When the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul staged Turkey’s first-ever exhibition of work by Pablo Picasso in 2003, promotional billboards covered the city’s walls with the venue and dates of the exhibition, and just a single word: “Picasso.” On opening day, crowds filled the museum to capacity – not because of public passion for the artist, but rather, because everyone in Istanbul had wondered, “What – or who – is a Picasso?”
You wouldn’t believe that now, seeing the multitude of art lovers who swarmed to the fourth Contemporary Istanbul art fair last December – women in black mini-skirts, D&G jackets, and impossibly high heels on opening night, families with small children who played happily among the sculptures on the afternoon of the last day.
In just six years, Istanbul’s passion for modern and contemporary art has blossomed, reaching from an elite group of wealthy, intellectual pioneer collectors to a mass public that, it seems, cannot get enough. Like much of what one experiences in Istanbul, the scene was a study in contrasts against the calls to prayer that sound five times a day from the great mosques throughout this exquisite, high-energy city.
But while these historic mosques – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Sultanamet, among them – remain the primary draw for tourists, it’s the contemporary art scene that most excites Istanbul natives. Galleries open almost monthly these days, largely along the pedestrian-only Istlikal Caddisi (Independence Avenue), a bustling, shop-lined street in the Taksim district (Casa Dell’Arte is one prominent newcomer) – though a new art center is burgeoning in nearby Tophane (Beyoglu).
Some, like Galerist, Artist, and Pi Art Works have already established an international presence at art fairs like Scope Basel and Art Frankfurt. Others, like Galerie Apel and Galeri Baraz, are satisfied with the success they’re having at home, showing mostly – but not exclusively – Turkish artists, many of whom are now themselves receiving international attention.
Credit for the city’s new fascination goes indisputably to Yahsi Baraz, who, in 1975, founded Galerie Baraz, Turkey’s first gallery for modern art. Focusing entirely on Turkish artists at first, Baraz cultivated a small group of collectors, most notably architect Çan Elgiz and his wife, Sevda.
Active collectors who miss few art fairs in the world, the Elgizes decided to share their extraordinary collection with the public in the hopes of inspiring others. Proj4L/Museum Elgiz opened in 2001, the first contemporary art museum in the country. Last summer, the museum moved to the Maslak region, where a larger space allows for three project rooms and a special showroom highlighting the work of young Turkish artists.
Not to be outdone, other prominent industrialists began establishing museums of their own. The Pera Museum, for instance, created by the Koç banking family in 2005 near Taksim, features changing exhibitions of modern art (an exhibition of works by Chagall was on view during the art fair) and permanent collections of ceramics.
In 2004, the enormous Istanbul Modern, sponsored by the Eczacibasi family, opened on the waterfront in Tophane/Beyoglu, the area just below the Istlikal Caddesi. The museum has since become the anchor for Tophane’s newly-expanding gallery scene.
At about the same time, the Elgiz’s founding director, Vasif Kortun, created Platform Garanti, an alternative, avant-garde space on the Istlikal Caddesi, just across the street from the contemporary gallery of the Yapi Credi Bank, one of the first to follow Baraz’s example. Changing exhibitions in Platform Garanti’s enormous storefront space attract the thousands of shoppers and club-goers who carouse the street. (Anyone who relished SoHo’s Broadway stretch during the 1980s will feel immediately at home here, where fruit and nut shops, their windows piled high with Turkish Delight, cozy up to parfumeries, and merchants on cobblestoned side streets offer designer knockoffs along with excellent deals on pashminas, silver jewelry, and leather goods.)
Recently, Pi Art Works organized a regular art walk through the Tophane neighborhood with other local galleries (including Apel), planning events and synchronizing openings every three months – the latest in an effort to keep up with the city’s growing art fever – if they can!