American Curator Elizabeth Thomas’s Take on the Istanbul Art Scene

In the midst of the Gezi Park protests, the 13th Istanbul Biennial and now, Contemporary Istanbul, American curator Elizabeth Thomas has taken up a two-month residency in Istanbul. At this tumultuous and exciting time, Thomas is pursuing research in collaboration with progressive Istanbul art institution SALT. Her research leads her to interactions with local artists and gives her a first-hand look into the bright, young, and still relatively intimate Istanbul art world. Thomas shares her insights with us, offering us a glimpse into the life of a foreigner immersed in the Istanbul art scene.

 Artsy: Can you tell us briefly about your background and how that led you to Istanbul? What is the nature of your research in Istanbul, and how long do you plan to be there?

Elizabeth Thomas: I’m here primarily because of SALT, an institution that embraces research in all of its activities in theory, practice, method, and form, in Istanbul and elsewhere. Of course there are benefits to spending time in a place long enough to understand some of the local scene, or to be in a place that radically recenters your own borders of thought and vision, which Istanbul does for me, coming from a North American home base. SALT itself is a pretty singular institution in terms of its openness, resources, and mission. I have been working for many years as a curator, making exhibitions and producing new projects primarily in the realm of research-based practices, and coming here is allowing me to pursue a more open-ended inquiry into areas of interest that I share with SALT. Since I’ve been here the project has taken its first form, a book of conversations with artists about their own ignorance, talking about the things they do not know but feel compelled to, how they might come to know these things, why it matters to know these things (to themselves, or in the world at large). I will be spending two months here for this phase of the project, but we expect it could have other forms and outcomes, so I am sure that I will be back again.

Artsy: Is the art boom in Istanbul as vibrant as depicted in the news?

ET: This is a difficult question to quantify, because in reality the number of artists and institutions is very small relative to Istanbul’s total population, as well as the number of galleries and collectors. From my short time here, it seems to me the city has most of the ingredients of a vibrant art scene, with a broad range of exhibition contexts, art schools, and critical outlets, but the depth is not the same as other cities of this scale. Of course many people find that exciting, that there’s still lots of room to generate visibility and have impact in the city (and internationally) without replication or redundancy with existing frameworks. It is certainly true that the boom is as much local as international in terms of critical and curatorial attention, as Turkish artists make their way into every biennial and exhibit all over the world. In terms of a commercial boom, there are more than twice as many galleries as when I was here four years ago, although many galleries seem to support themselves in the international market, as the collector base in Istanbul still seems quite small.

Artsy: How does Istanbul’s art scene compare to American cities that you have experienced? What is unique or most striking about the Istanbul art scene?

ET: Coming from the U.S., whether thinking about the West coast or the East coast, the most striking thing [about Istanbul] really is how young the scene is, in the sense that most of the infrastructure of the contemporary art scene didn't even exist 10 years ago. The biennial of course existed, and a few galleries like Macka, but really it has been through the work of a few people who have vision and understand how to position their activities in the international context as much as for a local audience, developing the nonprofits, the commercial galleries, the art schools. It is striking as well that the support for much of this comes primarily from banks and other private enterprise, there is little public support (except for the schools) and the ecosystem of individual philanthropy is not yet that developed.

Artsy: Are there particular haunts in Istanbul where artists or those in the art scene frequent?

ET: During the biennial there were plenty of parties on Istanbul’s famous rooftop bars, like the Londra or NuTeras, good for a glamorous photo-op. But once the city calmed down, relaxed cafés like Simdi and Urban seem to be most in favor.

Artsy: How is Istanbul’s art scene affected by the city’s site at the crossroads of Asia and Europe?

ET: Istanbul’s presence on the international scene is proportionally greater than the size of the community here, that’s for sure, and it would seem a lot of it has to do with this perception of Istanbul as a place in between (I would add the Middle East here, not just Asia, if we’re speaking geographically), and then there are of course the other “in betweens” of religions and cultures. I can only speak to this from my perception, as someone coming from the U.S. and oriented more to Europe and not from Asia or the Middle East. But in terms of international interest and exposure, I think the art scene benefits greatly from people’s desire to experience this city and its culture, while still feeling there are some shared points of reference, and I think this is true of the art that is produced here and circulating internationally as well.

Artsy: What museums or galleries are the best spots to experience contemporary art in Istanbul?

ET: In terms of institutions, for me the most interesting places are those that have specific missions that meet a need or interest locally but also represent unique positions internationally. So places like BAS, a hybrid space of both production and exhibition of artists books, or Collectorspace, which gives a public presence to private collections, or Protocinema, which presents nomadic exhibitions in Istanbul and New York through a kind of import-export model, seem to maximize possibilities to make meaningful contributions to the dialogue here specifically, while being internationally focused and very savvy about how their interests are networked globally.

Elizabeth’s Istanbul picks: Londra, Çatma Mescit Mh.  Akarca Sokak (Tepebaşı Akarca Sk.) No:53, 34430 İstanbul, Turkey; NuTeras, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No.67, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu  34000 İstanbul, Turkey; Simdi, Asmalı Mescit Mah., Asmalı Mescit Sk Atlas Apt. No:5, İstiklal/Istanbul - Europe, Turkey; Urban, Kuloğlu Mh.  Galatasaray Lisesi (Çapanoğlu Sk.) No:6, 34433 İstanbul., Turkey.

Elizabeth Thomas is a curator and writer, currently working independently. She is the former Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. She lectures and publishes frequently, and has worked on exhibitions at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Mass MoCA, and the Andy Warhol Museum. In addition to the book she is working on during her residency with SALT, current projects include a public commission in Philadelphia with Katharina Grosse and an exhibition on speculative fictions (with Prem Krishnamurthy) at P!, New York.

Explore Contemporary Istanbul on Artsy.