A museum in motion

The National Museum of Contemporary Art of Athens (EMST) travels to Kassel for documenta 14

by Kika Kyriakakou, independent writer and curator

The documenta exhibition was founded by German architect, artist and curator Arnold Bode in 1955 in Kassel, Germany. Held every five years, it is considered one of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art worldwide, and is known as the “museum of 100 days”. This unconventional museum has evolved into an informal directory of emerging art trends and concepts over the years, and some of its editions have constituted touchstones for the contemporary art world.

For its 14th edition, artistic director Adam Szymczyk proposed a twofold structure reflected in the working title, “Learning from Athens”. Athens and Kassel are jointly hosting the exhibition (respectively from 8 April to 16 July, and from 10 June to 17 September). The Athenian events unfolded in various museums, institutions and public spaces, including the Athens School of Fine Arts, the Benaki Museum, the Yannis Tsarouchis Foundation, the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Athens Conservatoire, the Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies and more. One of the most distinctive choices was that of the National Museum of Contemporary Art of Athens (EMST, in Greek) and its recently opened home in the former Fix brewery. The museum’s opening had been stalled for more than 12 years due to bureaucratic and financial obstacles and although part of it was unveiled during the exhibition Urgent Conversations: Athens-Antwerp in 2016, documenta 14 marked the first official use of the whole building. On this occasion, the EMST collection is also being presented in Kassel. We spoke with Katerina Koskina, the museum’s director, about her vision for EMST, the museum’s collaboration with documenta 14 and its forthcoming projects and plans.

What has your experience of collaborating with documenta 14 been like?

This important collaboration began in 2014 as a proposal to concede parts and areas of EMST, and evolved in its final form through many discussions and negotiations when the museum was seeking to become operational. In November 2016 we launched a new chapter in the shift towards its restored and permanent form, with our new programme titled “EMST in the World” and our exhibition Urgent Conversations: Athens - Antwerp, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Antwerp (M HKA). With limited prerequisites and supplies, we were working night and day to manage to open EMST’s periodic exhibition spaces. But even that would not have been achieved if we had not made the decision to move from the Athens Conservatory building (editor’s note: its temporary home since 2008) to the Fix premises in 2015. Slowly we started operating, despite the fact that we had not officially received the building yet. The partial opening of the museum and the cooperation with M HKA proved to each and every one of us, to the public and to those involved in documenta 14, that we could successfully meet the demands and challenges of other projects.

Our collaboration with documenta 14 was a great experience and its taking shape in a double location has definitely has a positive impact. I hope that our d14 associates are as satisfied as we are and I sincerely believe that this is a cooperation with mutual benefits. We both had to overcome many obstacles and without the significant contribution of artistic director Adam Szymczyk and the documenta 14 team – and particularly without his historically important suggestion to move documenta outside Kassel – this journey would never have taken place. It actually took a lot of courage and bravery on both sides to continue in these conditions and in EMST we looked beyond what was considered safe or feasible; it has been a matter of vision rather than logic.

How did the idea of the Kassel exhibition arise and which is the significance of such a project for the museum’s collection?

The EMST collection is an adapted version of my museological study designed for the EMST premises. The Kassel exhibition, entitled Antidoron, does not include works that are not part of the collection, except for very few that we are either in the process of acquiring or that are on loan, and whose creators should definitely be represented in the EMST collection, in my opinion. As far as I am concerned, the important point was not to set up a new exhibition but to make the public aware of our museum's collection. Furthermore, this collaboration did not occur because documenta asked EMST to move to the Fridericianum (editor’s note: one of the Kassel venues, the birthplace of documenta and the first public museum on mainland Europe); it resulted from discussions, common goals, mutual information about our intentions and our shared interest in the works of the collection. From the very beginning, I wanted the museum to be significantly presented in Kassel. This is the second exhibition of the “EMST in the World” series, and should therefore be presented in Greece and abroad, since I believe in synergies, and they are actually the basis of this programme. Our discussion with the artistic director and the curators of d14 evolved into an idea deriving from the “Learning from Athens” concept and the “EMST in the World” series. Our presence in d14 ends on 17 September 2017, and our intention is to be able to place the EMST works exhibited in Kassel in their final positions, and start operating the museum. The goal achieved in Kassel is of great importance to all of us.

What do you think the legacy of documenta 14 will be for the city of Athens, its inhabitants and the arts scene in general?

I believe documenta 14’s arrival in Athens occurred at the right time. Despite the crisis and its impact on our daily life, there has been a keen interest in arts and culture in recent years. However, the contemporary art scene here is less well known. Documenta 14 has not only increased the interest in Greece in general, but it has also directed the interest to the country’s contemporary art scene. It has revived the public debate on culture, and especially on visual arts, and achieved collaborations within and outside of Greece. It is now up to us and the State to continue this effort.


What are the main obstacles prohibiting the smooth and full operation of EMST, and how realistic is the likelihood of eliminating these obstacles in the near future?

We are on the right track and I can actually say this with great joy. The museum's internal rules of operation, a prerequisite for all the actions to be undertaken to install the permanent collection in the EMST premises, have been approved. There has been an overwhelming effort to get the museum to the point it is today. We are continuing our efforts in close collaboration with the Ministry of Culture to overcome any obstacles that arise, and we are seeking out and creating opportunities to continue to function. Most importantly, the museum is “alive”, extroverted, and taking constant steps forward, and mainly outside the country, to be fully operational.

What are the issues that directors of contemporary art museums have to face in Greece?

They have to keep the organisation competitive, attractive and extroverted, despite the problems of everyday life. The director strives to reconcile reality with their actual vision. They should not neglect their goals despite adversities and, mind you, the goals of an organisation such as EMST are national. Obviously, the director cannot do anything independently; they have to inspire, coordinate and invent ways that do not yet exist.

Is EMST’s dialogue with important international institutions and museums going to continue? What will your programme for the forthcoming season be?

This dialogue, which is a key element of the “EMST in the World” programme and of our strategies and activities in general, will definitely continue. Our forthcoming exhibition, opening in mid-September and ending in November, is not part of the above programme, but takes place in cooperation with the National Art Museum China (NAMOC) on the occasion of the Greece-China Cultural Exchanges and Cultural Industry Cooperation Year. At the same time, we are planning some parallel events, and it goes without saying that we are working hard on the opening of our permanent collection in our “home”. It is important for us that the museum continues its activities and intensifies the efforts for its full operation.