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Gritty Port of Piraeus Draws Art Galleries, Buzzing Cultural Crowd

September 20, 2021

PIRAEUS — While the Chinese port management company COSCO is seeking to remake the working part of Piraeus into a lure for cruise ships, the graffiti-covered buildings and low-rent industrial areas have proved a lure for a range of art galleries and museums openings.

In a feature in The New York Times' T Magazine, correspondent Gisella Williams wrote of how the adventurous moves are helping reshape the image of a port that long had a reputation being grimy but with a Bohemian air. It was, after all, where Zorba the Greek met his Englishman.

It's also helping reconnect Piraeus with the heart of Athens, a 25-minute cab ride away although there's a Metro link that goes almost right up to the edge of the harbor, making it an easy scamper across the street to a happening scene.

A new metro line, scheduled to be completed before the summer of 2022, promises to bring people from the distant Athens airport to the center of Piraeus in 20 minutes, about the same time it takes from the capital's Syntagma Square now.

While the appeal to the creative crowd is obvious, Elena Mavromichali, 49, an art historian and cultural adviser for the Greek government said there's more to it. “I’m seeing a dynamic movement of contemporary artists inspired by and engaging with Greece’s ancient history and its archaeological sites,” she said.

Piraeus goes back to the early Fifth Century B.C. In some places, the buildings and air have seemed almost that old but culture is revitalizing not just structures but an attitude and creating a buzz.

Rodeo, one of the most respected and progressive contemporary galleries in the greater Athens area, is among a handful of creative forces that transforming the Agios Dionysios district of Piraeus, not far from the ferry docks, into one of the capital’s most exciting cultural destinations, the report added.

Athens – and now Piraeus – has been drawing attention from European artists wanting to get away from the snobby former hotspots like Berlin and Lisbon that are so yesterday and the port's dog-eared look is part of the reason. Every artist likes an empty warehouse that can be transformed.

Mavromichali, who was born and raised in the Kastella neighborhood of Piraeus, said it was exciting to have both the smaller galleries popping up and be so close to the nearby Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center near the waterfront.

While that's propelling interest, it's also bringing the kind of attention that some worry could lead to investors changing the ambiance of Piraeus and gentrifying it, which pushed artists out of other cities toward Athens.

THEY KNOW ART

Rodeo featured modern art such as a brick wall – it's called The Fourth Wall – and other pieces in a solo exhibition by Cypriot conceptual artist Christodoulos Panayiotou, known for multimedia work challenging traditions.

It includes a red awning – called Awning – sticking out from a rough concrete wall and Horseweed, a four-foot-tall silver sculpture of a flowering horseweed appearing to grow up from the floor.

This isn't the stuff that draws the Rembrandt and Dutch Masters lovers, unless they're willing to bend their usual affinity toward the experimental and modern, but it's mirroring what's happening in Piraeus, right by the piers where ferries take hordes to islands, many overlooking the neighborhood's features.

The cognoscenti crowds can't stay away, coming to give their take on art and catch a glimpse of artists and cultural movers and shakers in the community who shape opinions. 

“There’s Stelios Kois,” whispered one guest, nodding toward the Greek architect, who had just finished designing Delta, the new restaurant in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, three miles to the east.

The foundation's Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos told the correspondent it was “created as a symbol  – and a very real engine  – of hope for Greece in the depths of the country’s punishing socioeconomic crisis.” Locating it near Piraeus, he added, was “part of realizing that vision.” 

Panayiotou chatted with the Greek gallerist Sylvia Kouvali, 40, Rodeo’s founder, who has an outpost in London and moved her original space, a former tobacco warehouse in Constantinople to Piraeus, troubled by Turkey's political instability.

“At first, I considered a rural location,” she says, “but then I decided that Piraeus, with its sea and boats and industrial zone and history, was an interesting choice,” and a bold one because there was little else there of the type.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” he told me of choosing Piraeus. “But from the beginning I thought there was something beautiful about being among people repairing ships and engines not far from the harbor,” she said.

A solo show of their sculptural wood-and-acrylic tube lights is up at Carwan, an avant-garde design gallery that relocated last year from Beirut to a late-19th-Century commercial warehouse next door to Rodeo. 

Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, 41, who co-owns the space with his business partner, the French architect Quentin Moyse, 33, said he found that the industrial architectural landscape and the animated, transitory atmosphere of Piraeus, in particular, reminded him of Beirut’s port, from where they moved before the 2019 explosion.

Leonidas Trampoukis, 39, who, along with his wife, Eleni Petaloti, also 39, runs the architecture office LOT and the design firm Objects of Common Interest, have long worked out of a studio in Brooklyn and in 2016 opened one in Athens.

They said they wanted to be closer their preferred makers and fabricators and they're building a production studio in an 8,000-square-foot former factory a few blocks northeast of Rodeo that will focus on a unique technique for casting acrylic. “We were looking everywhere for a big, affordable raw industrial space and we decided on Piraeus because of the vibe and the community,” Trampoukis said.

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