In the founder of the Pharos Arts Foundation, AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY finds a man bringing joy and meaning to life through music after it spoke to him as a lonely teen

How do you write a profile of somebody who argues that it should not be about him? “I don’t want to talk about myself,” says Garo Keheyan, founder of the Pharos Arts Foundation. We are sitting in the Olive Grove in Delikipos. This magical place, with its surrounds of ancient pine and olive trees, serves both as Garo’s private retreat and one of the foundation’s summer performance venues.

The Olive Grove has earned a loving spot in the hearts of many Cyprus-based music aficionados and among Garo’s many friends. Every summer, music lovers flock to this gentle landscape to attend the grand finale of the International Pharos Chamber Music Festival and to sample jazz and ethnic music concerts that cast a star-lit spell in the purple fade of evening.

At other times, friends often drop by for a glass of wine or a delicious vegetarian meal cooked by the host himself. Of course, when it comes to music, all who gather at the Olive Grove are friends (Garo constantly refers to building a community of kindred spirits), including the internationally renowned musicians who perform here. I cannot imagine a single musician who has played at one of the Pharos Arts Foundation concerts here who has not fallen in love with the setting.

The same deep affection applies to the two other venues where the foundation stages its events: the Shoe Factory in Nicosia and the Royal Manor House in Kouklia, something Garo underscores by citing a saying of Churchill’s that “we shape our buildings after which they shape us”.

This is very important and can also relate to spaces, Garo believes. “The spaces we create, whether they are mental, emotional or physical, influence our future… So if we create ugly cities we become ugly and if they are beautiful we are influenced accordingly.”

profile a concert at the manor house

A concert at the Manor house

This is just one of the many apposite quotes Garo peppers our conversation with. But first we must negotiate a delicate balance about just how much of this interview is to be about the Pharos Arts Foundation and how much about Garo himself. For me, however, it is increasingly clear that no matter which way we go, the difference will not be that great since the truth is that without Garo the foundation would not exist. And this year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pharos and its founder’s 70th birthday.

“Everything that gives joy and meaning to life comes through the arts and the artist who inspires and guides humanity,” Garo says, a quote that he shyly admits is actually his own. When I ask where his own passion for music comes from, he looks at me almost startled that anyone could ask such a question.

“Because it fills my soul with joy and ecstasy,” he cries. Then he elaborates: “Actually it didn’t come from home, even though one of my great uncles played the clarinet and one of my great grandfathers the violin. I discovered music at my secondary school in the UK. At Bradfield College I had an English teacher, Richard Osborne, who was one of the British leading classical music critics. The school took us to concerts in London, it was part of my education… but for me it was also personal. I was lonely and music spoke to me, it nourished me.”

Bradfield, he notes, generally had great teachers and was where “I came into my own in terms of being absorbed with the beauty of language, literature, poetry and music – from the age of 13 onwards.”

His fascination with arts in general led Garo to study English language and literature at Oxford, before going on to acquire postgraduate degrees in International Relations and Business Administration in the US.

After he came back to Cyprus in the 1980s, Garo joined his father Hagop, a well known banker, in his business endeavours. The Keheyans had lost a lot of property during the Turkish invasion and both father and son were focused on rebuilding some of the family’s fortune. Despite all this, Garo never forgot his love of the arts and music. During the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, he went to Armenia regularly where he met the leading artists and composers of the day.

“Armenia played a pivotal role in creating the foundation. It was a time of transformation, freedom, hope, and optimism there, and I met these extraordinary young artists. It was winter, there was no power, it was freezing cold, but the power of creativity and the commitment to culture were extraordinary and inspirational. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to talented young artists who were struggling under extraordinarily difficult conditions, sometimes having to burn their own furniture to be able to continue to paint… people having to walk 10km in temperatures of minus 20 degrees to attend choir rehearsals that were held in candlelight. In contrast, Cyprus was going through a materialistic boom at the time and there was little interest in art or culture… the contrast was stark for me.”

As a result, in 1993, to support struggling artists, Garo organsed a small exhibition of works by post-Soviet Armenian artists at Nicosia’s Gloria Gallery. The show was a success. In 1995, recalling the event, Mayor Lellos Demetraides approached Garo to organise a month-long event to celebrate Nicosia’s status as a European capital.

“Within a matter of a few weeks, I visited 30 studios and selected 12 artists. The result was Stream of Fire – New Art From Armenia. We had a post-exhibition open-air dinner for 250 guests opposite the moat in the old Armenian quarter of Nicosia. It was a vegetarian feast prepared by the members of the Armenian community. An extraordinary event, it was a big success. Immediately afterwards, the then head of the Cultural Services said: ‘Garo, how can you do all this on your own? You should consider setting up a foundation’… Clearly, this man understood something.”

Heeding the advice, in 1998 Garo established the Pharos Arts Foundation (known back then as the Pharos Trust). Looking back, he admits that it was “amateurish and idealistic” at the outset. Nothing similar existed in Cyprus and so everything had to be done from scratch. “It was a learning process with small incremental steps of awareness and growth,” he says with a laugh.

“If you asked me when the foundation was established what our mission and vision were, the answer wouldn’t be very clear. One thing was certain – everything was done for the love of the arts; this was certainly not a commercial enterprise.”

A time of learning followed. I well remember how when I first came to the island at the beginning of the 21st century I started coming to the Pharos concerts. Back then they were held at the PASYDY concert hall and had a loyal if small group of regular fans. We all raved about the quality of music that Pharos was presenting.

Added to that, there was the bonus of the amazing impromptu gatherings that became a feature of post-concert evenings. These took place in one of the beautiful if somewehat rundown Ottoman mansions on the Green Line in Nicosia. Slowly but surely, the foundation was growing. One of the main turning points was when Garo bought and restored the old shoe factory in Ermou Street in Nicosia’s old town.

Another turning point was the arrival of Yvonne Georgiadou on the scene, a cornerstone of Pharos’ small but dedicated team. Garo is full of praise for the enormous contribution she has made to the Pharos Arts Foundation as its artistic director. “She is an extraordinary woman who has helped build the foundation up brick by brick through her professionalism and fierce loyalty to our vision, I just wish there were others like Yvonne in business, philanthropic and government circles who would appear and show a similar level of understanding and support.

“The evolution of Pharos itself was equally subconscious and unconscious,” Garo says. “It was unplanned yet somehow guided. I didn’t know where it was all going when I bought the Olive Grove or when I got the Shoe Factory building in 2006… I thought it could be home and maybe I could do some concerts there since the acoustics seemed ok…

profile the delikipos venue

The Delikipos venue

“Just after I bought it I had a visitor, baroque violinist Andrew Manze. We had dinner at the Aegean restaurant. We drank a lot of zivania and I brought him to the shoe factory. It was a ruin, we climbed in, lit some candles and he started playing Bach Partitas and I said ‘yes, it will work’. But even then I had no idea that in time I would organise more than 250 concerts here featuring some of the world’s foremost musicians and that it would be the home of the Pharos Contemporary Music Festival. The Shoe Factory has also hosted educational concerts for students and has contributed to the regeneration of old Nicosia.’’

So we are coming back to teaching, I tease. Garo, who attributes his love of music to meeting a wonderful teacher, is determined to help other students experience the same.

“Well, I believe education is a real investment in the future,” he declares. “Joseph Beuys said music when healthy is the teacher of perfect order, and when depraved – a teacher of perfect disorder.”

Indeed, in addition to organising concerts, mounting art exhibitions, hosting lectures and even screening film festivals, for years Pharos has been running an extensive educational programme that has reached over 80,000 students in the past 20 years.

“I get goosebumps every time I see these children,” Garo says, noting he can sense their “their desire to learn.” His hope is that out of every 100 students Pharos reaches through these events, dozens will be inspired, just as he was at school, and become “supporters of the arts and place a high value on the kind of work we do”, perhaps even becoming philanthropists and patrons of the arts themselves one day.

“We live in such a world of violence and turmoil. And I believe music is so influential on the brain – that the type [of music] you listen to has the actual ability to change the very way you think and look at the world…We must strive to see the light and beauty around us and we must strive to be a beacon of this light ourselves… We want to set people’s mind in a new direction, towards real life, joy, happiness, creativity. That is why we need cultured, educated leadership that understands that a successful society has to put art and culture as a priority.” He has even devised a mantra of sorts to reflect his conviction about this – “no culture no future…”

Garo readily admits that running a foundation can be very difficult and demands “a lot of sacrifice and effort”. Finding financial support is one of the main challenges. Proud as he is of all that Pharos has achieved, he insists the foundation could have done much more with backing and support …

profile a workshop for children in the ermou street venue

A workshop for children in the Ermou street venue

“I lived for three years in the States while doing my MBA and it was very interesting to see how philanthropy works there. Tax incentives allow people to give hundreds of millions to universities, libraries or to build contemporary art centres. There is the whole culture of donating in the US that simply doesn’t exist to the same extent in Europe. We need someting similar in Cyprus – a bigger picture, strategy, vision, policy…”

So what is the next stage?

“Well, the foundation has lived through 25 years of blood, sweat and tears and we have created a legacy that is second to none, an achievement of which I am very proud. I can absolutely say Pharos operates on an international level, and the foundation is very well known in musical and artistic circles in Europe and beyond.

Over the past 25 years the foundation has hosted many of the world’s greatest classical musicians and ensembles including such legends as the pianist Grigory Sokolov and superstar Yuja Wang, violinists such as Leonidas Kavakos, Julia Fischer, Joshua Bell and Sergey Khachatryan and cellists Mischa Maisky and Steven Isserlis to name a very few.

“We want to build a world class art centre renowned for its art, culture and contribute to global dialogue in the Olive Grove.

“It will be a home for the arts and a retreat for spirit and soul, as well as a catalyst for creativity, where artists, writers, composers and great minds of the 21st century can come and create new work. And later? “I hope others will carry the torch of Pharos forward and the foundation will survive and prosper for many years to come.”