Even the most starry-eyed philanthropist might balk at spending €600m to build a temple of high culture in a country grappling with its worst financial crisis in memory.
Yet in 2006 when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation decided to build a new home for the Greek National Opera and the National Library, economic growth was accelerating and Greece looked set to become a beacon of prosperity in south-east Europe.
“Greece won the European football championship in 2004, it staged a successful Olympic Games, the economy was doing well,” says Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the New York-based foundation named for his late uncle, a Greek shipping billionaire.
“We thought Greece had turned the corner. If anyone had suggested otherwise at that time we’d have said ‘are you crazy?’” he adds.
In spite of the country’s financial collapse in 2010, followed by a succession of huge bailouts, construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre went ahead as planned.
“I remember there was a dark night in New York when I and several colleagues had some internal questioning . . . ‘What are we doing? Greece is falling apart and we’re going to build an opera house and a library?’” he recalls. “Then I said we had to build it, this project will bring hope, we can’t let the Greeks down. And let’s do it all, not cut corners because of the crisis.”
The centre, a spectacular 30m-tall glass and concrete complex designed by the renowned architect Renzo Piano, was completed this year. It houses the opera and library as part of an artificial hillside capped with an elegantly thin roof of high-tech cement.
From the upper floors, a 360-degree view includes both the ancient Acropolis in the capital’s historic centre and the blue sweep of the nearby Saronic Gulf. The complex is already in use for tours and art exhibitions ahead of its official opening next March.
Surrounding it is a 20-hectare park landscaped with native plants and Mediterranean trees, creating a new green space for sports and family activities in one of Europe’s most densely populated cities.
Dracopoulos is anxious to defuse criticism that the centre is a top-down project designed for the Athenian elite that will end up as a sterile venue for international conferences and corporate entertainment.
He argues the centre is already making a significant contribution to the lives of ordinary Athenians hit hard by the crisis. Average incomes have fallen by more than 30 per cent, while the jobless rate is 23 per cent.
Since June, almost 400,000 visitors have attended free concerts, film screenings and sports activities in the park, from outdoor yoga classes to children’s sailing lessons in a rectangular lake. “We stress that it’s a triple project because the park is just as important in a different way as everything the library and the opera is about. If people just keep on coming they’ll make it a huge success,” Dracopoulos says.
Under a contract signed with a previous conservative government, the Foundation will transfer the completed project to the leftwing Syriza administration at the end of this year. The finance ministry will become the centre’s official owner with an obligation to cover annual operating costs projected at €15m-€16m.
Dracopoulos is clearly feeling nervous about the impending handover. “We’re not asking anybody to say ‘thank you’ but we do insist that people assume their responsibilities as agreed,” he says.
His concern reflects not only the beleaguered government’s problems with handling day-to-day expenses but also an ideological hostility that leftwing Greek politicians reserve for wealthy compatriots, even those who practise philanthropy.
However, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, has given assurances that funding is in place for 2017 at least.
“We’re betting that the Greek public sector will prove it can manage such a big space in a serious and responsible way,” the premier added, attempting to quell fears voiced by scores of Greek artists and intellectuals that the state is not up to the task of running a world-class cultural centre.
Times are especially hard for Greece’s cultural institutions. Following budget cuts of about 40 per cent since 2010, the national opera and the Athens concert hall have slimmed down their programmes. The national library is operating with only a quarter of the staff it needs.
Dracopoulos insists that if all goes well, the foundation will itself become a regular user of the centre as part of its normal sponsorship programme in Greece. “We’ll be there in a significant way, we’ll have our annual philanthropy conference at the centre and a week of activities, and the centre could become a recipient of our normal grant programmes. But we’re not going to take it over.”
The Niarchos foundation does not give any details of its endowment. Dracopoulos says that in 20 years of operation it has handed out grants totalling €1.8bn for projects in more than 100 countries. About half this amount has been spent in Greece, in line with Niarchos’s own wishes.
As the crisis drags on, the percentage of funding allocated to Greece has increased. A first package of €100m to alleviate poverty and social exclusion over a three-year period was spent in just 12 months. A second €100m followed with broader aims, including training in fundraising for a group of Greek NGOs. A third €100m is being disbursed to help young people acquire training and find job opportunities in Greece rather than join the exodus of skilled graduates seeking jobs elsewhere in Europe.
“All these packages grew out of the cultural centre project . . . We decided to spend another €300m because we felt we couldn’t only back an opera house and a library,” Dracopoulos says. “Not at a time like this.”
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