Over the past half-decade, Istanbul has increasingly come onto the radar as a contemporary art destination, with a flourishing gallery scene that attracts interest from art collectors both locally and internationally. Contemporary Istanbul, Turkey’s largest contemporary art fair, has both mirrored and propelled the development of the contemporary Turkish art market since its launch in 2006.
The fifth annual Contemporary Istanbul, which takes place from 25 to 28 November 2010, will host an almost equal number of international and local galleries. The fair has grown in size and stature since its first year, with Istanbul’s status as one of 2010’s European Capitals of Culture further raising the profile of the city as an arts hub.
Last year’s fair featured 73 galleries and the work of more than 300 Turkish and international artists. Works spanned a wide range of media, from painting and sculpture to photography, mixed-media works, video and installations. The fair drew some 52,000 visitors and 68% of the pieces on display were sold, a vivid demonstration of Istanbul’s arrival on the world art scene.
Emin Mahir Balcıoğlu, director of Contemporary Istanbul, explains how this has come about. ‘Istanbul, in addition to its multilayered historical heritage, is becoming a compelling centre for contemporary art. What really triggered all this are the Biennials, which have been very successful these last years, attracting more and more art lovers from abroad; and also the opening of new museums, which has brought a lot of motion into the art scene here.’
While there is a strong focus on Turkish art at Contemporary Istanbul, the fair aims to highlight art from the entire region. ‘We want to make it a regional hub, featuring art from neighbouring countries, so that if you fly in from London or New York, you see something different,’ says Balcıoğlu.
The fair’s New Horizons section showcased contemporary art from Syria when it was launched last year. This year, it will feature Iranian artists. Contemporary Istanbul is also collaborating this year with Edge of Arabia, a UK-based initiative that is bringing an unprecedented exhibition of Saudi Arabian art to Istanbul. That exhibition will take place from 10 November to 10 December 2010, with joint events to be held at Contemporary Istanbul.
Turkish artists shown at the fair include established names such as Ayşe Erkmen, Bedri Baykam, Haluk Akakçe and Selma Gürbüz, but also many lesser-known artists. One of Contemporary Istanbul’s attractions is the chance to discover young Turkish artists, with some galleries promoting them specifically.
Gallery x-ist was founded in 2004 by Kerimcan Güleryüz. ‘Until x-ist opened, there was no gallery that focused on young, emerging Turkish artists,’ explains Güleryüz. ‘We did something completely unexpected, because we focused on no-names.’ That approach has been successful. One of the gallery’s young artists, Ansen, born in 1978, has, in just five years, become ‘one of the most sought-after artists’ in Turkish contemporary art, according to Güleryüz; his work shown in the 2009 fair was purchased sight unseen.
Turkey’s contemporary artists are also being recognised on a wider stage. Reflecting in part the larger trend in art circles of interest in Middle Eastern art, Sotheby’s in London held its first auction dedicated to Turkish contemporary art in March 2009; building on its success, a second such auction was held in April 2010.
Yeşim Turanlı, owner of Pi Artworks, a well-known Istanbul gallery that concentrates mainly on mid-career artists, has seen an upsurge in international interest since she opened the gallery in 1998; 70% of her buyers are now from outside Turkey. ‘I find the Turkish art market one of the most active around the world. There’s a new group of people who have started to see this more and more as an investment,’ she says.
At the Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery in Manhattan, Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller has been exhibiting modern and contemporary Middle Eastern artists alongside Western artists for more than two decades. She participated in Contemporary Istanbul in 2009, showing work by emerging Iranian artists. Heller says she realised that Turkey is a ‘great, burgeoning market’ while visiting Istanbul in summer 2009. She has since featured several Turkish artists in her New York gallery, including multimedia artist Gülay Semercioğlu. Turkish artists ‘can easily work alongside well-known international artists,’ says Heller. ‘They are international artists, who haven’t been discovered yet. They have that calibre and quality.’
Although it will no doubt take some time for Contemporary Istanbul to enter the ranks of the world’s major international art fairs, in highlighting Turkey’s – and the region’s – vibrant, dynamic art scene, it has clearly established itself as an event to watch.