Is Istanbul the Next Art Metropolis?

Will Istanbul join the ranks of London, Paris, and New York as one of the world’s art capitals? Ali Güreli, chairman of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair, is betting on it. As Turkey’s largest and most influential art fair approaches its eighth edition, arriving in the wake of the 13th Istanbul Biennial and coinciding with Art Istanbul art week, the city is positioned as a nexus for contemporary art. Never mind the virtual absence of an art market ten years ago; today, the city is pleasantly overrun with new museums, exhibition spaces, art galleries, and a population of collectors—both local patrons and international visitors—looking to invest in a promising future for the arts. In a chat with Artsy, Contemporary Istanbul’s Güreli spoke of the city’s changing art scene, what makes Istanbul an ideal city for collectors, and what we should watch for at this year’s fair—with no attempt to diffuse his excitement for the new art metropolis.

Artsy: What is exciting about Contemporary Istanbul this year?

Ali Güreli: We will be hosting 95 galleries from all around the world, from 22 different countries, with approximately 600 artists who are going to exhibit more than 2,500 artworks. This year, we have some new ventures, like a section called Plug-In, which is a large place allocated for new media, digital art, and video art, with artists working in these disciplines from around the world, some from Turkey as well. Starting next year, we [will launch two new] satellite fairs, which will take place parallel to Contemporary Istanbul in a different venue [and focus on photography, new media, and emerging artists and galleries]. We believe that this type of art will be improving and will be developing, and the younger artists from Turkey will also be interested in such kinds of art. We are also trying to encourage collectors—not only from Turkey but from all around the world—who will be visiting Istanbul. They’ll get used to this type of art, so they’ll purchase more digital or video art or new media.

Artsy: Can you name a few highlights from the programming?

AG: Under the umbrella of New Horizons, [a section focused on] Russia, we will be hosting seven galleries from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Last year, we hosted two Russian galleries, but this year seven, so Turkish people and people who come to Istanbul from all around the world will be learning more about Russian contemporary art. We will also be hosting the master artist Hermann Nitsch, whose live performances will take place for three full days of the fair. He will make the opening speech on the preview day.

We will hold a series of conferences during the fair, called CI Dialogues, whose main themes are again new media, new technology, and art. More than 25 keynote speakers will the take stage during the conferences. We are expecting more than 70,000 people to visit the fair—every year it is increasing. The first year we received only around 23,000 people. So we are happy.

Artsy: How is Istanbul’s art scene changing and expanding?

AG: I can say that when we started approximately ten years ago, there was no market in Istanbul. It was totally local. There was no intention of the local artist toward international markets, no international galleries, and the collectors had no interest in international art. The awareness started mainly with the Istanbul Biennial, from all around the world to Istanbul, followed by Contemporary Istanbul. Everything happened in the last ten years.

I remember many collectors with no intention to buy international art. Now, the collectors are all around the world—they are visiting the major international art fairs, following most of the museums around the world—so that is why over the last six or seven years, many international galleries have come to Istanbul. They see that there’s a population of collectors who are buying contemporary art from all around the world. They meet each other, not only in Istanbul, but in Paris, in London, in Miami, in New York. So we are happy with what we’ve reached. We see that it’s going to be improving in the coming years. We expect more international galleries to come to Istanbul. Next year we are targeting approximately 15 new galleries mainly from New York, London, Paris, and Berlin—more dynamic, younger exhibitors in the coming years.

Artsy: What makes Istanbul an ideal city for collectors?

AG: Let me put it this way: I strongly believe that the major stops on the map of global art—you see London, you see New York, you see Paris—in the coming years, I strongly believe that the fourth city will be Istanbul, when you talk about art in the global market. There is a huge dynamism in the city in terms of art and culture. There are lots of new museums under construction, new galleries opening every month, and there are four new contemporary museums. One is by the government, a university investment, and I believe there will be more in the future. There are a lot of real estate developments in the city, which are also covering very large exhibition spaces and performance spaces, where you can have small and large sized exhibitions from all around the world. They want to position themselves as connecting with art. Also, the location of the city: if you make a three-hour circle around Istanbul (flying), you reach more than 60 major cities around the world. Turkish Airlines has added real value to the city. They keep our city flying to 150 new destinations around this world, which is also an advantage for us. (They are also our sponsors.)

Artsy: What will be important factors in securing the future of art in Istanbul?

AG: Istanbul has this character of being local, but at the same time, it’s taking place in a global market. We see that top locality: you cannot talk about globalization. Globalization is made of geographies, and when we look in that sense, it’s connecting the whole region in terms of cultures and civilizations, and also arts. So I would say the city itself would be the main factor, and also the interest of the people in contemporary arts would be another factor. Turkey’s economic dynamic is a developing country. Ten years ago, again to give an example, per capita income was less than 3,000 dollars. Now it is about 11,000 dollars. And the country’s target in the coming ten years is to reach 25,000 per person income. That means people will be spending more money and time on arts and learning more about art. Additionally, when we look at the population’s scale, 50 percent of the population is below 33 years old. It’s a very young country, which is earning money, so that means those young people will become potential collectors of the future.

Artsy: Can you talk a little bit about the anti-government protests that have been taking place in Istanbul, and how the fair may address them? We recently heard that the Istanbul Biennial had to withdraw some of their programming from public spaces.

AG: What happened in June, according to my understanding, was a really healthy and democratic thing and what was not democratic was the reaction of the government and the all people ruling the country, so basically I don’t see any connection. I don’t think there will be any protests. This is an art fair. I don’t know what kind of protests we’re talking about.

[Regarding the Biennial,] do you know what happened in terms of visitors? This year’s Biennial was the 13th one, so for 26 years the Biennial has been taking place. In the last two, the Biennial management really pushed hard tried to reach at least 100,000 visitors, and didn’t reach 90,000. This year, it exceeded 300,000—tripled, tripled! So do you see? This is the result. People are more interested.

Artsy: With one week in Istanbul, what local spots would you suggest for a visitor? And what art-related events are not to be missed?

AG: I can talk for hours and hours if you want me to talk about restaurants, cafes, Turkish cuisine...the Bosphorus, Golden Horn...and all the cultural and touristic attractions in the city. And shopping, of course, has become a major issue in Istanbul, for everybody. People travel to Istanbul for the weekend for shopping from all around the world—one-hour, two-hour flights, spend two, three nights, and then go back. [But for restaurants] I can suggest Frankie’s, Mikla, Changa, and the very good fish restaurants on the Bosphorus.

We are working on our art week, which we named Art Istanbul, where more than 25 galleries will have openings at the beginning of week. There will also be lots of happenings in the museums. The city will be like an art festival. If people are interested in art, I would say to come at the beginning of the week, and spend the whole week if they have time. Visit the art fair, the galleries, the museums; it will be a full week of culture.

Ali’s Istanbul picks: Frankie Istanbul, Tesvikiye Caddesi 41-41/A K.8 Nisantasi, Istanbul, 34367; Mikla, The Marmara Pera, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 15, 34430, Beyoğlu, İstanbul; Changa, Sıraselviler Cad. No: 47 Taksim, 34250, İstanbul; Fish restaurants on the Bosphorus.

Explore Contemporary Istanbul on Artsy.