Istanbul Modern. Photo: Murat Germen

Istanbul | Flying Colours

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The contemporary art scene in Istanbul has witnessed an explosion in recent years. Some estimates place the number of commercial galleries at over 200 compared to just a dozen a decade or so ago and a stroll around the modern city reveals a proliferation of small, independent spaces.

These galleries have had a significant impact on the neighbourhoods in which they are located. In particular, the formerly run down industrial areas of Tophane and Karaköy have been transformed since the opening of Istanbul Modern, the city’s main contemporary art museum which symbolises the art boom.

A new generation of wealthy, highly educated art collectors has galvanised the domestic art world, while Turkish businesses have realised the prestige of owning a prominent collection and funding an art institution. Thus have banks, art funds and corporate holdings provided the capital needed in the absence of government funding.

The result is that Istanbul today has the potential to become one of the world’s leading art centres, and a city break has much to offer the visiting art-lover.

Contemporary Istanbul


In a beautifully restored four-storey building on Istanbul’s main shopping street, Istiklal Caddessi (Istaklal Avenue)Arter show selections from the Vehbi Koc Foundation (VKF) collection of Turkish contemporary art rotated with solo presentations and group shows featuring new work. Being on such a busy commercial street opens it to a broader audience than might normally experience contemporary art, and in fact it feels more like a designer store than an art gallery.

Füsun Onur, ‘Counterpoint with Flowers’, 1982, Installation view: Through the Looking Glass (Arter, 2014). Photo: Murat Germen

In the charming Rumelihisar? district, a castle-like red brick mansion with a pointed tower and stained glass windows, known locally as “Haunted Mansion”, houses the headquarters of Borusan Holding. On weekdays a business centre, at weekends it opens its doors to the public as Borusan Contemporary, Turkey’s first ‘office museum’ and the only Turkish member of the Association of International Corporate Collections of Contemporary Art (IACCCA). Almost all areas of the building are open to visitors to view selections from the company’s 600-piece collection, including the office floors, meeting rooms and even the CEO’s inner sanctum. (Don’t forget to leave him a note on the post-it wall.) Located close to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge which connects Europe and Asia, its outdoor terraces offer stupendous views of the Bosphorus.

The most prominent of Istanbul’s contemporary galleries, Istanbul Modern occupies a converted warehouse on the banks of the Bosphorus. There are great views from the waterside cafe/restaurant. Comprising permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, a photography gallery and pop-up spaces, it provides the best overview of Turkish modern art, primarily from the Eczacibasi family collection – another example of corporate collections. A permanent exhibition, Artists in Their Time, takes visitors through a history of modern Turkish art, and there are also important international shows.

Located in an 1893 Art Deco masterpiece built as the Bristol Hotel, the bright, polished, five-floor Pera Museum houses a permanent collection of Turkish Orientalist paintings from the 17th to the early 20th century as well as tiles, ceramics and photographs of old Istanbul. Together they offer an insight into the Ottoman world. These are all displayed on the first and second floor, with the remaining floors dedicated to multi-purpose exhibition spaces which have hosted top-notch travelling exhibitions by the likes of Picasso, Botero and Chagal and, more recently, Cecil Beaton and Grayson Perry. The museum is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary for which it commissioned Canadian artists Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett to create ‘sea/see/saw’, a huge installation built from 10,000 used eyeglass lenses and fixed to the beautiful facade, symbolically inviting viewers to take a new look at a familiar space (until Jan 16, 2016).

Video installation at SALT Galata

The contemporary art foundation SALT operates from two buildings in central Istanbul, one on Istiklal Avenue (SALT Beyoglu), the other (SALT Galata) near the bridge of the same name which links the old and new towns. SALT Galata is housed in the magnificent 1892 building which was formerly the headquarters of the powerhouse Ottoman Bank. The terrace restaurant is one of the best places in Istanbul to take in the view of the Golden Horn, the busy spur off the Bosphorus. The two art centres share an integrated programme, including exhibitions, film screenings, a research library, performances, concerts and workshops. Exhibitions have ranged from the restoration of Ottoman monuments to Russian Soviet architecture to 20th century Turkish activist art.

A quick and easy way to get an insight into Istanbul’s contemporary art scene is to go by the Mis?r Apartment building, a 1910 Art Deco beauty on the city’s main commercial street, Istiklal Caddessi (Istiklal Avenue), which houses several of the city’s most respected independent galleries.

Galeri Zilberman promotes Turkish artists internationally with a strong presence at art fairs and biennials, while introducing international artists to a local audience. Along with sister space Cda (Casa Dell’Arte) Projects, it presents ten to twelve exhibitions a year over two floors. These include Young Fresh Different, a group show encouraging emerging artists with works selected by an independent jury from response to a nationwide open call.

Galeri Nev presenting both upcoming and established Turkish artists and also featured European, American, Japanese and Canadian work, as well as pieces by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Bonnard and Dubuffet.

Since opening in 1998, Pi Artworks has been showcasing contemporary work to Istanbul’s growing art scene, while providing an international platform for its roster of artists. In 2013 it became the first Turkish commercial gallery to expand into the UK with a branch in London.


One of the biggest events in the Turkish art calendar is Contemporary Istanbul, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary showcasing art from mainly Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. Taking up the vast complex comprising the Istanbul Congress Centre and the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre, Contemporary Istanbul has grown from featuring nine international galleries in its first year to 65 in 2014, when altogether 108 galleries from 23 countries exhibited their work, making it the fifth most visited art fair in the world, according to Artnews. Contemporary Istanbul has five sections. The main section of the fair, CI Galleries, focuses on established contemporary art from Turkey and abroad, while the CI Emerging Galleries section spotlights younger galleries. CI Solo Show is a curated section showcasing single artists or artist collectives on a rotational basis. CI Plugin is dedicated to digital art and design, while CI Focus highlights one geographic region or theme every year.

Organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the Istanbul Biennial this year involves over 30 venues on both the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus, echoing its aims to create a meeting point between audience and artists from diverse cultures. This year’s edition will feature new works by over 50 artists. Each year a different curator, appointed by an international advisory board, develops a conceptual framework according to which a variety of artists and projects are invited to the exhibition. Based on the theme, Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, this year’s event will be curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Visiting Professor in Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University in Illinois. September 5 – November 1

Billing itself as a ‘cultural bridge’ between East and West ArtInternational is now in its third year showcasing local and international galleries in the Halic Congress Center.



Turkish Airlines flies direct to Istanbul from Edinburgh daily (twice on Tues & Fri Mar 31-Oct 25). Return fares from £220, incl. all fees.



Situated in the trendy Karakoy area and a few minutes’ walk from Istanbul Modern, the Sub Karakoy is an industrial-chic nook with a minimalist yet comfortable aesthetic featuring grey, polished concrete walls, LEDs and docking stations, designer beds, big factory windows and anti-stress mattresses. Staff are informal and informative, and you can linger over the Turkish-style breakfasts (artisanal cheese, eggs, jams, organic honey, olives, pastries) served in the reception area-cum-restaurant and in the evening head for the rooftop bar.



The travel company Istanbulite offers a 4-hour Contemporary Art Walk of the Beyoglu district or a 6- to 8-hour Perfect Contemporary Art Day tour, both led by knowledgeable guides, themselves artists.




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