“Cities exist at the heart of civilization – of every civilization.” says NEON’s director, Elina Kountouri, in the NEON’s anniversary catalogue for its ten years of contribution to contemporary culture. Focusing on the city and aiming to disseminate art to the widest possible audience, NEON introduced an innovative way of operating and strongly supported the partnership between the public and private sectors. The establishment of NEON in 2013 was based on the belief of its creator Dimitris Daskalopoulos that contemporary art has the ability to inspire, awaken, move people and stimulate the collective consciousness.
At the Athens Conservatory, (in the fully renovated building by NEON), in the venue Ω2, the event for the ten years of the organization’s operation was held. Dimitris Daskalopoulos enthusiastically shared his thoughts and concerns about his many years of creative support for the project of contemporary art, starting with a question to himself and to the audience. “NEON why?”
He went on to state that “public art is a political act proposing increased collectivity.” Going back to the past, he made an assessment of the situation to describe the context of his concerns that led him to realize his vision for contemporary art: “In 2006 – a time of prosperity – I became president of the SEV and in my inaugural speech I said these provocative words ‘We are looking away of our responsibilities and our common future.’ And two years after the state of bliss we found ourselves in a state of cultural crisis. The imprint it leaves on souls cannot be measured. For me, the crisis was cultural at its base, not economic, and I thought I could contribute more to the solution of the crisis. Then I decided to found and fund NEON and the purpose was one and only: to give the general public in Greece, every citizen the opportunity to be exposed to the challenges and thrills of contemporary art. Why art in the time of poverty? Because this initiative was based on a faith and a hope. The belief was that art is a basic human need, accessible to all and everyone’s right. And contemporary art and the ideas it expresses can stimulate consciences and awaken human beings.”
Reflecting on 10 years of work, he said: “NEON’s imprint of its rich programme of activities exists in the souls and minds of the hundreds of thousands of people who have chosen to follow its course, it is a conscious or unconscious asset of each and thus – I hope – an aggregate asset of our society”.
The “spaces of coexistence” created in the city, such as the exhibitions “A Thousand doors” at the Gennadios Library in 2014, “Transcending the Abyss” from 2015 to 2017, “Portals” and “Dream On” in 2022 at the Public Tobacco Factory, have been recorded in the memory of the people and in the wider collective memory of society, Louise Bourgeois‘ installation “Maman” at the SNFCC, works by Greek and international artists at venues and archaeological sites in Athens and in archaeological sites beyond the capital, such as Anthony Gormley’s Sight at the archaeological site and museum of Delos.
Antony Gormley, SIGHT
Echoing the philosophy of its founder, NEON developed a model of citizen engagement and artist participation. In 10 years of activity, it has held exhibitions in 28 different locations, in museums, archaeological and historical sites. It has presented works by 253 artists (94 Greek and 59 from abroad) and has carried out 93 commissions of new works by 70 artists. He has collaborated with 22 art curators (14 Greeks and 8 from abroad).
The Director of NEON, Elina Kountouri, in her assessment of the work of the organization, expressed her satisfaction for its development and contribution to social life, stating that “NEON has now created a network of trust with the institutions and a space of coexistence. NEON’s action is summed up in the phrase ‘our space is the City’. Our aim is to engage constructively with the stories and narratives of cities, providing artists with the opportunity to interact and communicate with the public through a wide range of initiatives, spaces, urban and social contexts. NEON is also interested in leaving infrastructure works as a contribution, both for the artists and the public. In every space there is some improvement, we leave some mark behind so that the space can be used by third parties.”
She stressed that they always aim to create spaces for coexistence. The artists use the historicity and the richness that Athens and Greece have to offer to answer contemporary questions of the time with an innovative programme of meeting ancient culture with contemporary culture through the practice of new commissions. Within the framework of the section The Work in the City, 5 actions have been carried out and in 2023 the works of Alexandros Tzannis and Iris Touliatou will be presented.
“Our history is passing through a new gateway again, we need a spirit of inclusion and solidarity which we must now more than ever guard. The basic principles of NEON remain, we are now exploring concrete institutional proposals which could have a broader scope. In every place we go we leave improvement. We have joined forces with archaeological sites. Artists interact with each other, we listen to the community, we learn but also offer donated works to the archaeological sites a work is donated to the archaeological site at the end of the exhibition” says Ms Kountouri.
Concluding, she stressed that “Without the artists, NEON would never have existed.” And in the organization’s excellent anniversary documentary, the artists express their love of collaboration and art more broadly. Kendel Geers states that he is liberated through the artistic process, while Dimitris Papaioannou shares his thought that “Art constantly challenges the facts and reminds us of the ‘essential’.” Ioanna Pantazopoulou finds that “the real and the false world are in the same reality” and Maria Loizidou sees archaeological sites and more specifically Kerameikos as “a space of loss, where another reading of it is allowed, so that our proposal can speak to the visitor”.
Apart from the exhibitions, educational programmes and support programmes for young artists play an essential role in NEON’s activities. The Sponsorship programme has supported 212 independent initiatives to the tune of €3.7 million and some 1800 artists have benefited from these programmes. The Scholarship Programme has awarded 79 scholarships for postgraduate and doctoral studies and continues to build a solid network of professionals who will contribute their expertise to the cultural ecosystem. The “Is This Art” educational program is the first program in public schools to focus on contemporary art. 994 programmes have been carried out in 161 schools, involving 18,850 students and 90 teachers. The NEON curatorial exchange programme in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery has created a network of 210 young curators and professionals who enhance the artistic interface between Greece and Britain.
At the same time, hundreds of educational programmes have been held in the framework of the exhibitions with the participation of 17,000 pupils, teachers, parents and students, while more than 1000 people have been trained in the Educate the educator programme in Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras and Volos.
From 2013-2020 NEON has been the sole sponsor of OUTSET. Greece the Greek section of Outset Contemporary Art Fund. Outset Greece has supported 69 initiatives including exhibitions, new artistic creations and educational activities, providing €490.000 to 891 individuals.
The founder Dimitris Daskalopoulos reflects saying that art “forces you to go along with your time, to evolve consciously. Many analyses can be written about what art can do to a person but Lynda Benglis said “Art does things“; it’s as simple as that. It’s a political act but the key thing is its mystical appeal.”
We expect to see its mystery and its influence on the urban landscape and the viewer’s consciousness as NEON’s upcoming actions evolve in the city and beyond its borders.