Contemporary Istanbul, 2016. Image courtesy of the fair.
Over its 11-year history, Contemporary Istanbul (CI) has experienced the ebbs and flows of the country’s art market, from ebullient peaks in 2012 to today’s cooler, uncertain climate. Numerous terror attacks in the country and a failed military coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July have set the nation and its market on edge. And while the turmoil has caused other fairs located in Istanbul to cancel their 2016 editions (both Art International and Moving Image announced theirs won’t be held this year), CI will open on November 3rd. Though the realities of the geopolitical climate and resulting market for art has led to a decrease in international participation from years past, Contemporary Istanbul marks an important moment in Turkey—both as one for locals to view global contemporary art and as a potential inflection point that can help add confidence to a shaky market.
“We never thought about canceling this fair,” said Contemporary Istanbul chairman and founder Ali Güreli on the phone from Istanbul. “We approached the galleries and said, this is the year of solidarity. This is the year you have to be in Istanbul. Life goes on and it will continue.” Though relatively bullish about the fair’s potential sales results, he takes a circumscribed view on how the art market is particularly prone to feeling the jitters shivering through the country. “Compared to other markets and industries, the art market is more sensitive. It immediately reflects the psychology of the people and the motivation to purchase art declines,” he said.
Following Art Basel in June, Güreli said that interest in Contemporary Istanbul remained high, with over 100 galleries looking to participate, 70% of them from foreign countries. But the July coup heightened fear and uncertainty, particularly among international dealers, and the result is a fair comprised of almost 70 galleries. Roughly half are local, while the remaining half come from 19 other countries. In years past, Güreli said the ratio has been closer to 35% local, 65% foreign.
According to Güreli, as the situation in Turkey stabilized somewhat this fall, a few additional international galleries have opted to participate. Four galleries are joining the fair for the first time. “Even yesterday we had a contract from a Berlin gallery, Michael Schultz,” Güreli said. “We signed the contract at the last moment before printing the catalogue.” Among those global galleries that never flinched is New York’s C24, which has Turkish owners, although the selection of work in its booth has been affected by the realities on the ground in Istanbul. “Because of the economic and political situation in Turkey, we’re going to be taking more cost-effective pieces,” said Michelle Maigret, the gallery’s director. “But there’re still people that will buy.”
Among those whose works C24 is bringing to Contemporary Istanbul are a number of Turkish artists (Seçkin Pirim and Irfan Önürmen among them) and international artists including Katja Loher (who will be a part of the fair’s Plugin program), Regina Scully, Mike Dargas, and Christian Vincent. Prices across the booth range from $25,000 to $200,000. Though that high price is about half of what it was last year, Maigret said she was “very optimistic” about this year’s edition and that “it’s important for people in the region and for us just to be there.”
Local galleries are particularly attuned to both the symbolic and financial importance of the fair. Istanbul gallery Pi Artworks has a longer perspective on the local market, having opened in 1998. “We have seen good times and bad times,” founder Yeşim Turanlı said. “This year is a sensitive year but all our local collectors are supporting us and Contemporary Istanbul is putting extra effort into promoting the event and securing the event. I have no idea if we’re going to have strong sales or not, but this isn’t the primary goal. We see this as an important community event that has to continue.”
In trying times, art provides something for everyone to rally around, Turanlı noted. Pi Artworks also has a branch in London. (It was the first Turkish gallery to expand to the city.) Turanlı said she uses the fair as an opportunity to introduce locals to international artists who they may not be familiar with. This year, she is bringing works by Yeșim Akdeniz, Maude Maris, Nejat Satı, among others, with prices of the work on offer ranging from $1,000 to $60,000, a similar range as in the past.
Nil Nuhoğlu, the director of the much younger Gaia Gallery, which opened in October of 2014, echoed the mix of optimism and realism. For Contemporary Istanbul, she told me, “I’m going in all guns blazing. We’re showing six artists in a range of mediums.” Visitors can look forward to a clean-cut booth that will feature one work per artist, all from Turkey except the New York-based Elektra KB. Pieces are on offer for between $5,000 to $45,000. “In terms of the general air, I know that other galleries are less optimistic than I am,” Nuhoğlu said. She added that the fair offers something of a reset. “It’s going to be a fresh start because we had a rough year.”
Ultimately the financial fate of the participating galleries will hinge on collectors visiting the fair. A prime highlight of Contemporary Istanbul will be Collectors’ Stories, which brings together 60 collectors and 120 artworks, each providing the story behind the pieces on view. But there’s certainly reason to believe that international buyers are going to attend the fair in lower numbers.
In this sense, Contemporary Istanbul offers a test of the domestic market. And though Turkey’s art sector is small compared to the global trade, ultimately the question for those who live in Istanbul each and every day is what it’s going to take to support local artists. “Art collecting isn’t for the light-hearted,” said Turanlı. “I think people who have the taste of it will just keep on motivating the rest, taking the lead. If we have 10 or 15 collectors whose hearts are in the right place and keep pushing the market, we can make it through this difficult, sensitive time. And I do believe those 10 to 15 collectors do exist in our local market.”
And Contemporary Istanbul is already looking to the future. “Continuing this year will give us more power next year,” said Güreli. Going forward, the fair has decided to cap the number of participating at galleries at 80, in an effort to put quality over quantity and beef up VIP services. Güreli notes that fairs have to think about themselves holistically as the art world calendar swells. “Which ones will be successful? It’s the ones that will be of better quality in all aspects—arts, services, food, staff, treatment, everything,” he said. And for galleries too, Contemporary Istanbul offers the opportunity to look forward, to a new market norm that offers the potential to be better than what came before. “Contemporary Istanbul is going to be the beginning of the rest of our lives,” said Nuhoğlu. “I’m putting all my hopes into that.”