a book I am writing. You all know more or less what happened. How the small private museum – despite all the difficulties – has been transformed. And I don’t mean the observable things, which undoubtedly do matter; I mean the silent, substantial ones that build a museum’s history. In short: my eff orts, my worries, all the people and my colleagues without whom not many significant achievements would have been possible, namely this little beehive in the basement and on the ground floor of the Stathatos Mansion, where the honey of knowledge is produced, because as I used to say, “the goddess lives in the basement”. And the goddess is nothing but a vision that came to life, but with a human-like face. The museum, like every cultural organization, is foremost its people and its human relations within the context of a real and creative process. So, don’t expect me to explain everything here, just research how the museum used to be and how it is now.

As far as the future is concerned, I could easily spend endless hours trying to analyse various ideas, exhibitions and programmes, some of them feasible, others not, but nevertheless possible. May I remind you that many unmovable artefacts of Antiquity, The Renaissance or the modern age have travelled nowhere except to our Museum, or began to move around after having had our museum as their first destination. However to cut a long story short, I would like to reiterate the ancient Greeks’ favourite quote “Men’s wishes are different from what God orders”. Time will tell…

How do you combine the demanding job of directing a dynamic museum with your academic activities in the University of Crete? Why did you decide to lead a private museum in the first place?

This is a frequently asked question. Please allow me to begin by answering the last part of your question. The wise legislator sees to it that a professional can work in various fields related to his own discipline, either in the public or in the private sector. And I believe that this is due to the fact that nothing but good can come from the transfer of knowledge and experience from one sector to another, provided that certain limits are set in favour of science and of society.

On the one hand, university teaching that transforms knowledge into wisdom is essentially a transfer process which shapes the education (not merely the training) of the new generation, producing highly educated citizens. On the other hand, the teachers and the professors are being taught by the new generation with their own way of seeing and thinking, and we renew our own points of view and our thoughts. As mentioned earlier, this is where rational thinking applies. Whatever is being taught in a university, you teach it in other ways to the visitors of a museum, to people of different ages, to both Greeks and foreigners. You teach ways in which to see things, to reflect, to admire, it is a matter of imparting knowledge and aesthetics. The museum is also the cult place of the Muses, of all Muses. I remember the inscription on the colonnade of the School of Philosophy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki “Sacrifice to the Muses and the Graces¨ – pay back what you have received as gifts to the other people, to society. Besides, archaeology is a public good. Consequently I consider both the university and the museum as communicating vessels.

A dynamic museum

A dynamic museum is not only its facilities, its walls, the exhibits, the museum shop or its coff ee bar. To make a museum dynamic you need to create it, piece by piece, build it through the course of time, with care, through your own endeavours – the sweat of your brow and of your soul. You set a target, you concentrate on your targets and you set higher and higher standards, as the poet says: rise a bit higher, in this way you raise others with you too. This is not done alone, nor can you do it alone. You chose your partners, your co-creators, you inspire them and they inspire you. You create in tandem. Nowadays so called “management” is not merely “numbers” and “development”, as it is narrowly considered by professionals from other disciplines, the modern management begins with you, with your own behaviour, from your people, without whom nothing can be done. Not in words alone but in deeds as well. Eff ort on a daily basis; a piece of genuine life and giving.

What is your vision for the Museum of Eleutherna (which you lead) and the archaeological site in the area?

The archeological site and the museum of ancient Eleutherna represent a true love to me. An Eros or passionate love that always turns into Agape or selfl ess love. I will try to convey this to you through a Cretan folk song (mantinada) which a shepherd from the majestic mountains of Crete relayed to me the first time we met: Apollo’s wish was written in the path of your life that you make Eleutherna, your mistress and your wife

ELEUTHERNA, a must-see tourist attraction

My vision for both the museum and the archeological site is for them to become a place that must be seen and visited, or else you feel that something is missing. The Eleutherna, seen through the eyes of a person in love, is something you must experience. You can still feel ancient wind blowing through the hills and the foothills of Psiloritis, through ancient Ida, and the hill of the ancient city stands like a ship docked in endless green nature, where the excavated parts of the city are the pieces of an archeological park, like pieces of a body that you can touch throughout time, like the King of Asine in the verses of the Nobel winning poet, George Seferis, resting your fingers on the rocks.

The museum is nothing but an ark that preserves the identity of the ancient city, focusing on the truth of Homer’s verses in The Iliad and The Odyssey; the city’s timelessness and the charm of the transition from Paganism to Christianity.

The fact that just three years since its inauguration, the museum is the second most visited In Crete after the astonishing Museum of Heraklion, speaks for itself. It is the centre of the beating heart of the ancient city, the first museum of an archeological site on the island, and in its yards and in its theatre a range of cultural, literary and musical events have already been organized. Works are currently underway on the construction of a museum shop and a coffee bar in the original building, so that visitors can look up in awe at the cradle of Zeus at the top of Psiloritis, gleaming in winter through the snow, whereas in the summer visitors can enjoy the bright shining Pasiphaë, namely the moon, at sunset, as it rises from the East.

Visitors to this place can see and experience the humanity, not only ancient humanity but also the people of today with their smile, their innate hospitality and the products of their own labour. In other words, visitors can experience the heart of Crete, in the heart of the Eastern Mediterranean sea. An escape to the past in order to be able to think and have a clearer vision of the future ahead.

What are the new trends in the management of cultural goods and what is the role of the private sector?

Following the answers given to your previous questions, I think that I have provided you with the colours of the new management approach. After all, people are the creators and the recipients of creativity. As far as the private sector is concerned, what does private really mean? Private is a part of a community, provided that one is equivalent to many and many are equivalent to one. It is a matter of perception, education and creating a balance between ’me’ and ‘we’

You are a member of the Central Archaeological Council which recently decided to remove and re-introduce in situ the antiquities discovered near the “Venizelos” station of the Thessaloniki metro. What is your message to those who worry about those archaeological treasures?

I must make clear reference to the fact that we all feel concerned about the metro antiquities in Thessaloniki and, despite all rumors, I don’t believe that there are archaeologists, participants in the arts and culture or general citizens that don’t wish the antiquities to remain on site. Nevertheless, when you have to make a decision on an issue, on both an emotional and rational level, you have to consider the opinions of the competent people and entities who, in this case, are not only the archeologists but also the engineers, the architects, the economists, the stakeholders, the city, the country, and the entire world.

If the data submitted to the Council is accurate, you make your decisions based on the tangible elements, the studies, the accounting, the economic legislation, and various other factors. Nevertheless all these must be strictly supervised by the competent authorities regardless of the chosen option, in order to achieve an effective and risk-free outcome. As far as I am concerned, I have already expressed my opinion, and it is recorded in the Council minutes, which are public documents. There I have also included all of my questions and concerns regarding this project, to ensure that an entire city is not being held hostage.