YOU CAN GET so lost in Athens’s anarchic beauty and sprawling vastness that you forget, if only for an evening, that this city is living through a depression. Over the past decade, Greece’s GDP has fallen 25 percent. Youth unemployment hovers around 60 percent. Exacerbating all of this is Greece’s role in Europe’s refugee crisis: more than a million people fleeing conflict have arrived on its shores on their way to other countries. “It’s almost like you can’t complain about your own situation anymore,” a local gallerist, Nadia Gerazouni, told me. “Because the refugees are here to remind you what real misery is.”
Gerazouni is the director of the Breeder, one of the city’s most influential art spaces. It is located down a pedestrian alleyway in Metaxourgeio, a graffitied old factory district. Gerazouni likes the atmosphere. She appreciates the way the brothel owners and the neighborhood pharmacist gather in the mornings to discuss whatever mural work the gallery has put on its facade—such as the bawdy characters painted by Ath1281, a local street artist.
While acknowledging how much Greeks have suffered, Gerazouni sees upside in disaster. What if, she asks, Greek art is entering a kind of Weimar period, a creative flourishing born out of instability and economic ruin? “The fact that the art market here has shrunk to the point of extinction has been very liberating for artists,” she says. “There’s no commercial impulse, and this makes them produce really interesting work.”
With her giant glasses and flowing brown hair, Gerazouni would not look out of place in a gallery in New York’s Chelsea or London’s East End. At the Breeder, a former ice cream factory that’s now all smoky steel and cool concrete, she showed me large-scale paintingsby Stelios Faitakis, who recently unveiled amajor mural commission at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. Adorned in gold leaf and dripping with bloody red, Faitakis’s work blended Greek Orthodox religious iconography with the dystopian mood of Expressionist artists like Otto Dix.
Gerazouni pointed to what looked like a crumpled, water-stained cardboard box. “This is white marble,” she said, enjoying my shocked expression. The sculpture was by Andreas Lolis, who deploys all his artistic gifts to make the most sacred of Greek materials look worthless, like a discarded shipping container or ahomeless person’s shelter. You don’t need to be an art critic to understand the metaphor.
Rebecca Camhi, another top gallerist in Metaxourgeio who represents international artists like Rita Ackermann and Nobuyoshi Araki, can’t quite bring herself to share Gerazouni’s optimism. “I’m not giving up, but I say that every year,” she told me. Camhi got her start in Paris and comes off as a world-weary, glamorous eccentric. She loves Greece, but is frank about its shortcomings. In 2008, she moved her namesake gallery to a light-filled Neoclassical town house in Metaxourgeio. After the Breeder took up residence nearby, Camhi hoped that the whole neighborhood would transform into a vibrant cultural quarter.
Since the crisis hit, Camhi has tried to stay afloat by doing fewer shows, selling Greek artisan-made goods and hosting an occasional supper club on her garden patio. “All the Greeks care about is eating and drinking,” she said to me, only half-joking. “One of these days, when I can no longer take it, maybe I’ll open a restaurant.”