Cypriot Dakis Joannou, one of the world’s foremost collectors of contemporary art, explains why leaving a legacy in life is so important.
Interview: Pieris Panayi
Dakis’ earliest memory of art is from childhood. Growing up in Ayios Andreas, he stood before a poster of a work by Picasso – Girl Before the Mirror. At that moment, he became inspired and, despite his age, wished to incorporate the sentiments he felt caused by Picasso’s work into his life. Years later, Dakis’ childhood musings became one of the world’s most significant art collections, comprising more than 600 works. His lifelong pursuit of art can be called organic: continuously evolving. His collection transcends stasis and takes on a multifaceted nature, creating an exhilarating visual landscape where new and old works intermingle, offering diverse perspectives and interpretations.
Dakis is a leading Cypriot collector and one of the top five collectors of contemporary art worldwide. His career is frenetic. He studied civil engineering at Cornell and earned a master’s degree at Columbia and a doctorate in architecture at the University of Rome. He established DESTE (DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art) in Athens and Geneva. He was a chairman of the Guggenheim’s international board of directors and has served on the boards for the MoMA, the Tate Galleries and the MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
On starting his contemporary art collection, Dakis remarks, “For as long as I can remember, the thing that has always defined me has been my interest in art. In Cyprus in the 1950s, it was hard to find books or references. But I was searching, trying to delve deeper. In my room, I didn’t have posters of rock stars or movie stars but one poster of Picasso and another of Klee.” He clarifies that, from the beginning, he had little interest in building a collection, which he viewed as massings of ‘art trophies’. The catalyst that changed this perception was his acquaintance with the famous art critic Pierre Restany. Pierre gave him the idea to create a foundation to present exhibitions; the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art is a non-profit organisation that aims to broaden contemporary art’s audience and explore links between contemporary art and culture. Dakis concludes, “1985 was the famous meeting with Jeff Koons. That’s where it all changed.”
Meeting Jeff Koons
The first of the artist’s works he acquired was Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank – which was not more than $2,700. And it’s still one of his favourites; “I was interested in meeting the artist, so I went to his studio in New York. We talked for a long time and have been good friends ever since. He is a huge talent.” When asked what it is about Koons’ work that intrigues him, Dakis replied, “I’m not an art critic. But I think his work is interesting; there are many ways to interpret it, and his work resonates with a diverse audience. The Celebration series are some of his most important. He created them to celebrate the return of his child following a kidnapping by Cicciolina, so there is tremendous drama in them.” Dakis also owns Guilty, a yacht that was painted by Koons and is the artist’s largest work.
Travelling the World
During his travels, he met new artists, acquiring works by Maurizio Cattelan, Cady Noland and Christopher Wool, spending a little less than $2,000 apiece. “Suddenly, I discovered I had a collection. So, in 1987, I decided to exhibit for the first time.” Asked if he sees his art differently when it’s on display for others, he responded, “The feeling continually shifts. Even if the position of the artwork changes, it impacts how I see it.” As to how he adds to his collection: “What matters is the dialogue it creates with the rest of the works and what the artwork offers to culture. In acquiring something new, it must contribute to the richness and significance of the current collection. Initially, the process was different when I would add a new piece. However, now that the collection has reached a certain point, I must be selective in what I choose to include, just as one must be selective in how they furnish a new apartment.”
Sitting comfortably on a sofa in Dakis’ bright office, I ask whether he has made any regrettable decisions in the past. He smiles and says, “Too many. Some of my acquisitions are unsellable. But I have no regrets. Making mistakes is part of the game. Otherwise, it would be boring.”
In retrospect, a decade ago, when a journalist from Paris Match asked François Pinault, a French collector, who his rivals were, he didn’t hesitate; “Eli Broad from America, Bernando Paz from Brazil, Budi Tek from Indonesia, Bernard Arnault from France, and Dakis Joannou from Cyprus – they are some of the most prolific collectors in the world.” I ask Dakis the same – “It’s not a question of rivalry. After all, the art landscape has changed so much. Collectors today are not the same as those of yesteryear. The economy –fast and easy money– has changed the landscape. Collecting takes commitment. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people willing to make that commitment. New collectors fall into two categories: those who take it seriously and those who don’t. The latter do it for prestige.”
I vocalise my curiosity about whether there exists an event or circumstance in Dakis’ life without which he would not be the same person he is today; “My introduction to Lietta and our marriage, our four children, thirteen grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Lietta laid the groundwork. She was my rock. Also, my decision to go to America was a catalyst. That was almost unheard of at the time for someone living in Cyprus. Another important milestone was my studies in Rome. Finally, my involvement with art in the 1980s was one of my most important milestones.”
And what does a man lose by growing up, and what does he gain? “As a man approaches the other side,” he said, “the way he thinks changes. As you grow older, the years grow shorter. On the other hand, you gain experience and knowledge. That the body will slow down at some point is inevitable. Life is a passage, and what matters is what you leave behind.” Dakis spoke of his interest in posterity. His legacies include DESTE, the donation of the library (designed by Jean Nouvel) to the University of Cyprus, the Christos Stelios Joannou Foundation, the construction of the New Research Centre of the School of Classical and Byzantine Studies in Oxford, and others.
Lastly, I asked Dakis how he has lived and whether his pursuits have been bold or shy. His answer was, “I pursued life with audacity. I never rested. I always wanted to learn and discover. I never let things pass me by.”