The concept “museum” in Turkey has ambiguous meanings absolutely related to the making of a nation state and to the traditional past; both concepts are mingled in the Antique and Islamic heritage museums in Istanbul and all over Anatolia. Throughout the 20th century the concept of “modern art museum” failed in the boring and linear presentation of the official “painting and sculpture” collections in inappropriate buildings. After the 80’s whenIstanbul art scene gradually transformed itself into the post-modern culture industry “the museum” became an unfulfilled dream of all sections, the art and culture investors and the artists. According to the promoters and benefactors the main obstacle was “a suitable building”, essentially to be provided by the state or the local government. Attempts were made several times, but there was no consensus and practical result. Yet, we – professional members of the art scene – knew that the main complication was the content and the concept. There was an extensive confusion in defining and perceiving the difference between “modern” and “contemporary”. There were also fixed ideas on the content of the prospective museum, focusing on the modernist paintings and sidestepping the real avant-gardes and highlighting the secondary painters. Artists, curators and critics were concerned about the intent, the content and the concept, so that they were reluctant to encourage and demand; somehow they were free from anxiety without “the museum”.

The ambitious enterprize Istanbul Modern was opened 11th December, 2004 in the old dockyard storage buildings on the Karaköy shore of Bosphorus, well known as Antrepo to international art circles visiting Istanbul Biennale. In 1995, Rene Block, the first international curator of the biennial has launched his mega-show of contemporary art under the title “Orientations” in the reinforced concrete halls of the building with the intention to display how a contemporary art museum will look when realized within the set of laws of the international art system. Later, in 2003 Dan Cameron used the building for the 8th Istanbul Biennale, dividing it into two parts, one as a dark cube for video-shows, the other as a white cube for painting and installations. The biennale context has always been a kind of expectation for a modern or post-modern art museum/centre; so, in this space the city has now a modern museum with the promise that there will be also temporary contemporary art exhibitions.

The building was renovated by a group of young architects with a functional and minimalist approach and with a self evident devotion to the modern or to the modernity. Into the vast white halls they have installed glass cubes that are evocative of the glass cubes of Dan Graham, with various necessary functions (library, café, office). In the middle of the ground floor Monica Bonvicini’s steel and chain staircase (8th Istanbul Biennale) which leads to the second floor with a shattered glass balustrade might have inspired the architects for utilizing the same materials and it worked very well! Along with local curators responsible of the local collections, Roza Martinez, the curator of the 4th Istanbul Biennale was appointed as the chief curator, responsible of international exhibitions. The will of the investor is very strong, the enthusiasm of the public is very encouraging. Yet, we witness that all this is not enough to make a “museum” a “museum”! The concern of the art scene was materialized. Despite the team of curators and a group of advisors, who are renown artists the exhibitions in the museum are far away from fulfilling the needs of the vibrant and multifarious Istanbul art scene and its ongoing communication with the international art world. It is difficult to say that the museum has an up to date concept or a style, developed for the unique position ofIstanbul

The local curators of Istanbul Modern launched a retrospective painting exhibition on the upper floor. The paintings collected by Eczacıbaşı Family since the beginning of the 80’s and by İş Bankası (Labour Bank) since the first half of 20th century display a wide range of early modernism with impressionist and expressionist landscape and still-life tableaux and a selection of late modernist figurative and abstract chef-d’éuvre. The curators preferred an eclectic hanging by mixing the early paintings with the later ones, adding informative text with rather romantic titles. To my opinion it did not change the fact that there is a monotonous linearity in the modernist production ofTurkey; the absence of futurism, surrealism and pop art reveals the conformity of the artists to the state motivated modernist utopia. Yet, considering that the public is seeing these paintings all together in a white cube for the first time, one is obliged to say that it is the lesser of two evils.

Within the context of Adorno’s theory, Istanbul has entered this era of making the image with art and culture, however this venture is utilized in a very unrefined manner. Art and culture became a sort of a subject matter for promoting a trade mark or an instrument of dialogue between the partners of global capitalism, the private sector, the state and the NGO’s. Through art and culture these partners found a way to negotiate for other benefits and to reward eachother. In fact, taking culture as a phenomenal component of capitalism,  this new structuring aims to raise the share of the culture, to broaden its consumption, to privatise the state property and to create cultural monopoly among other monopolies. After the tax exemption law huge amounts of money will be invested into this field. What will be the status and the power of the artist and the curator, is the crucial question. And I asked this question to myself when I looked to the empty halls of the new museum.

I am a local art critic and curator, trying to instigate an awareness on the conflictual interaction between the artist, the public and the entrepreneurs. This task will make me and my colleagues vulnerable within the current circumstances that systematically serve the desire and demands of the entrepreneurs. Adorno says that in actuality the culture industry is important as a moment of the spirit which dominates today. Whoever ignores its influence out of skepticism for what it stuffs into people would be naive. He further says that the critic is accused of taking refuge in arrogant esoterica.  Here, we need the genuine intellectual support of our international collegues who visit Istanbul to explore its artistic and cultural panaroma. We will appreciate if they take the Istanbul culture industry seriously critically and not to cower in the face of its monopolistic character.


Beral Madra, December 2004

All italics are from

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944),  Dialectic of Enlightenment: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception