Afternoon mid February in Athens it is cold and sunny and we sat on the balcony of an apartment sipping cloudy ouzo and eating salty olives. We did this almost every afternoon to celebrate another day’s end of Athens Burns Bright; Creative Ecology Tour “Mate I signed the contract, it’s real, it’s happening,” Vallejo Gantner said breathing out a big sigh of relief, and another in the immediate recognition of the real weight of it. “Here you are heading this arts tour and I get the gig,” he laughed nervously.
He signed on as the new Artistic and Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation USA, New York. Gantner is the producer, former artistic associate of the Melbourne Festival and former director of Performance Space New York or PS122. He is insanely focused on being the best he can. I struggled to get out of bed while Gantner had already completed a run around the base of the Acropolis and set up meetings for after the tour, while completing projects in New York, Australia and who knows where else. He works like a Trojan.
He scours every nook and cranny of the city for new performances, new dialogues, and new approaches. Our daily meetings, site visits and performances are not enough for him he finds more. That’s why he got the gig.
Gantner walked into the offices of the Onassis Foundation in the Olympic Tower, a 51-story building in Midtown Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on the 10th of April.
More than a month after our Athens trip, we talked on the phone. As the son of Greek migrants I asked about the Diaspora.
“Historically the Foundation was oriented to Greek Diaspora in the US, and in New York the Foundation was focused on the ancient legacy, however one of the reasons they hired me was to rethink that and contemporise the notion of Hellenism and its impact on the arts,” he says.
What of Hellenism the meat in the sandwich of cultural wars? The right and the left claim Hellenism.
“I want to look at the values of civilisation in the broadest sense of Hellenic culture, I want to examine its effect on all of us, on a global scale, and on the wider society.
Gantner will “rethink the evolution of ancient and contemporary Greek ideas”.
This is important, especially the offspring of Greek migrants many of us living in cultural diving bells, from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, in cities like New York, Boston, Hamburg and Melbourne. We need global, not ethnocentric and not victimised views of Hellenism.
We both love Athens, Gantner as a witness and participant of a revitalised cultural hub “a contemporary thing”. Me, I see my Athens as the complex, contemporary and ancient. We both feel what all Athenians feel, freedom when there.
“As you know, as we saw, and we heard, Athenians, artists, thinkers, producers are not obsessed with its ancient past as many of you and your Diaspora are.”
“Yet there are serious ancient cultural tropes we need to consider seriously and how they can inform and impact on a city like Athens which sits on a global stage,” he adds.
Athens is emerging from ten years of austerity. It is being gentrified from the outside. Chinese, Diaspora Greeks, Israelis, and others are buying up apartments. Old inner working-class suburbs like, Psyri and the anarchist hub Exarhia are cultural, culinary and start-up hothouses for Greek and international artists, travellers. The locals aren’t overly crazy about it all. The stencil graffiti ‘Fuck off AirBnB tourists/ welcome refugees’ is not uncommon in these areas.
“Athens is a living example democracy, gentrification, the tensions around it, and internationalism, and how all these forces impact on world,” Gantner adds.
The Foundation is “increasingly focused on the Balkans and Mediterranean Region, on Beirut, Egypt, the Balkans, and there is lots of work in collaboration between artists, institutions and organisations” Gantner says.
The Onassis Foundation’s work is a reflection of Greece’s increasing awareness of its role in the Mediterranean and Balkans. The recent agreement between the New Republic of Macedonia and Greece is a watershed and a direction away from irredentist politics towards a new community of interests. The Greek gaze is shifting away from France and Britain, Western Europe and it is tilting back to the east.
“Understanding Greece as a key member of a community of cultures in the Mediterranean is essential” Gantner says.
“We could do a range of things such as new festivals, developing collaborative structures with Greece with what in Onassis Foundation does in Athens and in New York, and a range of other activities.”
Gantner wants to look at the “interdisciplinary ways” a foundation like Onassis can “actively rethink and reinvigorate in the “way culture and arts impact on society not inly only how society impacts on arts.”
The sciences, humanities, and economics make the conversation a “two way street and arts should not only act as an interpretive tool” for Gantner, but rather as an essential element of the cultural and economic ecology.
In terms of programing Gantner is invested in “partnership based projects and building relationships and with cultural organisation.”
Gantner begins at Onassis at the start of Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming, a co-presentation by The Public Theater and curated by Mark Russell, Gantner’s predecessor as director of Performance Space 122. The festival celebrates democracy and examines its evolution from Ancient Greece to modern-day America through a range of performances and conversations. Highlights include Tim Blake Nelson’s new play Socrates; Choir! Choir! Choir!; Antigone – Lonely Planet, by Lena Kitsopoulou; the Australian Greek music duo Xylouris White; and more.
“We are at the beginning of a new era for Onassis Culture in Athens, New York, and beyond,” Afroditi Panagiotakou, Director of Culture of the Onassis Foundation said, and then pointed to Gantner’s “talent, vision, and innate curiosity.”
She is also challenging him to “lead Onassis USA to new heights.”
The role of philanthropy in the rejuvenation of Greece is not to be underestimated. The Onassis and Niarchos foundations, born of shipping tycoons are impacting on Greece’s culture, economy and society. Particularly given the state has been forced to retreat from much during the Crisis. Forty per cent of all Onassis profit goes to the public Greece, to health, arts, and education.
The weight of the Gantner’s new position is almost Homeric, the Onassis name carries both light and dark, not unlike Agamemnon’s legacy, it rests on all of us.
Will Gantner become Greek? “Sure whatever Greek means,” he says.
As far as learning Greek he says, “I need to know more than the word malaka which all I learnt from you” and adds “I’ll need to read Herodotus this time in Greek.”
The new Artistic and Executive Director of Onassis USA has an onerous job, and an exciting one, that may go some way to bridging east and west. It may facilitate new approaches to ancient human questions. In the end however we should never forget our Roman cousin, Virgil, who alerted, Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.*
- Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
Fotis Kapetopoulos heads Kape Communications Pty Ltd that runs; Bite the Big Apple! New York City Arts Management Tour; hosts international speakers and undertakes market research. He was also Senior Multicultural Media and Policy Adviser to Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. He was the Editor for the English edition of Neos Kosmos. He headed Multicultural Arts Victoria, was awarded a Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC Internship and secured the Asialink Arts Management Residency at the National Arts Council of Singapore. He lectures at RMIT University and VCA Melbourne University and is a PhD Candidate at the Deakin University.