When the first edition of the Istanbul Biennale opened in the fall of 1987, Turkey did not have a contemporary art museum. Today, many institutions dedicated to art have sprung up in the city. They did so under the watchful eye and implicit threat of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.
The unveiling of Istanbul Modern in 2004 – in a former warehouse in the Karaköy district, overlooking the Bosphorus – introduced the nation to the concept of a museum that featured not Byzantine frescoes or Ottoman tapestries, but contemporary Turkish artists working in the moment.
After four years of construction – during which the collection was temporarily exhibited in a nearby 19th-century building – a new five-story, 15,000 m² Istanbul Modern, designed by Renzo Piano on the museum’s original site, is expected to open later this year, and could coincide with the 17th Istanbul Biennale, which opened on September 17 and will run until November 20.
According to Bige Örer, director of biennial and contemporary art projects at the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İstanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfı or İKSV), the biennial is key to fostering a “returning museum audience” in Istanbul. . “By occupying existing museums, but also functioning as a temporary institution, the biennale brings global debates to a curious crowd,” says Örer.
The biennale employs the Pera Museum as its main center, but increasingly uses the city’s heritage sites. Müze Gazhane, an art center converted from a former gasworks last year, is being used as an exhibition space for the first time. Two historical hamamlar (baths), a 19th-century Greek girls’ school and a 20th-century calligrapher’s studio are among the other venues for the biennale.
Freeing the biennial from a theme can be considered strategic, as it helps to thwart government censorship. “Artists and institutions exist as long as they operate in the reality of the moment, which is subject to change,” says Örer.
Pera, Istanbul Modern and many other art institutions are privately owned by prominent Turkish collectors or affiliated organizations. Given the permanent control of freedom of expression, the contemporary museum sector has benefited from privatization. “As long as programming is expertly managed and local communities are not neglected, this new sector has the power to transform,” says Örer.