In your opinion, what have been the determining factors driving the growth in the art scene of Istanbul in recent years?
Modernism in Turkey related to painting and sculpture has started within the Westernisation program of the Ottoman Empire (1883) and maintained its significance as a program of Modernisation until 1980’s. Postmodernism was the outcome of democratisation and liberal economy from mid-80 up to the end of the 90’s. The first and the second biennale (1987 and 89) opened the vision to an updated knowledge of contemporary art. I am explaining this background briefly in order to emphasize the fact that this current growth has a concrete history. The financial infrastructure nurturing today’s high-profile is mainly private sector and the scene is dominated by corporate art and culture. What make the scene interesting are the artists who represent a very critical, dissident and transgressive position within the ongoing turbulences of socio-political events and who can masterfully reflect their ideas and concepts to their works. Also the biennale and numerous international exhibitions realized by independent local and international curators since 30 years have contributed to this growth. On the other hand, artists from Turkey are the first one’s of the so called periphery (the geography east of Vienna) who have been invited to the exhibitions in European cities; they have opened the gates of İstanbul to the international art and cultureelites.
In the increasing number of high-profile events taking place in Istanbul this year do you see a genuine internal unity and co-operative spirit?
Establishment of private museums and culture centres have created a certain high-profile environment matching the requirements of a global city, but the strong competitive and self-promotional, self-interest nature of these establishments can neither accommodate a genuine internal unity nor a co-operative spirit. The art scene is sharply divided into insulations of struggling artists, up and coming and popular artists, a few non –profit artist initiatives, private galleries and glorious corporate establishments. A dialogue or co-operative communication between these entities is quite difficult to maintain. The high-profile events have an elite audience of a few thousand; whereas the city has 15 million population and 40 districts as far as 50 km to each direction. The İstanbul Biennale announces visitor number as 200.000; after all this is quite disappointing. One can only observe the internal unity and co-operative spirit among a few artist communities of different generations in the non-profit art spaces and the curators and art critics.
Can you mention a few artists/galleries/dealers/curators/patrons who in your opinion have especially contributed to the ongoing expansion of the art scene in the city?
I don’t want to be selective; in every period there are artists who can change the discourse of art and inflict new vista. I would like to mention a group of senior artists who had emblematic production since three decades: Serhat Kiraz, Ayşe Erkmen, Canan Beykal, Füsun Onur, Ahmet Öktem, Gülsün Karamustafa, Sarkis. Throghout 90’s Azade Köker, Hale Tenger, Handan Börütecene, Hakan Gürsoytrak, Erdağ Aksel, Selim Birsel, xurban (a group), Murat Morova, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, have contributed to the visibility of art production in İstanbul. Recently Kutluğ Ataman and Ferhat Özgür have achieved high recognition with their video works. I will also mention a large group of women artists, who with their works contributed to the criticism of patriarchal order and gender problems: Şükran Moral, Neriman Polat, Gül Ilgaz, Atıl Kunst(a group), Nancy Atakan, Nezaket Ekici, Canan Şenol, Yeşim Aağaoğlu. Younger generation artists are numerous; they are very enterprising and self-confident, for example Ahmet Öğüt, Banu Cannetoğlu, Ali Ömer Kazma, Burak Arıkan, Cevdet Erek, Can Altay, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Sümer Sayın, Erinç Seymen…
The pioneering private galleries for contemporary art since 1980’s are Maçka Sanat Galerisi, Galeri Nev (still active) and my centre (BM Contemporary Art Center). Since 2000’s there is a private gallery boom in İstanbul located in Tophane, Karaköy, Nişantaş and Beşiktaş districts:(Art Sümer, PG Art Gallery, Pi Artworks, Galeri NON, Galeri Mana, Galeri Egeran, Galeri Apel, Gallery Rampa, C.A.M Gallery, Empire Projects, Galeri X-İST, Kare Art Gallery, MAC Art etc. Most of the owners are women of the affluent class and they contribute to the high-profile of İstanbul.
The most prominent and curators of İstanbul art scene are Vasıf Kortun (SALT), Emre Baykal (Arter), Levent Çalıkoğlu (İstanbul Modern) and as they are directors of corporate art centers, they have the power and capacity for further improvement of the art scene. Independent curators are Markus Graf, Ali Akay, Başak Şenova, Fulya Erdemci (curator of next Istanbul Biennale), Derya Yücel, Fırat Arapoğlu, Deniz Erbaş and Saliha Kasap.
There are sponsors who contribute to contemporary art projects, but there are no “patrons”. As far as I know, a patron should support the artists with regular scholarships, funds or awards.
How have you seen artists evolve in recent times, given the expansion of platforms such as CI, the Biennale and now this new ‘Art Week initiative? Have you noticed a marked diversification of themes, forms, presentations and so on?
How do you feel Contemporary Istanbul reflects the characteristics and dynamics of Istanbul as an arts hub these days?
(I will answer these two questions together)
I am not an art-fair expert and fan! I am a curator and art critic who wants to stay out of the market affairs and question their contribution or harm to the art making and production. However, I respect their spirit of investment and try to see the developments from a positive point of view and wish these investors a more profitable business in the near future.
Art-fair history in Istanbul is also 30 years old and I think this period was quite sufficient to have a high-level international art fair; but this has not been the case. During these years I have observed that we could not attract the prominent collectors, because of the mismanagement and quality-deficits of art fairs. The collectors have floated over İstanbul to Arab and China art fairs! We have also to consider that collectors of Turkey were also reluctant to buy international art, except a few exceptions such as Mr. & Mrs. Elgiz, Mr. Ömer Koç, who have built their international collections since two decades. The current art fairs show a large selection of art works from very decorative to critical…
The Biennale had always a discursive effect and impact on the contemporary art thinking and productions; it was also a challenge for the international curators, who had to deal with a mega city, with a strong historical and traditional infrastructure and with a wild and heterogenic urban development. Even if we always criticise the content or form of the biennale, in a broad-spectrum for İstanbul and the region (South-east Europe, South Caucasus, East Mediterranean and Middle East) İstanbul Biennale are more important than the art-fairs.
And what are the challenges/obstacles facing Istanbul’s art scene today? What do you think is needed in the city to ensure positive growth in coming years?
You are asking this question as if you know that what is visible as high-profile is not the whole truth! Currently the city is undergoing a tremendous gentrification; and contemporary art is not a primary issue within this dislocating transformation. The polarisation of the elitist and populist culture, the ongoing investment into event-culture, the monopoly of corporate culture is not contributing to a positive growth. There are over 100 shopping malls, but only 20 public art and culture centres with populist programs. There are 40 private museums and only 5 of them are related to Modern or contemporary art. For a positive growth we need a reciprocated collaboration between state, local government and private sector for an updated culture policy that invests into the creative individual, into visionary projects and international networking.