Marina Lambraki, Director of the National Gallery of Greece

Marina Lambraki, Director of the National Gallery of Greece. Photo: Courtesy of Marina Lambraki

I do not know if Marina Lambraki is well-versed in the traditional cuisine of her native Crete, but she has definitely mastered the recipe for success at the National Gallery of Greece. Born in Arkalochori, Heraklion, to a blacksmith father and a mother who farmed, Lambraki grew up sheltered from the outside world, but she was an impressionable and free soul. She worked at the grocery in the village at the age of 15, after her parents allowed her to attend only two high school classes in Heraklion. On a Saturday morning, the grocery door opened and a tall and handsome 26-year-old philology professor, Dimitris Plakas, the man who changed her destiny, walked in.

Lambraki married the man who introduced her to the beauty of knowledge and became distinguished everywhere. She successfully completed her degree in Archeology at the University of Athens and continued with state scholarships, postgraduate studies of History and Sociology of Art in Paris at the Sorbonne, and in 1973 she received the State Doctoral Diploma from the same university. In 1975, Lambraki was voted, unanimously, the first female full-time professor in the department of Art History at the Athens School of Fine Arts. She taught as a visiting professor at universities in France, the United States, and the University of Crete in Rethymnon, accumulating many honors and awards along the way.

Beginning in 1992, Lambraki was appointed to the National Gallery by Anna Psarouda-Benaki, then-Minister of Culture and in her mind and soul, Nikos Kazantzakis’ phrase “Reach where you cannot” led her on a totally different career path than that of teaching.

She said, “the main point of my policy and the goal I made when I became director of the National Gallery was to turn it into a great school for Hellenism, a great home open to all people and not just to the privileged classes. I knew that it was not possible to equally share the material goods in the Western world. Spiritual goods, however, belong to all, and everyone has to become conscious of this to learn to claim and enjoy them. Cultural goods are a vehicle of escape from everyday life, from the sufferings of everyone, from disappointments and the frustrations of time. The person who has contact with art and books never grows old.”

Bearing in mind the techniques of marketing, coupled with her excellent diplomatic ability, her customary professionalism, and seriousness, in 1992, justly appointed to her position, she and Psarouda-Benaki knocked on the door of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and as co-organizers they succeeded in establishing a pioneering art exchange.

The line for the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery went all the way around the block. Photo: Courtesy of Marina Lambraki

The monumental exhibition, titled From El Greco to Cezanne, which brought the then-unprecedented number of 600,000 people to the National Gallery in Athens and included 72 masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, established Lambraki as the ideal director, who would change the history of the National Gallery.

The two American museums then hosted the exhibition titled The Greek Miracle as an exchange, where sculptures of the 5th century BC were exhibited outside of Greece for the first time.

“When I saw so many thousands of people at the National Gallery, ordinary people, housewives, cleaners, children, elderly people, then I realized that I had entered my real role as a mediator between the general public and the art of the teacher who does not want to disappoint her students,” said Lambraki.

Then, through fundraising efforts she organized all over Greece, and with the belief that the purchase of a work of art is of national interest, she managed to bring to the Gallery two important works by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Saint Peter and The Burial of Christ.

Through the years, with the help of her invaluable associates, Lambraki organized 200 major exhibitions of Greek and foreign artists, attended by about 5,500,000 visitors.

The Koumantareios Art Gallery of Sparta created three new annexes through her efforts, in Nafplion (sponsored by the Onassis Foundation), Corfu, and the Kapralos Museum in Aegina.

The National Glyptotheque in Goudi was created as a wonderful museum to exhibit Greek sculpture. During her term of office the 20,000 works of the Museum’s collections, its library and archives, the photographic archive, and the maintenance workshop, were digitized, while educational browsers and information was provided for researchers, accessible on the updated website in Greek and English. The costs of all these initiatives were covered 70-100% by sponsorships, state resources, and funds from the EU’s Development Partnership Compact.

Lambraki feels great appreciation and love for Hellenism in America. “I remember a phrase that Tsarouchis said, ‘You become Greek when you leave Greece.’ This is true for our expatriates. The Cretans, namely the Pancretan Association of America, have honored me with the Ariadne Award and I have noticed how deeply the Greeks in America hold Greece in their hearts and how much they are patriots. That is why I send them a deep and very moving greeting and I hope they continue to hold Hellenism as high and as proudly as our flag waves.”

The successes that marked Lambraki’s personal contribution to the cultural development of Greece will be recorded in the history of the Greek nation. She has taken the old National Gallery facilities into her hands and they are now being renovated and expanded with the addition of 11,040 square meters of space, making its premises aesthetically and functionally modern. Through community and state funding, and a generous donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, as well as the help of brilliant architects, the renovations should be completed by June 2020.