(THIS ARTICLE IS MACHINE TRANSLATED by Google from Norwegian)
Before, they were on the list of things to do on a rainy day, when all palaces, squares and attractions had been seen and photographed. But then the museums have ended up at the top of the list of places you want to visit. In one way or another, it became top priority when visiting a country, a city or a region.
These dusty rooms, with air that has been stagnant for years, and where you could hear a pin drop, now have hordes of visitors. They have shops and cafes, famous curators and press teams, and they appear in every travel and lifestyle magazine and TV show.
Stars: architects and curators
This change, or cultural revolution, some argue, started in Paris, Madrid, London and Bilbao before reaching Beijing and Shanghai, then sunny Los Angeles and San Francisco. From the Louvre to the Thyssen, from the Guggenheim to the De Young – the humble public or private gallery where paintings and drawings used to hang on dimly lit walls, and where statues looked you straight in the eye, was now hip and obviously on the way up the popularity curve.
Architects became famous for designing new great museums, and museums became famous for being designed by a star architect. The curators, who for decades had remained in the background and hidden in gray offices with zero public presence, suddenly stood side by side with film stars and politicians (and became stars themselves).
As the art market grew, and speculative prices pushed art to become a major investment, and as having a collection became a new playground for the rich lounging in the San José Valley or splashing in the Rhine at Basel, museums began to get bigger and bigger, and their budgets and fundraising events became a topic of public conversation.
Great Britain and the United States
One could say that this tendency began much earlier in Great Britain and the United States with 'gifts' and donations from generous families such as the Morgan or Vanderbilt, Du Pont or Rothschild empires. Before, it was the 'gift' that was important, not the house that was built to accommodate it.
The small-scale museum became a Greek institution.
As the buildings became the artistic hallmark that everyone wanted to talk and write about, and the collection itself was almost forgotten, most small-scale museums and galleries, mostly located in cities or regions, were forgotten and cast aside.
These places, which for generations had been important learning institutions for thousands of children and adults, suddenly had neither the money nor the public to support them – nor an architect interested in reviving them for a pittance.
Museums not designed and pushed by architects like Zaha Hadid or John Pawson, not featured in a Condé Nast or Monocle report, and not generously supported by luxury groups plastering advertising campaigns on their shiny walls or glass windows (and gift shops) – turned into small-scale museums almost like an endangered species.
Small in Greece
But some countries have made other choices. Greece, which has long been perceived as chaotic and unruly by most, and which has not been particularly interested in being taught by anyone, has made a point of sticking to the small format.
Admittedly, the country – due to several disasters – has not had the scale of magnificent buildings and boulevards that many consider a cultural treasure. Most of Greece has tended to be on a smaller scale, as money was scarce and they had built the most extraordinary temples and theaters already when most others were building cottages on the cliffs. They had done it this way before, and the old buildings stood the test of time.
As the buildings became the artistic hallmark that everyone wanted to talk and write about, the collection itself was almost forgotten.
The country also has no need to reinvent the future (or forge its luck with Gucci-sponsored bags). As such, the small-scale museum became a Greek institution that many should copy and study – and try to understand.
Faced with the question of whether what matters most is the collection and the program of activities (since we tend to forget that museums consist not only of static or changing collections, but also of vital cultural and social programs), many Greek institutions understood that a small-scale frameworks can also mean a full calendar of initiatives, admittedly less expensive, but more engaging and effective.
Here, the Benaki Museum, Goulandris, the Cycladic, and even the nostalgic home of Yannis Tsarouchis, are for the local community something completely different from the star-studded museums – and without the ticket queues. You may not hear about them on the news or in podcasts, but they play an extraordinary role in the cities where they were built. The Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation, for example, is a simple home and studio in a suburb of Athens that showcases the work of a true master, without huge installations and event gimmicks – which works just fine for students who want to learn the subject where it originated. The real problem (and dilemma) is that without the gimmicks and public attention, there is hardly any money. And the operation of a museum, even if it is small, requires a significant budget.
The Gulbenkian family
Another example is the artist Yannis Pappa's former studio. It is located in a residential area of Athens where you have to walk a lot and meander around to find it (part of the charm). Inside the studio, which stands almost as he left it, we find an artistic treasure trove of casts and bronzes, pencils and brushes, cleaning supplies and craft tools.
The family still enjoy their coffee and cake on Sunday mornings while at the same time hosting the visitors who come for a free look. During a recent visit, we ended up talking about the Gulbenkian family. The conversation about Calouste Gulbenkian (who created one of the world's leading art foundations thousands of kilometers from where he was born) with people who knew what he did, and how, was priceless.
Art school students come there every week to surround themselves with both theory and technique, and are surrounded by a life lived to the fullest, in a house that could tell a story or two. The building and garden, which once hummed with activity, now hum with creative energy and conversation.
The Benaki, a museum and foundation housed in a few buildings around Athens, has almost as many exhibitions annually as the Guggenheim Museum, and is doing just fine.
An artistic treasure trove of casts and bronzes, pencils and brushes, cleaners and craft tools.
In recent years, it has managed to bring Joan Leigh Fermor, John Craxton, Yannis Moralis and many others to its small rooms, where neither locals nor tourists need to queue for hours or walk like turtles through the corridors.
Also, many artists seem to like small relationships, preferring to see their works in more intimate settings – just look at the recent Brice Marden exhibition at the Cycladic Museum or the Jeff Koons installation in Hydra's small former slaughterhouse (supported by DESTE- the foundation).
Private collectors like Dimitris Daskalopoulos, who created NEON, and Dakis Joannou (whose DESTE Foundation is headquartered in a former industrial building facing a charming side street where families sit sipping an espresso) are living proof that you can be small if you have the courage to invest in the art and the artist (and not the packaging). And both have art collections that would put many millionaires to shame.
It was this, at the time, bold and revolutionary approach that led the Goulandris family to support Picasso and Chagall, buy a Francis Bacon that hangs next to a Julian Schnabel, and then build a museum in a small town square where there are not even designer shops or Michelin restaurants.
This boldness, or stubbornness, to believe in fundamentals, and its vital force, is what makes Athens and many other Greek cities good examples that you don't have to follow trends to succeed.
The small-scale institutions
The main problem for these small-scale institutions is how to attract the attention of the public, sponsors and supporters in the long term. Being small has a positive cost-effective side, but it also makes it much more difficult to get the attention that attracts benefactors (who have a stronger attraction to media-accustomed projects and press excitement).
Neither the individual architectural drawing nor various projects realized in Dubai and Qatar as an ego trip of bling and glamour, the surreal cabins with Anselm Kiefer works in the forests of Tasmania, or Christo's covering of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris can be compared to a visit to Yannis Pappas Studio if what you want is the art itself, or the story and the people behind it.
The Goulandris family supported Picasso and Chagall.
You can talk and fantasize about the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, but you have no idea what the collection is about (or how and why it was put together). This assumption should be very clear, an institution should not be bigger than what it shows. In a way, collecting is an exercise in letting go of something, and learning to do it over time and space. If space takes over, time is not necessarily so forgiving.
The small-scale museum is a carrier of a centuries-old collecting tradition: gathering to see what someone managed to collect, and then decided to share.
If most institutions are now concerned with size, perhaps collecting there is already reductive, as what you choose to display to others matters less than where you choose to do it.
Being small has its advantages, because you can always grow.