The rays of Jeff Koons’ stunning new golden sun sculpture turn like the blades of a windmill when a breeze blows across the Aegean Sea. The sculpture, over nine meters high, stands on the roof of a small slaughterhouse on a cliff on the island of Hydra. The interior is transformed into a temple to Apollo, with the sculpture of the ancient Greek god of the sun, knowledge and arts at its center surrounded by a snake that moves all too realistically.
The works were the artist’s 80th birthday present to his longtime friend and collector of his art, Dakis Joannou. The Greek Cypriot industrialist is one of the world’s leading art collectors and founder of the Athens-based Deste Foundation. Due to Covid, the project was postponed for two years and no one knew what Koons was up to.
“The greatest gift Jeff could give me was the gift of first experience. I was completely blown away,” says Joannou of the first time he saw what Koons had prepared.
Over the last 14 years, Joannou and his Deste Foundation have invited some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists – Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, Kara Walker, Urs Fischer and Kiki Smith, among others – to take over the old slaughterhouse and convert it into their art space for a some months.
Joannou says he wanted to offer them “a challenge” by offering them a limited budget to create work for this unique setting. Making art a public good is essential for him. “You have to use art as a means of communication, not store it and keep it for yourself. For me, it’s not just about provoking a reaction, but above all about starting a conversation.”
The project was the culmination of decades of love for art. “My interest started when I was in school. I would buy all those Skira books that were printed in black and white back then with colored pictures glued on,” he says.
This interest led him to found the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art in Geneva in 1983, which supported exhibitions presenting artistic trends in Greece, Cyprus and Switzerland in the 1980s and 1990s. The main goal was to demonstrate the universality of contemporary art. “I was very interested in the ‘talk’ about art,” he says.
Becoming a collector hadn’t even crossed his mind at the time. “I was against collecting. I found it selfish to take art away from the public. I didn’t understand the concept of collecting at the time and thought it was all about earning trophies.”
A few years later, a frequent business traveler in New York, he would often stroll through galleries in the East Village with his friend Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Art Advisor at Citibank.
“It was May 1985 when we entered a small gallery and I was presented with this incredible piece,” he says, referring to “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” by Jeff Koons, a then-unknown artist. The work consisted of a basketball suspended in the center of a tank filled with water, seemingly defying the laws of gravity.
Joannou asked to see the artist before purchasing. He spent hours talking to Koons in his studio and, impressed by the artist’s way of thinking, eventually bought the piece for $2,500. From then on, Joannou continued to acquire pieces by Koons and his friends. “A few years later, I realized I had a collection,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that [‘One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank’] maybe I would never have become a collector,” he says.
The two men became close friends and when Koons ran into dire financial straits while creating his costly ‘Celebration’ collection in the mid-1990s, Joannou came to his rescue. But this relationship is not unique. The collector develops personal relationships with most of the artists he collects, such as Fischer and Cattelan. Before he acquires art, he likes to meet and get to know the artists. “You might see something that looks good and then talk to the artist and realize it’s just a decorative piece,” he says.
This changed his attitude towards collecting. “I realized it could be something very creative,” he says. “Someone told me that I’m not a collector of objects, I’m a collector of friends,” he laughs.
Joannou was involved in the family business in Cyprus early in his life. He started working in construction with his father in the late 1960s. When Turkey invaded in 1974, he and his family moved first to London and then to Athens, which led to an expansion of his business with construction projects in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. He also owns shares in several other companies ranging from shipping to real estate, a major distributor of Coca-Cola and hospitality.
At 82, he feels his generation of “traditional collectors” is dwindling and collecting has become more transactional. “Many collectors no longer talk about art, but about prices, how much they got or how proud they are of their bid,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about prices, I want to talk about values.”
Joannou lives with his art: his home is filled with pieces by Chris Ofili, Roberto Cuoghi, Judith Bernstein, Koons, Paul McCarthy and many others, and he is constantly changing his art and re-curating his own space. “When I have new ideas and want to express something different, I change everything accordingly,” he says. “If you put one painting next to another, it changes – this painting reads differently. That is what is exciting about the process.”
Joannou serves on the boards and advisory boards of major museums such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is a member of the International Council of Tate.
I ask him how important it is to keep his collection relevant to current social issues. “Although social issues cannot be removed from art, they cannot dominate. . . Art doesn’t work that way,” he says. “I want to be relevant, but at the same time I have to do what I feel like doing. If that’s relevant, time will tell, if it becomes irrelevant, it becomes irrelevant. What scares me is [a] trendy approach to art.”
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