Property and hotel developer Dakis Joannou is one of the world’s most influential contemporary art collectors, but he began collecting, he says, almost by accident. “I have been interested in art as long as I can remember, but I was buying art for pleasure, not collecting,” says Joannou. “I did not intend to or want to collect.”
Born in Cyprus, Joannou studied civil engineering at Cornell and Columbia universities in the United States, and architecture at Sapienza University in Rome before returning home to join his father’s construction company. In 1974, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus forced him to relocate to London and then Athens, where he still lives with his wife Lietta.
The couple’s modernist property displays a rotating selection of Joannou’s collection of more than 600 pieces of art, including work by Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton and the latest artist to catch his eye: Los Angeles-based Kaari Upson. The 77-year-old Joannou remains dedicated to broadening the audience for contemporary art, promoting emerging and established artists through the Deste Foundation, a non-profit institution he founded in Athens, and through the curation of art by emerging local talent in his hotels.
Joannou still clearly recalls the moment that triggered his transformation into a serious collector in 1985: his visceral reaction to the sight of a basketball suspended in a tank of water—an experience he has described as moving of all his senses.
“Jeff Koons’ piece, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, was a magical piece,” he says. “It’s a fish tank with the basket ball floating in the middle, which seems totally natural but the ball was in a totally unnatural position, so it was a very intriguing state of being, and yet it had so many references. It’s a very iconic, classical combination of the square and the circle.”
Joannou was already buying art—starting with Italian pop art—for his home and his hotels, but despite his instant attraction to One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, he didn’t buy it immediately. “I asked to meet the artist first, then I decided to acquire the piece—after I met him.”
This became the policy Joannou has adhered to ever since: he won’t buy art unless he has met the artist. This has seen him miss out on some works, but he now describes what he does as more akin to “collecting relationships” than collecting art, something that remains an important criteria in any acquisition.
“When I met Jeff Koons, I started collecting without realising,” he says. “I met Jeff, acquired one of his works, and then another one. Then I met some of his friends, like Ashley Bickerton, Haim Steinbach and others, and I kept buying their works which, at a few thousand dollars at the time, were just to put in my house. It was a year before I realised I had a collection.”
Conscious that the young artists he started collecting are now in their 50s and 60s, Joannou has recently started engaging with younger artists such as Roberto Cuoghi, currently showing at the Pavilion at the Biennale in Venice, and Kaari Upson, whose work appears in the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum in New York. Once again, relationships are key, and he describes himself as friends with all the artists in the collection.
To this day, the experiential element of art is what drives Joannou’s desire to collect and exhibit. “When completing InterContinental Athenaeum [in Athens], I thought it made a lot of sense if we bought only contemporary young Greek artists,” he says. “When people visit Greece, we want to give them the full experience—not just antiques, moussaka and feta. They know about the food and the weather, but they would not normally have the chance to experience contemporary Greek art, so it is about offering that experience.”
Joannou’s approach to building a collection is based on his relationships with artists and connections between works that he cannot always put into words. The narrative that binds them is personal and instinctive, and less formally defined than you might find in an exhibition put together by a curator.
“They don’t really appear to have that much in common, but to me they connect because the selections are all made through my filter,” says Joannou. “I see something beyond the form —something in the psyche of the piece, something that really comes from inside of the piece. I cannot really articulate it or put it into a formula. Something just feels right, and connects within me and the pieces with each other. I am just responding to the works, getting to know the artists, understanding or trying to understand what they are doing. It’s about being curious to go deeper and find the layers of meaning in the piece of art you are looking at. In that sense I am extremely curious. There is no methodology or system, except getting to know the artists.”
Despite the deeply personal approach to building his collection, Joannou is committed to sharing it. “I consider myself more involved with the foundation, with Deste, than the collection,” he says. “The collection is just there—what really counts for me is the activity of the foundation and the way the collection is shown.” He even claims not to care about visitor numbers. “We don’t worry about how many people come and visit us. If only ten people are interested that is fine. If 10,000 people are interested, that is fine too.” What matters to him is how the people who do come, whether in their tens or tens of thousands, connect with the work. “I want to reproduce the feeling I had the first time I saw One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” he says. “I want to give the viewer the experience of that magical moment.”