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Greek American Art in Peloponnesos

My dream is to create a museum of the Hellenic diaspora in Greece, or at least to get such a process going. Before I got too deeply involved, however, I thought I had better check that such a museum did not already exist anywhere in the country. My inquiries confirmed there is no such museum, but I did come across something called the Hellenic Diaspora Foundation located just outside Patras, in Peloponnesos.

I was able to visit the Foundation a few weeks ago and was shown around by its founder, Vasilis Kalogiratos. It was a truly overwhelming experience. The Foundation is the institutional shell of Vasilis’ extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by Greek diaspora artists he and his partner Andreas Parisis acquired over the past two and a half decades. The collection is housed in a group of interconnected concrete buildings on a hilly plot of land above the campus of the University of Patras which is north of the city limits. The total area of the complex is 2,500 square meters (27,000 square feet). It is essentially a privately owned gallery open to visitors by appointment. It contains a staggering total of about nine hundred original pieces of art, paintings, sculptures, photographs by over sixty Greek artists who have lived abroad. They include those born to Greek immigrants in the United States and elsewhere, artists who left Greece as a group in 1945 on board a specially chartered vessel and settled in Paris, and others who left Greece to pursue their careers in countries such as Italy, France, and the United States.

The Hellenic Diaspora Foundation houses what is by far the largest single collection of artworks of diaspora Greeks, including those who lived and worked in the United States. I counted 28 Greek-Americans, almost a third of the total number of artists, several whose works can be found at the Foundation. And acquisitions are ongoing with Kalogiratos monitoring major auctions worldwide.

Moreover, this is only space in which the diasporic identity of those artists is openly acknowledged. One can find a few works by some, including Stephen Antonakos, Chrysa Vardea, Aristodimos Kaldis Lucas Samaras, Theodore Stamos, and John Xceron at the National Gallery or the Goulandres Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. But their works are displayed according to the genre they represent, alongside works of Greek artists, rather than based on their personal trajectory.

I don’t think it is too idiosyncratic to claim a fascination of a life that begins from an immigrant background and eventually achieves success and recognition in America’s art world. I am intrigued by the life story of an avant guard artist such as William Baziotes who was the son of Greek immigrants in Pittsburgh. Or that of an acclaimed artist such as Aristodimos Kaldis who emigrated from Dikeli, a coastal town of Asia Minor across from Mytilene, and was involved in a hotel workers’ strike in New York City before becoming famous through his paintings. Or Theodoros Stamos, the son of Greek immigrant parents who was born on the Lower East Side and who, along with Baziotes, was a member of the ‘Irrascibles’ group, the militant pioneers of abstract expressionist art in America. Or Lynda Benglis, a sculptor and visual artist who produces wax paintings and latex sculptures and who credits her yiayia who emigrated from the island of Castellorizo for inspiring her by taking her frequently on trips to Greece.

By gathering so many pieces by so many diaspora artists and by providing their biographies the Foundation enables us to reflect on the struggle and success yet another category of Greek-Americans.

The mounting culture shock of trying to grasp the significance of this art collection was interrupted by lunch at a nearby seaside taverna in the shadow of the Rio-Antirio bridge that connects Peloponnesos with Sterea Ellada – Central Greece. We were joined by Kalogiratos’ two close collaborators, film director Yannis Katomeris, who produces short videos on the artists featured in the collection, and art preservationist and photographer Akis Voliotis, who also owns a gallery in Antibes, on France’s Côte d’ Azur. I joked that I was glad the Foundation was not a diaspora museum per se, allowing me to still dream of my own project. And if it ever materializes, there would be no diaspora art left to acquire and I would have to focus instead on gallery catalogues of exhibitions of Greek diaspora artists, thankfully a financially more feasible endeavor.

On the drive back to Athens, and by then in a more reflective mood, I remembered it was from the port of Patra that thousands of Greeks, mostly Peloponnesians, emigrated from America at the turn of the twentieth century. How appropriate then to have the Hellenic Diaspora Foundation’s diaspora art collection so close to where those immigrants including some who became artists had begun the voyage to America.

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