Q: Allow me to start with a personal question: What were your feelings when you became SNFCC Managing Director, more than ten months ago?
NM: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) is a unique asset for Greece, unparalleled in Europe, perhaps in the whole world. The vision of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), so masterfully realized by Renzo Piano, was to establish a public space open to each and every one. This was the vision we must serve: a public SNFCC, where all people enjoy free access and engage actively in a variety of cultural, educational, athletic, recreational and environmental events and activities. That’s why it was a great honor for me when Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos’s proposed that I become SNFCC managing director, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity he has given me. At the same time, I was fully aware of the level of responsibility I was assuming as managing director of such an important institution.
Q: What is your assessment today?
NM: Our first objective for 2017 was to ensure that buildings, infrastructure and systems operate smoothly so that the Greek National Opera (GNO) and the National Library of Greece (NLG) could benefit fully from the enormous potential provided by the project so as to multiply their contributions to the public, especially to young people. Allowing for the challenges always involved in familiarization with new, advanced systems and technologies, GNO’s transition to SNFCC was completed with resounding success and significantly less "turbulence" than many had predicted. NLG’s installation will soon be completed, as well.
Q: And your second objective?
NM: It was to provide a rich and varied cultural, educational, athletic and entertainment program – with special focus on the young – open and free of charge thanks to SNF’s donation. Indeed, in 2017, more than 3,500 events and activities, with special emphasis on children, young people and those aged 65 and over, were organized by SNFCC and SNF. These events and activities were expertly designed, focusing on quality and social impact. At the same time, special attention was paid to keeping the public up to date, respecting it and providing as much as convenience as possible, welcoming it to a civilized, well-kept and secure environment, encouraging participation in as many events as possible.
Q: You mentioned 3,500 events and activities. How many visitors were received?
NM: SNFCC visitor numbers exceeded the most optimistic projections. More than three million people visited the Centre in 2017. The public responded by lovingly embracing SNFCC and showing extraordinary care in maintaining it in perfect condition. And, of course, SNFCC's ongoing goal is to keep the project in the best possible condition through meticulous maintenance, cleanliness, safety and care.
Q: Which element in the image you just painted most pleasantly surprised you – something that you did not expect to achieve?
NM: The most pleasant surprise was SNFCC’s dynamics, which exceeded even the most optimistic projections. I think that only Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President and Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, had fully grasped the scope of this dynamic.
Q: I guess you would not like to talk about your contribution to success. Could you talk to me about other people’s contributions? Who is to be credited for this outcome?
NM: We must first of all gratefully acknowledge the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, its Board of Directors and Andreas Dracopoulos in particular, not only for offering this unique project to the Greek State but also for the Foundation’s ongoing support, which enables us to make our events available to all, free of charge. We have SNF’s help and support in every respect.
Q: Beyond that?
NM: The second major prerequisite for success has been the truly exemplary way in which the Finance Ministry performs its supervisory role. It is committed to the operational principles for a public organization, it has acted to resolve the remaining issues in SNFCC's relations with the State and fully respects the autonomy of SNFCC's management by the Board of Directors. In this context, I would like to thank sincerely Euclid Tsakalotos and his associate, Sofia Dimitrakopoulou. SNFCC Board – populated by very important people, experts in their fields – has made the most decisive contribution to building a suitable operating framework and achieving our goals. Finally, I must personally thank my associates and all the employees of the Cultural Center for their dedication and contribution to the realization of this great vision.
Q: You must be aware, as I am, of certain reservations expressed about SNFCC’s delivery to the State. Are you determined to prove that the State does not really fit our mental image of it as a slow-moving, bureaucratic monster?
NM: In his New Year's address, speaking on behalf of the SNF Board, member George Agouridis was kind enough to say that, “Nikos Manolopoulos, SNFCC CEO, together with the Board of Directors and his associates, fully vindicated SNF co-president Andreas Dracopoulos, who argued – from the very beginning and against the prevailing notion that delivery to the State meant abandonment and misery – that if we have the passion and professionalism that it takes, if we have the will, we Greeks, both the private and public sectors, are able to operate a project as complex as SNFCC." It is our shared goal for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center to open a horizon of hope and optimism about what can be achieved through cooperation of the private and public sectors.
Q: There is also the international experience.
NM: Especially when it comes to cultural institutions, in the context of this debate, I am flabbergasted by the fact that we seem unaware of the fact that the great European institutions, including the Louvre, Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, which are synonymous to success in our minds, are all public. I have already mentioned to you the main stakes for SNFCC. With the stated intention of the supervising Ministry and the SNF, and the framework we have established with the Board of Directors, I was not concerned with bureaucracy and inertia as major issues.
Q: Yet, one might say that state involvement began at a moment of tension – the president’s resignation. There are headlines online such as "Kimoulis supplanted by Manolopoulos." What happened? Did you fear that this tension could obstruct the process?
NM: You can imagine that these headlines had little to do with reality. Giorgos Kimoulis recently clarified his stance, which I personally consider as very honorable. Yet, I disagree with him on a key point. It is absolutely correct that SNFCC funding mainly comes from SNF donations. The crucial thing, however, in my opinion, is the terms under which these donations are given. These terms are transparency, integrity of financial management, social benefit, and provision of events free of charge to the public. These terms are, therefore, fully in line with the public nature of SNFCC and reflect the guidelines received by the Board of Directors from the Greek State. Moreover, it is not accurate that the State does not fund SNFCC.
Q: Could we talk about this binary distinction between public versus private? Isn’t culture one and the same? Is it relevant whether it is a private or public matter?
NM: In Economics, all studies point to the fact that culture, in its most important aspects, is a public good. This means that market processes (supply and demand, etc.) lead to results that are not satisfactory either in financial and social terms or in terms of creating conditions for cultural growth. This this why major cultural institutions around the world rely on government subsidies and private donations. As I said earlier, there is a solid tradition of major public cultural institutions in Europe which of course also make use of large private donations or sponsorships.
Q: What about the blend? If we were to imagine SNFCC as a promotion mechanism, how Greek must culture be so as not to be accused of being slavishly foreign, and how international so as not to be criticized as introverted?
NM: I like to think of SNFCC as a large laboratory for education and culture. Our main goals include mobilizing and developing our country’s cultural, academic and educational resources. Moreover, the vast majority of our events in 2017 involved Greek contributors. On the other hand, one of the key ways to foster development is working with acclaimed foreign organizations, artists and scientists. Only in this way will we achieve the goal we set from the beginning – to establish GNO, NLG and SNFCC as major hubs on the European and global cultural map. Overall, I believe that it is paramount for contemporary Greek cultural production to have a valid presence within major cultural movements, which for many centuries now have been supranational.
Q: Based on your previous experience at the Athens Concert Hall (Megaron), would you say that culture is expensive, perhaps provocatively expensive for a country in crisis? Or, on the contrary, and precisely because of the crisis, do we need major cultural projects?
NM: The budget allocated to culture has for decades been among the lowest in Europe. I believe that there is an urgent need to increase it, bearing in mind, of course, the difficult economic situation facing our country. I moreover believe that there is a need for a broad, public and intelligent debate on the framework in which major cultural institutions operate, so as to lay the foundations for the development of these institutions over the next 20 years.
Q: Let’s end as we started – with a personal question: If you were to become an acclaimed artist, which art form would you choose?
NM: I try to keep up to date with performing arts and, of course, literature as much as possible. Yet, I am aware of my limitations and have never imagined myself as an artist.