Vallejo Gantner on being artistic director of the Onassis Foundation

It was mid-February in Athens and cold and sunny as we sat on the balcony of an apartment sipping cloudy ouzo and eating salty olives. Vallejo Gantner and I did this almost every afternoon to celebrate another day’s end of Athens Burns Bright; Creative Ecology Tour.

“Mate, I signed the contract, it’s real, it’s happening,” Gantner said, breathing out a big sigh of relief, and then another in immediate recognition of the weight of it. “Here you are heading this arts tour and I get the gig,” he laughed nervously.

He had signed on as the new Artistic and Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation USA, New York. Gantner is the producer, former artistic associate of the Melbourne Festival and former director of Performance Space New York (PS122).

He is insanely focused on being the best he can. I struggled to get out of bed while Gantner had already completed a run around the base of the Acropolis and set up meetings for after the tour, while completing projects in New York, Australia and who knows where else. He works like a Trojan.

He scours every nook and cranny of the city for new performances, new dialogues, and new approaches. Our daily meetings, site visits and performances are not enough for him he finds more. That’s why he got the gig.

Gantner walked into the offices of the Onassis Foundation in the Olympic Tower, a 51-story building in midtown Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to begin work on April 10.

More than a month after our Athens trip, we talked on the phone. As the son of Greek migrants I asked him about the Diaspora.

“Historically, the Foundation was oriented to Greek Diaspora in the US, and in New York the Foundation was focused on the ancient legacy, however one of the reasons they hired me was to rethink that and contemporise the notion of Hellenism and its impact on the arts,” he says.

What of Hellenism as the meat in the sandwich of cultural wars? The right and the left both claim Hellenism.

“I want to look at the values of civilisation in the broadest sense of Hellenic culture, I want to examine its effect on all of us, on a global scale, and on the wider society.”

Gantner will “rethink the evolution of ancient and contemporary Greek ideas”.

This is important, especially for the offspring of Greek migrants, many of us living in a cultural diving bell from the ’50s, ’60s and ‘70s in cities like New York, Boston, Hamburg and Melbourne. We need global, not ethnocentric and victimised, views of Hellenism.

Gantner wants to look at the “interdisciplinary ways” a foundation like Onassis can “actively rethink and reinvigorate in the “way culture and arts impact on society not in only how society impacts on arts.”

We both love Athens; Gantner as a witness and participant of a revitalised cultural hub – “a contemporary thing” – while I see my Athens as the complex, contemporary and ancient. But we both feel what all Athenians feel when there – freedom.

“As we saw and we heard, Athenians, artists, thinkers, producers are not obsessed with its ancient past as many of you and your Diaspora are,” he says.

“Yet there are serious ancient cultural tropes we need to consider seriously and how they can inform and impact on a city like Athens which sits on a global stage.”

Athens is emerging from ten years of austerity. It is being gentrified from the outside. Chinese, Greek Diaspora, Israelis and others are buying up apartments. Old, inner working-class suburbs like Psyri and the anarchist hub Exarhia are cultural, culinary and start-up hothouses for Greek and international artists and travellers. The locals aren’t overly crazy about it all. The stencil graffiti ‘Fuck off AirBnB tourists/ welcome refugees’is not uncommon in these areas.

“Athens is a living example of democracy, gentrification, the tensions around it, and internationalism and how all these forces impact on the world,” says Gantner.

The Foundation is “increasingly focused on the Balkans and Mediterranean Region, on Beirut, Egypt, and there is lots of work in collaboration between artists, institutions and organisations” Gantner says.

The Onassis Foundation’s work is a reflection of Greece’s increasing awareness of its role in the Mediterranean and Balkans. The recent agreement between the New Republic of Macedonia and Greece is a watershed and a direction away from irredentist politics towards a new community of interests. The Greek gaze is shifting away from France and Britain, Western Europe and it is tilting back to the east.

“Understanding Greece as a key member of a community of cultures in the Mediterranean is essential,” Gantner says.

“We could do a range of things such as new festivals, developing collaborative structures with Greece with what the Onassis Foundation does in Athens and in New York, and a range of other activities.”

Gantner wants to look at the “interdisciplinary ways” a foundation like Onassis can “actively rethink and reinvigorate in the “way culture and arts impact on society not in only how society impacts on arts.”

The sciences, humanities, and economics make the conversation a “two way street and arts should not only act as an interpretive tool” for Gantner, but rather as an essential element of the cultural and economic ecology.

In terms of programming, Gantner is invested in “partnership based projects and building relationships and with cultural organisation.”

Gantner begins at Onassis at the start of Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming, a co-presentation by The Public Theater in New York and curated by Mark Russell who was Gantner’s predecessor as director of Performance Space 122.

The festival celebrates democracy and examines its evolution from Ancient Greece to modern-day America through a range of performances and conversations. Highlights include Tim Blake Nelson’s new play Socrates; Choir! Choir! Choir!; Antigone – Lonely Planet by Lena Kitsopoulou, the Australian Greek music duo Xylouris White and more.

“We are at the beginning of a new era for Onassis Culture in Athens, New York, and beyond,” Afroditi Panagiotakou, Director of Culture of the Onassis Foundation said, and then pointed to Gantner’s “talent, vision, and innate curiosity”.

She is also challenging him to “lead Onassis USA to new heights”.

The role of philanthropy in the rejuvenation of Greece is not to be underestimated. The Onassis and Niarchos foundations, borne of shipping tycoons continue to impacton Greece’s culture, economy and society. Particularly so now, given the state has been forced to retreat from much funding during the Crisis. Forty per cent of all Onassis’ profit goes to the Greece’s health, arts and education.

The weight of the Gantner’s new position is almost Homeric, the Onassis name carries both light and dark. Not unlike Agamemnon’s legacy, it rests on all of us.

Will Gantner become Greek? “Sure, whatever Greek means,” he says.

As far as learning Greek he says,“I need to know more than the word malaka which is all I learnt from you,” and adds “I’ll need to read Herodotus this time in Greek.”

The new Artistic and Executive Director of Onassis USA has an onerous job, and an exciting one that may go some way to bridging east and west. It may facilitate new approaches to ancient human questions. In the end, we should never forget our Roman cousin, Virgil, who warned: ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’. *

*‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’.

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