The second part of the interview with Onassis Foundation president Antonis Papadimitriou
New York- By Vicki J Yiannias & Apostolos Zoupaniotis
In the second part of his exclusive interview with the GreekNews, the Onassis Foundation president Antonis Papadimitriou speaks about the change of the guard in the leadership. He praises his father Stelios – who passed away last week – and his close associates and he speaks about the immediate goals of the foundation, and especially the Onassis House of Arts and Letters in Athens.
GN: How does the name Onassis, and its legacy, help the Foundation today?
AP: The Onassis Foundation is one of the very few businesses that have survived the death of the founder . . . and for thirty years, without the existence of the natural heir. The greatness of his spirit was that he selected the first generation of people to whom he entrusted this job. These people were his closest associates. He intentionally avoided putting his closest relatives on the original Board of the Foundation. Even in his will he named Tina Livanos the first President of the Foundation. Tina Livanos died before Aristotle Onassis, and he didn’t change his will. There is nothing in the will of Onassis saying that if Tina Livanos dies, my daughter Christina would become the President of the Foundation and after her death, her children would become president.
Twelve out of fifteen of the original Board were business associates, not relatives. And these business associates have directed the Foundation from the date of March 15, 1975, when he died. Now it’s 2005 — thirty years later. These business associates have built from the foundation laid by Onassis, which is this building that you now see. So the name of Onassis is on the front of that building but the building was actually built by the Board. The name Onassis still opens doors for us . . . it is a name that is known worldwide. But if we hadn’t done that job which Onassis said should be done, I don’t know whether today any doors would have been opened. In any organization the most important and most difficult job is to choose the right people at the right places and to arrange for the succession. His vision included a mechanism to arrange for the next generation. Well, the next generation is us.
GN: How were you selected?
AP: The “next generation” was selected by Christina Onassis and the Board when Christina was still alive; I was promoted to the Board of the Foundation by Christina when she was still alive. Back in 1986, she said to my father and to Paul Ioannides, you are not spring chickens anymore, you must choose the next generation of managers. There was an effort to find new people to come in and start from the lowest grade within the organization and work their way up to wherever their capabilities would allow them to go. So this is how — without false modesty — I became the President of the Foundation. The Board members said, okay, he should become President. They have seen me for the last eighteen years. They know how I work, what I’ve done, what my capabilities are.
GN: It appears that you were a student of the top teacher who was a student of the top teacher!
AP: Yes, that was very observant.
GN: Was the Onassis House of Arts and Letters one person’s concept or the result of brainstorming?
AP: It was both, actually. I believe it was my father’s idea but not solely; the Foundation was doing a big job in investing in Greek culture and Greek arts.
For example, through the years we have given about five hundred scholarships to painters, sculptors, dancers, actors. Every kind of art and literature has been supported by us so we have already invested a large amount of effort into these people. We realized that they needed a place to work . . . they needed a place where they can show whatever they have been doing. So we need a cultural center with that physical possibility. And this is not just for our own scholarship recipients. It’s also for all Greeks.
GN: What will be the criteria for choosing who will be involved?
AP: We haven’t set the criteria yet. They are going to be objective, and as we say in Greek, axiokratika –they are going to be value-oriented criteria. We shall have a board of consultants that are going to help us set the criteria and to implement the criteria.
I believe that we have to take risks. Without taking risks we aren’t going to do anything new. Think of how few artists who, one hundred or two hundred years ago, won the Prix de Rome, the prize given by the French Republic to artists, are known today. The number is very small . . . but who doesn’t know Van Gogh, or Toulouse Lautrec, although they never got the Prix de Rome. If someone had taken the risk to support Van Gogh then he would have spent a much better life, and he probably would have produced other masterpieces. So our intention is to take risks . . . calculated risks according to out value-oriented criteria.
GN: Will there be competitions?
AP: The competitions are a different aspect of the activities of the Foundation. Originally we had the Onassis Prizes. These were given to eminent personalities, mostly at the end of their crowned achievements. However we thought that the money of the Foundation would be much better spent in international competitions for music, ballet, painting, sculpture and even an international competition for a philosophical essay. People who are now at the beginning of their careers producing art, will be encouraged to do something more, to get out to a wider public. It will help them to actually create, and then this work will be shown at the Onassis House of Arts and Letters in Athens — it all ties together.
GN: Where in Athens is the Onassis House of Arts and Letters located and what will it be like?
AP: It is on Syngrou Avenue next to the Intercontinental Hotel. We have already built about 100,000 square feet — underground — if you go there now you won’t see anything because it’s all underground. And there is an equal height that we haven’t yet started to build, but we hope to finish it by the end of 2007. It is going to have an auditorium that seats more than 900. It will be able to host theatre, ballet, concerts, etc. It will have electronically controlled systems for perfect acoustics for each type of performance.
Then there is a smaller auditorium that seats 250, an exhibition space of 7000 square feet that will be temperature-controlled and with special lighting so we can accommodate major exhibitions. It will be very advanced. The building is designed by a French firm, Architecture Studio, and the technology for the theatre and the auditorium is by an English firm, Theatre Consultants.
GN: It is something new for Athens.
AP: Yes. It will not be like every small cultural center that has limited capabilities. We need to have a more evolved cultural center, and that doesn’t exist in Greece. The Megaron in Athens is doing an excellent job but it’s doing something different. We thought there was a lack of this specific thing and we are going to provide it. We are not going to replicate what the Megaron is doing. We will supplement and collaborate with the Megaron, and with all the other cultural institutions, as well.