Dakis Joannou

I did not understand collecting. I thought it was about collecting trophies, and I didn’t want to do that at all. But I still wanted to be engaged with art. DAKIS JOANNOU

You’d think an art-besotted industrialist whose construction company helped build the modern Middle East, North Africa, Cyprus, and Greece would have a lust for power. Not Dakis Joannou. The 76-year-old Greek Cypriot happily flouts the rules of typical mogul behavior. When he sails on Guilty, his custom-built, 115-foot art gallery of a yacht—with a razzle-dazzle paint job by Jeff Koons—his passengers are less likely to be fellow captains of industry than the artists and curators he admires. They know Joannou to be a man who thinks more like they do than like a businessman. He’s certainly the polar opposite of the developer who built Trump Tower, where Joannou and his wife, Lietta, have maintained a pied-à-terre since the late 1980s. Joannou has zero interest in politics—he doesn’t even vote—and he hasn’t plastered the family name on any of his six hotels in Athens. Nor does it appear on the foundation he established 33 years ago as DESTE, a Greek word for “look” and an acronym for International and Greek Contemporary Art. Interestingly, he founded DESTE before he started collecting. That happened in 1985, when he bought One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series), by the then little-known Koons. (The discounted price: $2,700.) It changed Joannou’s life.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, Joannou was schooled in Athens and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering at Cornell and Columbia universities, respectively, before getting a doctorate in architecture at Sapienza University in Rome. In 1967, he returned to Cyprus to join Joannou & Paraskevaides, his father’s construction firm, married Lietta, and had four children. In 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, the family relocated to London and in 1980 settled in Athens, where the couple currently lives in a modernist mansion that Joannou expanded to house his still-growing collection. Among the 600 or so artworks that he rotates in and out of storage are those by the likes of Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Robert Gober, PaweÅ? Althamer, Urs Fischer, Chris Ofili, Charles Ray, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Maurizio Cattelan and his latest interest, the Los Angeles-based artist Kaari Upson.

Art consumes him. Two of his hotels, the Semiramis and the New, were designed by object makers, Karim Rashid and the Campana brothers. He’s also given DESTE a publishing imprint. Among its limited-edition volumes is 1968, a doorstopper that depicts Joannou’s other major collection—radical Italian furniture from the 1960s and 1970s—in photographs that Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari made in the style of Playboy magazines from the period. The cover photo shows a rooster standing on a golden daybed next to a large turd. “That’s real,” Joannou says of the excrement, with the pride of a new father. (Someone else, however, cleaned up the mess.)

This spring, the foundation published DESTE 33 Years, a copiously illustrated oral history of the uninhibited, often groundbreaking, exhibitions and projects it has presented since 1983, both in its dedicated spaces in Athens and around the world. In some ways, the book represents Joannou’s counterpunch to the drubbing he received from the American press in 2010, when “Skin Fruit,” an exhibition of works from his collection and curated by Koons, appeared at the New Museum in New York. Because Joannou is on the museum’s board, and because of his close relationship with the artist, critics denounced the show, complaining of conflicts of interest. Joannou was stung by the reaction. “I am not in conflict,” he protests.

Not even a little. This June DESTE is celebrating its 33rd anniversary at the Benaki Museum in Athens with “The Equilibrists,” a group show that introduces the work of Greek and Cypriot artists in their twenties and thirties, after the first New Museum triennial, “Younger Than Jesus.” Opening at the same time is a solo show by the Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi at the Slaughterhouse, DESTE’s project space on the Greek island of Hydra. “I think he’s going to do something very strange,” says Joannou. “Something with crabs crawling all over the place.” DESTE 33 Years was sitting on a dining table designed by Urs Fischer when I arrived at Joannou’s Trump Tower apartment to talk about the foundation, his life in art, and his felicitous rapport with artists. The presidential primary campaign was in full swing, and Donald Trump was on the television in the living room, with the sound turned off.

LINDA YABLONSKY: This is the best view of Central Park I’ve ever seen. Actually, this is the best three views of New York City I’ve ever seen from a single room.

DAKIS JOANNOU: It’s totally unique.

YABLONSKY: Have you ever met Donald Trump?

JOANNOU: Not really. But he sent me a very nice letter for the opening of “Skin Fruit.” It said, “We are very proud to have people like you living in our building,” and so on. [laughs] I’ll have to dig it out now.

YABLONSKY: Yes, one day it might be historic! You’ve been even more successful in business, even though your degrees are in civil engineering and architecture. How do you account for that success?

JOANNOU: Common sense.

YABLONSKY: You had to leave Cyprus for London after the 1974 Turkish invasion. How did that affect your business?

JOANNOU. It didn’t. Most of our contracts were abroad, in the Middle East and places like that. We did everything—the airport in Muscat [Oman], a big one in Saudi Arabia, a big network system in Dubai …

YABLONSKY: So they have you to thank for the city that’s there now.

JOANNOU: Oh, my God. We really did a lot of work there. But all these workers had lost their jobs when Cyprus was invaded, so the two things—the labor force and the contracts—came together to help the company grow. And I was traveling all the time. I would come back to London just to visit the family for two or three days and then off again to Libya, to Muscat, to Beirut, and Dubai, and back again.

YABLONSKY: Were you looking at art in those places?

JOANNOU: Not at that time. I mean, Cyprus was invaded. We had offices in Cyprus. We had offices in London. We had offices in Dubai—all over. It was very dispersed and very difficult, having a young family and trying to keep all of that together.

YABLONSKY: Did you have any influence on the design of anything you built?

JOANNOU: No, no. We were contractors. They were just telling us, “Build that.” And we built it.

YABLONSKY: When did you start to have a say in how any of your buildings looked?

JOANNOU: It started with our own properties, the hotels in Athens—the InterContinental and Semiramis, and so forth.

YABLONSKY: When did that happen?

JOANNOU: In 1980, when we moved to Greece. By that time, the company was well organized and didn’t require as much of my time anymore. That’s when I started looking at art.

YABLONSKY: But you weren’t really collecting it. So where did the idea for the foundation come from?

JOANNOU: With friends, I had organized a couple of shows with Greek artists in Cyprus and Athens, at the InterContinental Hotel. We contacted art critics who were either passing through or were friends of friends, like Germano Celant and Pierre Restany, a famous critic. We were having lunch by the sea one day and I was telling him, “I have this problem. I want to get involved with art, but I don’t want to start collecting.” I did not understand collecting. I thought it was about collecting trophies, and I didn’t want to do that at all. But I still wanted to be engaged with art. And Pierre said, “The only thing to do is set up a foundation.” Then I happened to be in Geneva and I met Adelina von Fürstenberg [founder of Geneva’s Centre d’Art Contemporain, which collaborated with DESTE on exhibitions].

YABLONSKY: In the essay you wrote for the book, you say that Joseph Kosuth was also influential to your thinking about the foundation.

JOANNOU: Basically, he helped me understand conceptual art.

YABLONSKY: Which you’d never been too keen on.

JOANNOU: Exactly. The curator I was working with in Greece was Efi Strousa, who came from Arte Povera roots. They were not my roots. Slowly, as I started looking around and meeting people, I shifted to a completely different direction.

YABLONSKY: How would you characterize that direction?

JOANNOU: It has to do with life and it’s happy. It has a positive twist to it, if you like.

YABLONSKY: I’m surprised to hear you say that, because so much of what I’ve seen in your collection is—


YABLONSKY: Very dark! Yes. Tough. Visceral. It’s certainly about human life but particularly about the human body, both its pleasures and its discomforts.

JOANNOU: Exactly. This is what interests me, and what’s happening now, and how the work connects directly with the body.

YABLONSKY: I’m still surprised to hear you characterize it as happy.

JOANNOU: I mean, compared to the Arte Povera artists, who were so angry.

YABLONSKY: Why did you start the foundation in Geneva, when you were living in Athens?

JOANNOU: Because it has a good system for not-for-profit foundations. At the time, I was hoping for sponsorship, because people could get tax exemptions—Greece doesn’t have this. In the end, I basically funded the exhibitions myself.

YABLONSKY: So when were the first shows?

JOANNOU: In ’83. I bought the first piece for the collection in 1985.

YABLONSKY: That was Koons’s floating basketball.

JOANNOU: The Equilibrium piece. I only realized that I was building a collection maybe a year later.

YABLONSKY: It was Jeffrey Deitch who took you around the East Village galleries in the ’80s, when he was advising clients of Citibank. Were you one of them?

JOANNOU: No, we had an art friendship. I met him in Geneva. Adelina introduced us.

YABLONSKY: So what happened when you walked into International With Monument gallery and saw Jeff’s first show there? It had a number of other works, but you homed in on the single floating basketball. It was so different from everything else happening in New York—the neo-Expressionist painting, media appropriations, and graffiti art. Did you feel an emotional connection to that work?

JOANNOU: An emotional and intellectual curiosity. I mean, all senses moved.

YABLONSKY: You weren’t yet a collector of contemporary art, but you had an impulse to buy this one.

JOANNOU: Well, I wasn’t sure if I was going to buy it. I wanted to meet the artist first, and they arranged a meeting with him at his studio. Jeff was living near Wall Street and was already working on the Luxury and Degradation series, the one with the Jim Beam train. We had a really engaging conversation, and I was fascinated by what I saw.

YABLONSKY: After you left the studio, how did you understand his work?

JOANNOU: For me, it was a perfect object that, at the same time, was completely unnatural. In Rome, as a student, I was very much into pittura metafisica and de Chirico, and in New York a few years before that, into pop art. I loved both worlds. So in my mind, somehow the core connected—the metaphysics with pop.

YABLONSKY: Haim Steinbach was doing related work at that time. Did you meet him too?

JOANNOU: Yes, Haim, Ashley Bickerton, Jeff, Peter Halley. I was coming through New York every two months for business I had in San Francisco, so I’d stop here for two or three days and just hang out with these artists at the Odeon, or in Brooklyn.

YABLONSKY: You’ve made a pretty deep commitment to them. In Jeff’s case, you’ve bought work from just about every show. And later, Maurizio Cattelan, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Andro Wekua and Andra Ursuta came into the collection.

JOANNOU: That’s right. All of that happens through the relationships I’ve built with these artists. I know them all very well. For me, it’s extremely important. Now with the proliferation of contemporary art, where do you start? It’s not what it used to be, obviously. In a way, it’s better that a lot more of it is being produced, and a lot more people are interested. On the other hand, there’s no way that I can expand my own way of working. There was a great Chinese artist I didn’t get a chance to meet, so I will never collect him. So it’s a very personal collection. The relationships are what binds the whole thing together—the relationships and the works of art, with me in the middle.

YABLONSKY: It’s interesting that all of these artists’ works have a very strong conceptual component. But you never really connected to conceptualism, even though you keep Duchamp’s urinal, Fountain [1964], at home in Athens.

JOANNOU: Since I was a kid, Fountain had great fascination for me. So the roots were there. Maybe I only discovered them inside me through the discussions with these artists and looking at their work. Everything started to come together. 

YABLONSKY: You just hit on something I’ve been thinking about—that what people like about contemporary art is talking about it. Also, we live in this digital world, where people tend to communicate remotely, so these conversations exercise a socializing influence.

JOANNOU: That’s why it pays to make a space where we can show some of these works.

YABLONSKY:  So people will talk about it?

JOANNOU: So they can see it.

YABLONSKY: So you can see it.

JOANNOU: [laughs] Yeah. And share.

YABLONSKY: Right. It’s not a private museum. DESTE didn’t even have a permanent home for several years, even though it had a full-scale exhibition program. I was fascinated to read about the ’80s shows that Jeffrey Deitch curated at the House of Cyprus, like “Cultural Geometry,” in 1988. That was a turning point, because it introduced many of the American artists—Dan Graham, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, Allan McCollum—to Europeans like Katharina Fritsch, John Armleder, and Rosemarie Trockel. And the catalog was a visual essay that set the stage for all the books that followed.

JOANNOU: And Haim Steinbach did the installation. I did a drawing of the layout, but then Haim and Jeff came in. We worked collectively, but Haim took the lead.

YABLONSKY: Two years later, “Artificial Nature” examined the impact of technology on the human body, how art can alter nature, how the artificial could become the real, or the norm. It put Bickerton and Koons together with Robert Smithson and Martin Kippenberger. Did Cicciolina come with Jeff to that opening?

JOANNOU: Yes, she was there.

YABLONSKY: What was she like?

JOANNOU: Really smart. I was the best man at their wedding. They came to Greece many times.

YABLONSKY: In the ’90s you got into the restaurant business?

JOANNOU: Yeah, that just happened. Everything happens by accident in my life or by coincidence.

YABLONSKY: I think you can give yourself more credit than that.

JOANNOU: What happened was that a friend, Petros Costopoulos, proposed that we start a publishing business together. We had two or three lifestyle magazines and we wanted to push further, into art. In the end, he couldn’t make the shift and I walked away. But he said, “Why don’t we start a restaurant?” So we found a building and got the restaurant. We had the bar and restaurant on the ground floor, and the foundation on the top two floors, open till midnight. He was a big personality in Athens, and it was in Neo Psychiko, a very popular commercial area. But a funny thing happened when we did a show that I didn’t like at all. We had big dinners at the restaurant after the openings, and at this dinner all of my Greek friends said, “Ah, what a fantastic show. Now we understand what DESTE is doing. It’s terrific!” And I thought, “Oh shit, I must be doing something wrong. If they like what I don’t like, what should I be doing? Should I be doing what they like and I don’t? So I stopped and went back to having shows when we felt like it or had an idea.

YABLONSKY: That all happened in the late ’90s to mid-2000s, when you were avidly collecting. Forgive me for asking, but does it bother you when four other collectors own the same work that you do, like the Koons Balloon Dog [1994-2000], even if the others are a different color?

JOANNOU: Of course it bothers me. The editions for the Celebration series were for five because they had difficulty funding it, and when we bought the first pieces, they asked if we didn’t mind if there were extras in the edition. I said, “That’s fine,” because you want to facilitate the artist to produce work.

YABLONSKY: Did you also buy the famous Rabbit from Jeff’s 1986 Statuary series?

JOANNOU: No, I got Louis XIV. I guess I made a mistake. On the other hand, having the red Balloon Dog, I don’t miss Rabbit.

YABLONSKY: I don’t know why, but that red one is much more seductive than the others.

JOANNOU: Yeah, there’s no comparison.

YABLONSKY: How did you meet Maurizio Cattelan?

JOANNOU: Would you believe that neither of us can remember?

YABLONSKY: Which of his works did you see first?

JOANNOU: It’s kind of a funny story, because I came a little late into it. Anthony d’Offay was trying to get me interested in Maurizio’s work. I remember he showed me the big Picasso mask.

YABLONSKY: You mean the giant head worn by the actor Maurizio hired to beg for loose change at the Museum of Modern Art?

JOANNOU: Yeah. And I said, “Anthony, come on.” I didn’t understand that at all. He was very persistent. I flew to a museum where Maurizio had a small figure of himself coming out of a hole in the floor. Things started clicking, and then we met.

YABLONSKY: That is the advantage to collecting contemporary art—living artists! Maurizio is another one you’ve become close to and whose projects you’ve supported, like Toilet Paper, the magazine he does with the photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari.

JOANNOU: Very close. He also did the book on my furniture collection, 1968. I started collecting furniture by Mollino and all these people, when no one was really looking at them, but by our opening at DESTE in 2004, they had become really popular. Collectors were coming and saying, “Oh, this is like my sofa. This is like my table.”

YABLONSKY: Wait. You had a show of the furniture collection at the foundation?

JOANNOU: No, this was at my house—at the dinner for “Monument to Now,” the show we had at the foundation during the Olympics. In fact, the show was part of the Olympic program. It was huge.

YABLONSKY: By this time, DESTE had its own home in the Nea Ionia district.

JOANNOU: Right. It was the first show in the current location. It used to be my storage space and was just a block away from the Olympic Games office. But the dinner was the same story as the other one I told you about.

YABLONSKY: Too many people liked it?

JOANNOU: Too many. But Dennis Freedman was there with W magazine, because they wanted to make a story about the show. He was also collecting 20th-century furniture and suggested that I start looking into radical Italian design of the late 1960s. And I started to get really fascinated with it. So I put all the furniture I had in a container, brought it to New York and auctioned it off—everything. Six months later the house was completely different.

YABLONSKY: Have you ever done that with art? Sold it?

JOANNOU: Not really. Once in a while, I sell something.

YABLONSKY: So this is how the book about the furniture collection came about?

JOANNOU: That was another crazy story. We had this show at DESTE, “Collecting Architecture Territories,” a project with Columbia University.

YABLONSKY: People do collect architecture.

JOANNOU: Well, this was about the importance of architecture to a collection and the proliferation of private museums and how architecture ties together these two things. A group of young students came and did a show we presented at DESTE. During one panel discussion, [the architectural historian] Beatriz Colomina talked about a show she was doing, “Playboy Architecture.” I mean, the magazine was mainly bunnies, but at the same time, they had some serious stuff. So I asked my son to go on eBay and get me ten years’ worth of Playboys, 1965 to 1975, and I call Maurizio and say, “Look at these images and look at this furniture. Can we do something about it?” And he came up with the idea to do a book of photographs, Toilet Paper-style, and give new life to this furniture. So that’s what we did. We had models come to Corfu and Athens from all over the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania. The rooster on the cover came from Corfu, and he really put that turd on the furniture.

YABLONSKY: Roosters make big turds!

JOANNOU: I had so much fun doing this.

YABLONSKY: Another collector might have had a nervous breakdown, but you’re always taking the road less traveled.

JOANNOU: I keep moving, yeah.

YABLONSKY: Over the last few years, Greece has been in the world spotlight for all the wrong reasons—because of its economic crisis, and then because of the refugees from Syria. Yet your focus continues to be on art. How do you reckon your activities with those events?

JOANNOU: Twice I was asked to do some kind of official thing, and both were unhappy experiences. So I decided not to do anything with the state anymore.

YABLONSKY: Are you a Greek citizen?

JOANNOU: I’m a Cypriot. And I still have English citizenship. I never voted in my life.

YABLONSKY: It seems to me that you’re in a position to influence people.

JOANNOU: Influence means power, and I don’t want that. Whatever happens, here we do our own thing and put it out there for people to take or leave. We’re not doing anything to influence them.

YABLONSKY: Even at DESTE, you stay in the background, and yet you are in the center of everything it does.

JOANNOU: What polarized me in the beginning was an older Greek artist who came to our first show and gave me a lecture about responsibilities. He said, “You have all these foreign artists, but you have a responsibility to Greek artists.” Almost automatically, I said, “I have a responsibility to myself. Nobody else.”

YABLONSKY: You did establish a DESTE Prize for young Greek artists.

JOANNOU: We have a Greek team choose the finalists and an international jury to choose the winners. I don’t have an influence.

YABLONSKY: You are responsible for the art in your collection.

JOANNOU: The first thing that I have to respect is myself. Once I respect myself, then I respect the art. Because that’s what I’m interested in.

YABLONSKY: “Skin Fruit” brought you a lot of unwanted attention.

JOANNOU: The perceived conflicts of interest. One thing I’m with Trump on is the political correctness in this country. It’s draining.

YABLONSKY: It’s always better to be independent, as you are in Athens.

JOANNOU: But the New Museum wanted to do this show in New York. And they wanted to ask an artist to curate it, out of respect for what I’ve done with the collection. So they asked Jeff. And he did an amazing job. No curator would have done the job like he did.

YABLONSKY: I agree. The trouble was that you’re on the board of a museum showing art that you own. It makes people uncomfortable, or maybe the show itself did, but it only scratched the surface of your collection. 

JOANNOU: That’s how the book started, actually. I was so annoyed that people wouldn’t listen to who I was but just saw this multimillionaire collector on the board. A woman from The New York Times called and I tried to explain what DESTE is. I said, “I know who I am and what I’m doing. I am not in conflict and I’m not trying to promote the collection.” And then we see a story about the big collector who’s a trustee of the New Museum, same old thing. So I said, “I’m going to do this book to show the real story.” It’s not about a collector showing off.