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The news of the start of the Greek Revolution was greeted with enthusiasm from people all over the world. Greece represented the foundation of Western civilization and there were many who wanted to see the country liberated from the Ottoman occupation. Friends of Greece were actively supporting the struggle in multiple ways and the support even crossed the Atlantic and reached the United States.
Crossing the Atlantic and coming to Greece for the bicentennial celebration of the Greek war of Independence were 67 artworks from the collection of George Gaitanaris & Io Dolka. The works were first exhibited in Tripolis, from June 26 to October 3, then in Athens, from October 8 to October 28, and part of the collection is currently exhibited in Thessaloniki (December 17-March 31).
George Gaitanaris and Io Dolka, eminent scientists, live and work in Seattle, USA. For twenty years they have been collecting works of art in reference to the Greek world, mainly from the period of the Turkish occupation and the struggle for independence.
Interview:: Filippos Sotiropoulos
Mr. Gaitanaris, you studied Medicine at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. How were your student years
G. GAITANARIS: They were strongly politicized and one of the most important things we learned at that time was the sensitivity in the structures and processes of the Democracy, as well as the respect for social principles. Besides this, Medicine was Medicine.
How did you decide to become a permanent resident of the United States
G. GAITANARIS: Finishing Medicine in Greece, I felt that I wanted to build on what I learned. But I felt that Greece was drowning me, I wanted something different. America was a dream. And it was the place where all the big steps in the field of medical science took place, or most of them.
Does a doctor have the right to make a mistake?
G. GAITANARIS: A doctor is a human being. And mistakes are human. I have no problem with the doctor making a mistake. The problem is when the mistake is intentional. Of course, a doctor will make mistakes. Many basic principles are still missing in Medicine. It is not yet a grounded science, such as Chemistry, Physics, etc. It has many aspects that are hypothesis, that have no proof, that are not dogmas. So many times, you rely on the doctor’s judgment for a diagnosis. Therefore, it can be wrong. But Io can also tell us a lot about it, because she works on the subject.
I. DOLKA: I agree with what George said. We now know about hundreds of different diseases. When a doctor has a patient in front of him/her and is trying to understand what is happening, he/she has to think of many different scenarios. My colleagues and I, who work with difficult diseases whether rare or complex, see that it is important for the doctors to be “comfortable with the uncertainty.” That is, they do not necessarily know the answer but seek to find it in order to help the patient. This is the right medicine, where you do not have a completely given view of what is happening and let the patient’s data and symptoms guide the diagnosis and treatment.
Mrs. Dolka, you work in the field of support and guidance of patients with rare diseases and diagnostic difficulties. Please talk to us a little bit more about it.
I. DOLKA: This space in America is called patient advocacy. As a profession, it has existed for about two decades. It is created by the need of helping patients with many and usually chronic symptoms, who go from doctor to doctor without being able to find what is happening. In these cases, in the end, you often end up being diagnosed with a rare disease or with 2-3 diseases at the same time. I connect this a little with what I said before, that this area needs doctors who are willing to look and do not rely on simple and quick answers. It is a difficult situation for both the patient and the doctor. There are over 10 million patients in this category in America. We step in between these two poles of the relationship and help doctors having all the data they need to make a better diagnosis, and we help patients manage this uncertainty and complexity as they move forward.
Mrs. Dolka, these are difficult and rare diseases, many of which are incurable. How do you feel about the invincible?
I. DOLKA: It is difficult. I think that when you are in front of something that cannot be defeated, you feel weak, you feel small, but that is where you need not to give up and instead try to do the best you can in the space you have, with the data you have. It’s not easy.
Mr. Gaitanaris, in 2019 you were awarded the Galien Award in the field of Pharmacology. What does this mean for you?
G. GAITANARIS: It is a special satisfaction and joy for me. I have to admit that I would be even happier if I could share this award with many more people. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of scientists who have not been fortunate enough to be recognized, to win an award. People who have really sacrificed themselves on the altar of research and who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of science. Research often eats you alive. Most people who work in research remain in obscurity. The lucky few are the ones who are recognized, but that does not mean that those who are not recognized are less good or less important.
Do you miss Greece?
G. GAITANARIS: Of course. We miss childhood references and emotional connections. Family, friends, the place where you grew up. These are things that cannot be replaced. No matter how good our lives are in America, we miss these elements quite a lot.
How did you get infected with the collector’s ‘germ’?
G. GAITANARIS: I have always liked art. And I think when you grow up in Greece, with art around you, whether it is the ancient monuments you see or the museums you go to, you become aware. Now, moving to the collector level is a little different. Unfortunately, you have to be financially able to support it. While I was a student in New York, the Mecca of contemporary art, I saw art all around me, all the new movements that were taking place, but I could not afford buying anything. When our financial situation changed, it was natural for us to start collecting.
What is it that draws your attention to a work of art?
G. GAITANARIS: We see a lot of works every week. We have been collecting for over 20 years, we have seen hundreds of thousands of works. The first thing that catches my attention is something which is unique. The unprecedented. The unexpected.
I. DOLKA: I agree with George. We look for artists that have something different to say. Something we have not seen before.
How many years it took you to collect the 67 works, which were exhibited in Tripoli and in Athens?
G. GAITANARIS: It was the result of 20 years of effort. Either it was in Greece, or it was in England, in France, in Germany or in America. Wherever we could find these works, we hunted them down. Either in galleries, or in auctions, or in private collections.
I. DOLKA: Yes, the effort was long and methodical.
What exactly does the exhibition highlight and in what way is it the harbinger of the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Greek Revolution?
G. GAITANARIS: What you see is the illustrated history of the Struggle. It has the important moments of the war depicted, as seen at that time, either by great foreign painters or by the Greek folk painter. And it brings to life the glory of ’21.
What was the impetus for collecting the above works of art?
G. GAITANARIS: The main reason for collecting these works was our desire to connect us with Tripoli. Having grown up and experienced the atmosphere in Tripoli, where the War of Independence is one of the main parts of the history of the city, the ’21 becomes part of you, is almost imprinted in your DNA. We wanted to create something that connects us to the place. At the same time, we have our house in Tripoli, so the thought was that these works will go home to Tripoli and at some point, after our death, will be donated to the city and stay there.
As a collector, are you emotionally attached to choosing to buy a work or is that purchase another investment?
G. GAITANARIS: They are both. You cannot ignore the cost of art. The money to buy art is not small. Therefore, you try, as much as you can, to choose works of art that you like, that you bond with, but at the same time, have commercial value. The art market in the last century, has been the strongest stock market, but people just do not know it. People know real estate, gold, stocks. But few know the art market.
I. DOLKA: And the nice thing about art is that it is an investment that you can enjoy in your home. You cannot enjoy, say, a stock in the same way.
In a time of crisis, is it worth investing in art? Is there an art market today?
G. GAITANARIS: Art presents a very good opportunity for investment. The point is that the space is unknown to the general public and these opportunities are unfortunately a privilege of the few. One day we would like to contribute to making the investment in art accessible to more people.
Is there another collection of yours with different works from the ones you exhibited in Tripoli and Athens?
G. GAITANARIS: Yes. Our main collection is not the one on display these days in Greece. The focus of our collecting effort is on works by contemporary artists. Young artists from all over the world, but mostly Americans and Europeans. We are now friends with several of them and they often create works especially for our collection.
Do you feel like art lovers, cool investors or something in between?
G. GAITANARIS: Clearly, we are art lovers. But the investment part is not something you can ignore, so I would say something in between.
I. DOLKA: Yes, I agree.
Can you name one or more famous painters that stand out?
G. GAITANARIS: For me, the greatest painter of all time, and maybe the greatest forever, is Picasso. There is no one that comes close to him. As a contemporary top painter, I consider Basquiat.
I. DOLKA: I agree with Picasso, I think most will agree with that. When I was growing up, I really liked Dali and his surreal approach. These melting clocks, allegories of time that erode everything, are images strongly imprinted in my memory. As I got older, my teenage criteria changed and so did the things I liked. Among today’s big names, I single out Keith Haring and George Condo. We have a lot of conversations about Basquiat in our house, because George likes him but I have a difficulty.
Does rational science, which you both chose and followed in your life, converge somewhere with the art world? Is life the common denominator?
G. GAITANARIS: There are many commonalities between Medicine and Art. In fact, it is interesting to note that some of the largest collectors of works of art are doctors. Life is a common denominator, it’s true. But there is something else beautiful, common in art and science, which is discovery. Discovering a new artist, discovering works of art, gives you almost the same excitement as discovering something new about a disease, about a treatment, a diagnostic.
After so many years as collectors, you have formed a rule within yourself. Did you have become wiser?
G. GAITANARIS: We have indeed become wiser with our art selection and art investments. In the first years, we were exclusively art lovers and we bought what we liked, not caring about its commercial value. This, of course, has led to dozens of works, which are not of particular value, but which have high costs. Because art, in addition to cost of acquisition, it also incurs expenses for storage, maintenance, and insurance, to mention a few.
I. DOLKA: It’s like a child. I will also add something else, which I think it applies to both of us. The realization that taste and aesthetics are constantly evolving. That is, we liked different things 20 years ago, different things 10 years ago and we like different things today. And this is important to recognize it and evolve with it.
G. GAITANARIS: And it is also important, as in life in general, that you cannot be dogmatic. You cannot say, I like that artist and I do not care what he will do, how he will progress. You need to be a little more alert on this issue, to be generally flexible. Acknowledge that you may have made a mistake. Also be open to new waves, to new trends. Art is constantly changing. And finally be, as much as you can, ahead in this space.
What is your opinion about the Greek Diaspora in the USA?
G. GAITANARIS: The Greek Diaspora is one of the leading diasporas in the US. Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are considered the most successful immigrants and have earned the recognition and respect of the American society. The Greek Diaspora in America is triumphing. The Greek immigrant is ambitious, hardworking and has a vision. It is probably in the genes… I look forward to seeing one day a Greek President of America. We got very close either with Agnew, who was Vice President, and with Doukakis, who almost became President. But beyond politics, in the field of science, in the field of business, in the field of art, there are Greeks who stand out.
Would you like to be active by contributing to issues of expatriate issues?
G. GAITANARIS: We would be interested in helping in this matter.
I. DOLKA: I agree.