Empowered by Culture: Examples from Greece by Rana Zincir Celal

Long time ECF advisor and friend Rana Zincir Celal was in Greece at the end of June for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation International Conference on Philanthropy and Sustainability in Athens and to visit the Thessaloniki Biennale. She shares her insights about these cities and their thriving efforts to include citizens into daily cultural life. 

©Thessaloniki Biennale

While the international media focuses on the tension and brinksmanship of the negotiations, I left Greece last week moved by the inspiring and committed leadership of its many civic leaders who are charting a course for the future, undeterred, responding to the fragility of the current situation in ingenious and inspiring ways.

My first visit to Thessaloniki left me amazed at how this city is putting arts and culture at the forefront of its development strategy. Mayor Yiannis Boutaris is already well known for embracing the multi-ethnic heritage of this iconic, cosmopolitan city, where at one point the cohabitation of Christians, Jews and Muslims made Thessaloniki one of the most thriving, vibrant centers of the Ottoman Empire.  Since Boutaris took office in 2010, he’s taken a number of concrete steps to build historical awareness of the Jewish and Muslim past of the city. One result of this has been a surge in tourism –  the bustling streets, cafes and shops are a good sign of the impact this has created on the local economy, much needed at a time of crisis.

While much of this I had already heard about, what I didn’t know was that he also instituted a tourism program for the residents of the city itself! I found this out through my wonderful tour guide Ioannis Kiourtsoglou, who was part of a municipal program which gave Thessaloniki residents free tours around their city. Ioannis said that for many of them, it was the first time they learned of the Jewish and Muslim heritage of their city. With most the old town destroyed by a devastating fire in 1917, most physical remnants of this heritage were erased forever from the cityscape, and afterwards it was never a priority, even taboo, to address these issues. But the local tours showed that residents were open to engaging with the diversity of their city; Ioannis said that sometimes up to 80 people would attend the weekly tours. This program lasted for almost three years.

As I later toured the Thessaloniki Biennial and its parallel exhibitions, I was struck by how far art has also become infused within urban landmarks, in ways that reveal and open up new ways of thinking. There was a remarkable exhibition by Chronis Pechlivanidis titled “A Journey into the World of Sufism” at the hauntingly beautiful Alatza Imaret. Meanwhile, at Yeni Cami there was an exhibition by the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, on the "Invisible Cultural Monuments of Thessaloniki," examining the Jewish communities of the city through a rich array of archival material, also attempting to trace the location of the synagogues, once numbering over 30, on the current map of the city. And finally at the Thessaloniki City Hall, there was a show titled “Ident-Alter-Ity” investigating notions of gender, identity and the gendered self and held in collaboration with the arts organization Action Field Kodra and Thessaloniki Pride. With several provocative works addressing sexual identity, I was impressed that such an exhibition could take place in the city hall (considering especially the reactions in Istanbul this Sunday to the Pride parade). Later on, a staffer at the municipality told me the community response has been considerably positive and welcoming.

©Solidarity Now

Thessaloniki is also where Solidarity Now established its first center to offer services to those most vulnerable to the crisis, especially the elderly, migrants and asylum seekers.  Led by Epaminondas Farmakis, and comprising a collaborative network of NGOs and people Solidarity Now provides healthcare, housing, legal aid support and job-seeking guidance. They’re also working to address the systemic changes needed to enable and empower vulnerable groups to succeed over the long-term: just this month, their advocacy efforts over the years paid off when the Greek Parliament passed groundbreaking legislation to offer citizenship to children of migrants born and raised in Greece.

After Thessaloniki, I encountered another admirable example of community tenacity when I spent my first evening in Athens at the  soft launch of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, set to open in 2016.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Photo ©Yiorgis Yerolymbos

Thousands of families and children wandered through the gardens of the park, newly planted with olive trees, sage and rosemary, whose scents wafted through the evening air reminding visitors of the ecological richness of the Mediterranean. Over the four-day launch event, Athenians played together, took part in workshops, watched traditional theater, acrobatics, video screenings and musical concerts. Located on 50 acres, the centerpiece of the park is a new Cultural Center, designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano as a sustainable building par excellence. Underneath a cutting edge solar canopy, the Center will host the National Library of Greece, the Greek National Opera, a Center for Entrepreneurship as well as numerous other facilities. Even now, as a light show danced across the scaffolding and cranes at the construction site, the site has both come alive and brought life to the city, embodying the eloquent wish of Renzo Piano to create “a place of beauty and a place for good, because this is for the society.” By uniting education, cultural and sustainability, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has put forward a truly visionary concept, in recognition that these are “essential requirements in enhancing the potential of the city and its people and for placing them within a twenty first century global context.”

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Photo ©Yiorgis Yerolymbos

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Photo ©Yiorgis Yerolymbos

With this outstanding, future-oriented example of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, it seems we will have much to learn from Athens over the coming years, which brings me to the last memorable encounter of my time in Greece, when Mayor Yorgos Kaminis announced a bold new partnership with the Athens Biennale, an independent, self-organized initiative established ten years ago. Earlier this year, Athens Biennale was awarded the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet Award for Culture for its contribution to European culture and the creation of an open, democratic Europe, and in the words of my fellow jury member Chris Dercon, for showing “how culture can be a means of solidarity and common ground that create tangible alternatives to the economic and political conflicts of our time.” It is practices like this that are now the focus of a the ECF’s new Idea Camp program, which emphasizes “the principles and ethics of the commons to the transformation of the city, its communities and its economy.”

Athens Biennale's Poka-Yio, ECF President HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, Mayor of Athens Mr Yorgos Kaminis and Athens Biennale's Xenia Kalpaktsoglou. Photo © Tasos Sarellas

The co-founders of Athens Biennale, Poka Yio and Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, were joined by HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, President of the ECF, to announce the theme of the next edition of the Athens Biennale, which will be symbolically titled "OMONOIA” (Concord/Harmony). Launching in October 2015, “Omonoia” will run through 2017, once again breaking the mold of the conventional biennale format. In the words of Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, they will work over these years to continue to expand the role of culture in society, question and explore the role of the artist, activate the participation of people in art, and create the conditions through which people can understand cities.

The dynamism for which Athens Biennial is known, its commitment and its sincerity in seeking to nurture a common ground for collective action have even led the influential Documenta Biennale to take a radical decision with its 2017 edition, to base part of the exhibition in Athens, under the title “Learning from Athens.”

I also had many conversations with people in Greece about their views on the government, on the Troika, on how their country ended up in this situation. Rather than add to what has already been written on so widely, I prefer to share a different set of developments.  Even in the midst of grave economic difficulties faced by Greece, there is a strong emphasis on arts and culture, which is being reinvented in ways that offer much potential – for collaboration, for inclusiveness, for critique and for renewal. This week as we watch our neighbor with bated breath for the fateful decisions that will shape its future, as bitter accusations continue to fly around, I dare say that there is another story to pay attention to.  It goes without saying to acknowledge, support and engage with the extraordinary people and institutions behind these and many other initiatives, which, through the models they put forward, could very well lead Greece, and Europe, into the future.

Rana Zincir Celal has designed several cultural and educational programs in collaboration with civil society groups in Turkey and Cyprus. She currently works with Columbia Global Centers | Turkey as a Senior Program Manager, is an advisor to the European Cultural Foundation, and a board member of Greenpeace Mediterranean and the Greek Turkish Forum.