Burgeoning art scene in Istanbul despite little state funding

Istanbul is enjoying a cultural renaissance, driven in part by a series of wealthy patrons who have reaped the rewards of Turkey's booming economy, writes Tahira Yaqoob.

The Museum of Innocence, named after the Orhan Pamuk novel. The museum contains cultural artefacts from the time period in which the novel is set. Bulent Kilic / AFP
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"For me," wrote Orhan Pamuk of his beloved Istanbul, "it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy."

But huzun, the Arabic-derived Turkish word used by the Nobel-prizewinning novelist to describe that sense of spiritual loss and longing, could be the key to the city's rebirth.

Istanbul's contemporary art scene is enjoying a moment, thanks to a rash of art fairs, dozens of exhibition spaces funded by the corporate sector and private investors and newfound recognition for Turkish artists overseas.

Yet while its reputation is being built on the fresh perspectives of its artists, poised at the crossroads of East and West, it is Istanbul's legacy as the stronghold of one of the world's greatest historical superpowers which is set to buoy the art market.

Since the Ottoman Empire first tumbled into ruin in the 19th century, and with it crumbled its stature as an international seat of art and culture, Turkish artists have looked to the West with students dispatched to Europe to learn their trade.

When they returned at the outbreak of the First World War and became known as the 1914 generation, teaching at the country's first fine arts academy, their westernisation was implicit in the landscapes, still life paintings and nudes they introduced to the art scene; some even became known as the Turkish Impressionists.

Now a century on, the city is setting its sights firmly on the East with plans to stage All Arts, its first fair dedicated to contemporary Islamic art.

"We will make Istanbul the place for Islamic art," says professor Hasan Bulent Kahraman, the fair's general coordinator and vice rector of Kadir Has University.

"Turkey is the most eastern country in the West and the most western country in the East. As the crossroads, it should be a hub for traditional Islamic art.

"The Middle East is becoming the new centre for Islamic art but, for hundreds of years, Istanbul has been one of the most important centres. We are going to have this role carved out for the city once again."

With Qatar and Abu Dhabi purchasing modern Islamic art for their forthcoming museums, from 19th century tiles to calligraphy and jewellery, it should come as little surprise that Turkey, with its centuries-old heritage and legacy of fine arts, is keen for a slice of the action.

What does startle is that the announcement of a fair contrived to capture some of that trade comes at Contemporary Istanbul, a thoroughly modern affair which its own organisers admit is poles apart in ethos and outlook from the more traditional event they are planning in April.

"The two are completely different," says Kahraman, who coordinates both. "It is unlikely the clients investing in contemporary art will also be investing in traditional."

Yet if the crowds at Contemporary Istanbul are anything to go by - over four days in November, 68,000 people traipse through the doors of Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre and buy two-thirds of the works on display in 102 galleries - the city is enjoying something of a renaissance as an art hub.

There is little state funding for museums or galleries. Instead, Istanbul's elite and wealthy have been investing heavily in art institutes and exhibition spaces.

And of those, there are plenty: thanks to a booming economy based on agriculture, textiles and the motor industry, the city boasted 28 billionaires in 2010 according to Forbes magazine, ranking fourth in the world behind New York, Moscow and London.

That fortune has fuelled Salt, a $30 million (Dh110.2m) contemporary art space funded by Garanti Bank and luxuriating over five floors in the magnificent former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank, with a twin centre in nearby Beyoglu, once a decrepit, rundown district with ruinous townhouses and now full of chi-chi boutique hotels, patisseries and art spaces such as Galerist.

It has also established an impressive collection of Ottoman paintings at the family mansion of the late Sakip Sabanci, opened a decade ago as a museum to the public, while the Eczacibasi pharmaceuticals family funded the Istanbul Modern museum flanking the Bosphorus in 2004 and magnate Omer Koc, one of Turkey's most established collectors, opened his gallery Arter two years ago. There are now more than 200 privately sponsored initiatives in the city and the number is growing.

Akbank, one of the key sponsors of Contemporary Istanbul, has, like many Turkish banks, been ploughing money into cultural institutions while setting up initiatives for new collectors to buy art in instalments and on credit. Ali Gureli, director of the fair, estimates there are 1,000 collectors at the event, many of them local.

If the government has been loath to dip its hands into its pockets to fuel this burgeoning love of contemporary Turkish art, it seems to suit the corporations and organisers, who argue interference from those in power would be a malign influence on the artwork.

"Governments should only be involved in getting rid of barriers like high tax on artwork," insists Gureli.

"The management of these museums should be private in my opinion. It is not the government's business. When they get involved, lots of political influences appear, which does not work.

"In Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the governments are filling a gap because there are not any corporate institutes so there is a need for them. Here, it should be objective and private."

But there are those who fear a lack of public institutions is creating a "monopoly of sales-orientated dealers".

Necmi Sonmez, a Dusseldorf-based curator writing in the Art Newspaper, says: "The gallery owners and dealers are also operating as curator, editor and advisor. The collectors are dealing and opening their own galleries to promote their favourite artists."

Yet Turkish artists are making an impact internationally, suggesting any distortion in the local market could be limited.

At the Confessions of Dangerous Minds exhibition of contemporary Turkish art shown in the Saatchi Gallery, London, in April last year, half the works had sold before the doors opened.

A year earlier, a photo-realist painting by Turkish artist Taner Ceylan fetched three times the estimate at a Sotheby's London auction of Turkish modern art, which raised £2.4m (Dh14.3m) in total.

Nevertheless, if the world is once more taking note of Turkish artists, it seems they themselves are unsure of what they represent.

The phrase "gateway between East and West" is often used of this city straddling Europe and Asia. Yet at Contemporary Istanbul, few of the 45 local galleries seem keen to explore that conflict.

Instead, much of the art is introspective and self-regarding, personal rather than profound.

It is down to some of the international galleries to bring bolder works questioning identity and cultural clash, such as London's Le Violon Bleu, which brings a series of works from Iraqi-Palestinian Sama Alshaibi featuring faceless women in abayas in claustrophobic white rooms, and the Tehran-based Mohsen Gallery with Samira Eskandarfar'sstriking Mickey Mask series.

What is clear is a palpable sense of vibrancy, fervour and enthusiasm spilling onto the streets as Art Istanbul, a week of talks and openings running alongside Contemporary Istanbul, gives the burgeoning scene a chance to find its voice.

Regis Krampf closed his New York gallery and relocated to Istanbul two months ago, keen to ride the coat-tails of a new movement.

"It is such an exciting, young and enthusiastic audience," he says. "The level of confidence is amazing.

"Some of the best collectors are based here and they are really quite daring and ready to take risks.

"I want to take part in a cultural exchange. This is where everything is happening. It is not at the stage it should be but with lots of collectors and a growing economy, it will get there."

Among the bigger names are the Marlborough Gallery, Haunch of Venison, Galerie Michael Schultz and the Opera Gallery, with works from the likes of Picasso, Fernando Botero and Roy Lichtenstein- although most are warned to leave their expensive works at home so as not to discourage new collectors.

"There is an enthusiasm I did not really expect," says Michael Gitlitz, the director of the Marlborough in New York.

"Most people have a concept of Istanbul's culture as being about ancient places and minarets but there is a strong contemporary energy and I am surprised by how eager young collectors are to be part of the scene."

Many of them will be invited to Dubai in March, where a version of Contemporary Istanbul's Encounters exhibition will be staged alongside Art Dubai. A total of 50 collectors from Turkey and 120 from the Middle East will be invited to preview the works.

Meanwhile talks are underway with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) as preparation for All Arts kicks off, eased no doubt by the role of Emin Balcioglu, the former director of Contemporary Istanbul and now project director for Qatar Museums Authority's new Orientalist Museum, set to open next year.

"Art," says Kahraman, "is now being used as a tool of investment. We don't have the classics of western art in Turkey. We don't have the Picassos or the masters - but our artists are gaining more importance in the international arena."

It seems Istanbul's riches can be plundered once more for artistic inspiration, as Pamuk showed with his Museum of Innocence, a monument to huzun with its embodiment of the infatuation he describes in his book by the same name.

And as he writes, unlike Conrad, Nabokov or Naipaul, who had to migrate to feed their imaginations, he found everything he needed to inspire him on his own doorstep: "Mine … requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view … I am attached to this city because it had made me who I am."

Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer for the National.