Sonja Caymaz
Last updated: 11 October, 2011

Turkey’s growing art scene and the Istanbul biennial

Istanbul’s 12th Biennial ‘Untitled’ has become the darling of international art critics and praise continues to echo through the international press, celebrating the themes centered on the art of deceased Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the mis-en-scene by curators Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann.

“If anything shows Istanbul as a rising cultural power, it is its art biennial,” declared Fiachra Gibbons, the Guardian’s art correspondent for Turkey, citing it as a biennial that matters alongside Venice and Sao Paolo.

Istanbul’s cultural tour de force, however, is not completely unrelated to Turkey’s growing economy, which has reflected heavily on its cultural expose. This fall has already seen high-profile events such as the Istanbul Design Week, Sam Mendes’ stage production of Shakespeare’s Richard III with Kevin Spacey and Gemma Jones, and, more specifically timed around the Biennial, the opening of the Borusan Holding private collection in the 100-year-old Yusuf Ziya Pasa Mansion by the Bosporus.

Turkey is a relatively new market for international galleries and auctions, independent arts and culture correspondent Hande Eagle said, adding that “Influential museums and galleries are privately owned and backed by Turkey’s wealthiest families. Koc Holding for example – one of Turkey’s largest family conglomerates.”

Koc Holding in conjunction with the Vehbi Koc Foundation has guaranteed biennial funding until 2016 with the aim of exposing Turkish youth to modern art and to further the Istanbul brand. The foundation also bestowed a grant of $10 million for two new Ottoman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which will display works created within the borders of the Ottoman Empire between the early 14th and early 20th centuries.

The notable concentration of wealth in Turkey has resulted in several privately-owned collections and corporations such as Garanti and Yapi Kredi functioning as patrons of young Turkish artists, featured in new galleries lining Istanbul’s central Istiklal’s Avenue.

“The art funding in Europe has decreased and become more limited as European countries continue to struggle economically. In Turkey however the arts have come to prosper over the last few years due to Turkey’s growing economic strength,” Eagle said.

Sotheby’s was the first international auction house to establish an incorporated office in Turkey and opened the doors of its Istanbul branch in 2009, in a move that acknowledged the presence of increasingly active collectors and buyers in Turkey.

“Modern and contemporary Turkish art being sold abroad at Christie’s and Sotheby’s has also had an impact in Turkey’s position on the international art market just as it has for China and Japan. Such endeavors enable art enthusiasts as well as buyers to discover more Turkish artists, most of which still reside here and are not usually acknowledged by foreign collectors and aficionados,” Eagle said.

In search of Turkish artists

The biennial is very international in character, but current regional affairs have placed their mark on this year’s event. “Social and political struggles in the region have drawn global  attention, that is why we see a lot of Middle Eastern and North African artists featured in the biennial,” Eagle commented. “The 12th Istanbul Biennial has set a precedent in Turkey for the presentation of contemporary art to local audiences” she said.

While it is centered on both retrospective and contemporary socio-political struggles in Latin America and the Middle East, Turkish artists, however, are underrepresented.

“Collectors who wanted to buy Turkish art and see more Turkish artists were disappointed,” said historian and artist Suzan Meryem Rosita.

The Istanbul Modern museum in Istanbul’s Tophane district adjacent to the early 20th century warehouses that make up the Antrepo complex, housing the Istanbul Biennial, is currently featuring a parallel exhibition of Turkish women artists.  Museum chairman and co-founder Oya Eczacibasi stated that the timing of the exhibition titled “Dream and Reality” with the biennial posed a great opportunity for a global audience to be introduced to the contributions of female Turkish artists.

Turkish participation in the international arts circuit has also increased through participation in fairs, such as the annual Frieze in London and Istanbul as the host of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair this November. “Creating video installations is popular among Turkish artists, and they are mostly renowned internationally for their politically critical works,” she said. Rosita’s own submission for the biennial, a book installation on Armenians, has been officially ‘postponed.’

Rosita who gives VIP tours of private collections in Turkey and the region, said interest in Turkish artists from collectors in Arab countries has also increased over the last few years.

The Istanbul Biennial is open from September 17 until November 13 and presents works from more than 110 artists in five group shows surrounded by clusters of solo exhibitions.