Read our feature on Istanbul's art scene, from the December 2012 issue

By Laura McLean-Ferris

View over Istanbul and the Bosphoorus. Photography Andres Gonzalez Vasif Kortun, director of SALT, pictured at SALT Galata. Photo: Andres Gonzalez Artist Banu Cennetoglu, founder and director BAS, Istanbul, pictured in the space. Photo: Andres Gonzalez Viewer examining Waris Ahluwalia's jewellery designs at Istanbul '74 opening. Photo: Andres Gonzalez Reflecting on Reflection (installation view), 2012. Courtesy Galeri Mana, Istanbul

It might be the most beautiful art library in the world: tall ceilings, white columns topped with carved laurel leaves, tiled floors. And all of this bathed in the distinctive Bosporus-tinged light of Istanbul, which floods in through large skylights and windows, creating a luminous environment for study: a spaciously presented collection of art books, publications and, at the centre of the space, a distinctive set of yellow binders stuffed with archival exhibition materials relating to the recent art history of the region. This library is located in one of Istanbul’s landmark buildings, a grandly designed, unusual piece of architecture that blends neoclassical and oriental styles: the former Ottoman Bank, built in 1892, in the city’s Galata district. The space later became a museum devoted to the bank’s archives, and it is now the second space for SALT, the influential contemporary art institution led by Vasıf Kortun.

This seems appropriate. If London’s Tate Modern resides in the shell of a former power station, a nod to the country’s industrial history, then it would make sense that the huge architectural shell being filled by art in Istanbul once housed a grand bank. The city’s history as a financial centre and nexus of trade is apparent everywhere, and banking acts as an enabling force to this day. SALT itself is an initiative that was founded by another bank: Garanti (Kortun and Garanti were connected via a previous project, Platform Garanti, which ended in 2010). Though it still bears the lustrous traces of opulence and wealth, the Ottoman Bank building has been adapted and pared down, and now functions as the centre for SALT Research – comprising the aformentioned library, banking archives, exhibition spaces and an ‘open archive’ in which materials and documents relating to historic exhibitions and artistic practices can be displayed and discussed.

The city’s history as a financial centre and nexus of trade is apparent everywhere

On my most recent trip to Istanbul, earlier this year, SALT Galata was hosting It Was a Time of Conversation, an open-archive show comprising an enlightening display of material relating to three collaborative exhibitions that took place in Turkey during the 1990s which reached beyond the sphere of art into more social or political debates. GAR, for example, was an exhibition of works hung in Ankara train station, organised by artists Selim Birsel, Vahap Avşar, Claude Leon and Füsun Okutan in 1995. The works were removed by the Station Directorate (the state official responsible for the station) a day after opening, purportedly because they ‘demoralised society’, and the SALT exhibition detailed the subsequent events in clippings and letters – attempting to understand the wider context of the friction for which art became a flashpoint. Another historical exhibition featured in the show – Number Fifty/Memory/Recollection II – was curated by SALT’s director, the aforementioned Kortun, in 1993. This too was shut down early (by the curator himself), after a banner advertising the exhibition was covered by a political banner.

Such revelations and re-evaluations, rather uncommon in Istanbul until recently, are at the core of Kortun’s plans for SALT, and the Galata building in particular. Kortun has been central to an important period of experimental flourishing for artists in the city, and as he sees it, understanding the city’s history and the work of avant-gardes of other generations is crucial if one wants to secure a future for art in Istanbul.

It has fallen to self-motivated and autonomous institutions such as SALT to provide research facilities for artists, curators and historians in the city because of a distinct lack of public funding and a culture that has not devoted a lot of energy to archiving and documenting its past. Much has been lost already, even in a relatively short period of development in Turkish art. “We cannot recover whole histories of art, architecture and socio-economy of the region,” explains Kortun in an email conversation, “but we have the capacity, the means and the intention to become a node among other nodes. Local histories have to be reassessed and rewritten. There is so much to do, and I feel we have just scratched the surface. SALT Research is not simply an amalgam of archive and a library, it is becoming a proactive research body.”

Education and attention to the past also form one type of buffer against the pure market speculation to which growth economies like Turkey’s are prone when they quickly develop a contemporary art market and start attracting interest from wealthy collectors at home and abroad. In such fevered moments, the newness of glossy paintings and sculptures tends to be emphasised, which creates an insecure ground on which to build, given that those in search of newness always move on to the next thing. A recent piece in The New York Times by Istanbul-based writer Suzy Hansen entitled ‘The Istanbul Art-Boom Bubble’ took on precisely this issue, and ended with a rather dispiriting scene in an auction house in which ‘young men in expensive, untucked button-downs, the weekend wear of investment bankers, sat in groups of five, talking loudly… like frat boys at a fashion show’, and spent their money (millions) on what Hansen described as ‘Islamic-themed’ art – a genre which she perceived to be pitched squarely at the market.

Istanbul is not institutionalised in the way that European art centres are – there is virtually no public sector and no public money

A couple of art fairs, as well as a rash of galleries, have sprung up in the city during the last decade, and this past November saw a full ‘art week’ timed to coincide with the city’s most established fair, Contemporary Istanbul. The city’s galleries span a wide range of approaches. Dirimart, which is a more established presence (ten years old) in the city, operates on an international blue-chip model, working with Sarah Morris, Katharina Grosse and O Zhang as well as a selection of Turkish artists such as Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt, though they are also responsible for publishing the well regarded RES Art World magazine. Galeri Manâ, based in a smartly converted wheat mill in the Tophane district, currently represents few artists but maintains a very high standard of exhibitions: their most recent group show included Kutluğ Ataman, Alicja Kwade and Mario Garcia Torres. Rampa, a gallery more focused on Turkish artists, shows several historically significant figures (such as Erinç Seymen and the influential sculptor and teacher Cengiz Çekil) from the region in its two gleaming spaces in Beşiktaş.

On İstiklâl Caddesi, a shopping street strung with decorative stars and ringing with clamour and bustle near Taksim Square, are several other gallery spaces: a number of which (Galeri Nev and Galerist, for example) are located in Mısır Apartmanı, a large historical building which has a glamorous bar and restaurant – named 360 for its all-encompassing views of the city – atop it. Glitzier than the average operation is Istanbul ’74, which shows a trendy mix of art, jewellery and film somewhat infused with a sense of ‘cultural celebrity’ – the gallery runs the annual Istancool festival, recently rebranded as the far more serious-sounding Istanbul International Festival of Art and Culture, which hosts the likes of style-magazine editors Jefferson Hack and Carine Roitfeld alongside writers, artists and filmmakers. Still, doing things one’s own way is one of the important features of Istanbul – there is far less homogenisation in terms of the way galleries choose to operate than there is in established art centres in other parts of the world.

These commercial spaces are clustered near to SALT’s other space, the Beyoğlu gallery, a smart, clean-lined, multistorey building of glass and wood that also includes an attractive bar and restaurant as well as an edible garden. SALT’s programme here has been decidedly experimental too, continually repositioning and testing itself – something made tangible by the organisation’s decision to completely redesign the font used for all publicity materials every year. In addition to the more traditional exhibitions, SALT over the past 12 months twinned with the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven to become ‘Istanbul Eindhoven-SALTVanAbbe’ and produced a project entitled Becoming Istanbul, which investigated the infrastructure of the city itself, from design, sociology and sports to tourism and architecture.

Also on İstiklâl Caddesi is another public-facing, yet private foundation, ARTER – Space for Art, which is funded by the Vehbi Koç Foundation. The gallery runs a strong and varied programme featuring a high proportion of female artists in solo and group exhibitions – exhibitions this year include Mona Hatoum, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Sophia Pompéry and a three-person exhibition with Runa Islam, Rosa Barba and Adel Abidin. This is perhaps testament to exhibitions director Emre Baykal, a sensitive curator who worked on the Istanbul Biennial for many years, and who has recently been named curator of the Turkish Pavilion for the 2013 Venice Biennale. The Vehbi Koç Foundation, a major private sponsor in Istanbul, is planning a large museum in which its contemporary art collection will be shown, a process to which ARTER is somewhat connected, obliquely and straightforwardly, often showcasing works from the collection.

Rodeo, a commercial gallery run by Sylvia Kouvali (who is originally from Greece), is well known internationally and a regular presence at fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze. The gallery shows an edgy, bright mix of artists centring on Turkey, the Middle East and Europe: James Richards and Christodoulos Panayiotou show alongside Emre Hüner and one of Istanbul’s most highly regarded young artists, Banu Cennetoğlu, who, with Ahmet Ögüt, represented Turkey at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Returning to the themes of research and education, it’s perhaps germane to note that these are important elements within the practice of both of these artists – Ögüt has previously held lectures delivered while jogging around the streets with a group and recently embarked on a project in London in which he founded a skills exchange university taught by professional migrants/asylum seekers who are unable to work in this country. Cennetoğlu, outside her own artistic practice, runs BAS, a collection devoted to the preservation and exhibition of existing artist’s books, and the publishing of new ones. In tune with the research format of SALT Galata, this project is an open resource aimed at other artists and interested people in the city.

As Kortun describes it, the different forms taken by institutions and spaces are what allow Istanbul to continue being such a compelling art city, one able to make up some of its own rules. He refers to “the never-ending ‘normalisation’” process of Istanbul that constantly threatens the city. There’s a pressure, he suggests, to become like everybody else – sharing the same artists and collectors. “I find that to be terribly boring”, he continues, “but that is a malaise that we can only overcome by producing instruments that inspire difference.”

The city’s galleries span a wide range of approaches

This is all very positive, but the flourishing diversity partly stems from a gaping hole – the dearth of public institutions in the city. There are no state-funded contemporary galleries or museums in Turkey. Indeed, all across the arts, one finds that Istanbul is not institutionalised in the way that European art centres are – there is virtually no public sector and no public money, and the city runs, rather, on the support of wealthy families and the foundations that they leave behind. New philanthropic fundraising groups such as SAHA are also beginning to become influential, consisting of collectors and art-enthusiastic patrons who support artists and exhibition projects in a model similar to that of Outset in the UK. It is pockets of private wealth that allow such a diverse set of initiatives and organisations to exist, which affords them freedom and means, but which also comes, sometimes, with an undertow of flux, whim and insecurity. This private money is not extra support – there is nothing beneath it, which perhaps explains the urgency felt by Kortun, Cennetoğlu, Ögüt and others with regard to education, research, alternative collections and different forms of cultural exchange.

Collectorspace, run by Özge Ersoy and Haro Cumbusyan, is another small initiative that is strikingly singular. Housed in a small space with large windows that face onto the street, it is a project devoted to educating collectors and to exploring the idea of critically reviewing private collections. For each exhibition, Collectorspace interviews significant collectors on video, borrows one work from the collection of each to exhibit in the space and engages writers to critically evaluate and debate what has been accumulated, by visiting and interviewing the collectors in question.

Aside from being an interesting approach in itself, the idea of critical engagements with collectors while they are developing their collections touches the entire infrastructure of art as it currently stands. Istanbul, with its foregrounding on private collections that subsequently become museums, is like an extreme version of the philanthropic models practiced in the US, which are becoming more prevalent across other parts of the world. And the buying power of private museums is, in some cases, outstripping that of public museums of this world.

It has been very rewarding, writes Ersoy in an email to “tackle how art infrastructure impacts artistic production, and vice versa”. Even formulating such questions is important to Istanbul, and is a way that a small organisation can influence thinking internationally. “I believe there’s been a tendency to antagonise artists and collectors in Turkey,” he continues, “so it’s crucial for us to open up a constructive dialogue between different actors in the arts field, imagining a better arts ecology and more solid support systems for artists, curators and writers.”

Again and again, in this economy spiralling ever upwards, the talk returns to stability. Many of the most committed, talented people working in Istanbul seem to be gently applying brakes to a dazzlingly tempting art market that threatens to pull away from the stable ground on which many of the key artists, curators and practitioners in the city are trying to build. But right now, the presence of hot money pouring into the city, directed by a handful of motivated individuals who have been able to channel its flows in interesting directions, makes this a city which has all the freshness and risk of an experiment, in the midst of so much global sameness.

This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue.