First it was China. Then India. Now Turkey is fast becoming the country du jour on the contemporary-art circuit. A slew of shows at prominent galleries in Europe, record-setting auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's, and a host of new venues in the country's cultural capital, Istanbul, suggest that modern Turkish art is finally coming of age. At the "Confessions of Dangerous Minds" exhibition of contemporary Turkish art, a first-of-its-kind show held at London's trendsetting Saatchi Gallery in April, half the works by 19 mostly emerging artists were sold before the doors opened.
Partly, it is about patronage. A fast-growing economy has spawned a new class of youthful art collectors, while established industrial families have launched signature museums in rapid succession. (There is almost no public funding.) It began in 2004 with the Istanbul Modern, owned by the Eczacibasi family, who made their fortune in pharmaceuticals. The venue features a vast collection (and a pleasant waterfront café). Last year, Omer Koc, scion of a heavyweight industrial dynasty, opened the gallery Arter on Istiklal, Istanbul's busiest street. It was recently joined a few doors down by SALT, a state-of-the-art exhibition-and-research space in a radically restored heritage building, funded by Garanti Bank and directed by Vasif Kortun, Turkey's best-known contemporary-art curator.
But there are also dozens of other smaller galleries tucked into side streets nearby, proof, perhaps, that there is no shortage of interesting work. "There is no other similar Muslim-dominant country which doesn't have censorship in the arts and where artists are dealing with heavy-duty issues, like gender roles and religion," says Kerimcan Guleryuz, director of Gallery X-ist, which has showcased many politically charged pieces.
A great way to see what all the fuss is about is to visit the Istanbul Biennial, which has made spectacular strides since its debut in 1987. The next biennial, put together by top-name curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, runs from Sept. 17 to Nov. 13. You'll be working your way through some pretty hefty crowds if the current buzz about contemporary Turkish art is anything to go by. Visit iksv.org for more.