Inside Istanbul’s thriving contemporary art scene

Curator Sara Raza discusses the Turkish city’s rich cultural offer ahead of Artweeks@Akaretler – a highlight of Istanbul’s ‘Art Month’

In Istanbul, September is no ordinary month. A host of exhibitions, events and innovative projects across the city have earned it the moniker “Art Month,” with international artists, collectors, and art lovers expected to join the city’s thriving creative community. Highlights include Contemporary Istanbul, the Istanbul Biennial, and Artweeks@Akaretler – a recent addition to the city’s diverse arts scene, presented in partnership with Main Sponsor UBS. 

“Turkey offers one of the most developed contemporary art scenes, centered in historic Istanbul,” explains curator Sara Raza, who has spent time exploring the city’s cultural spaces and visiting artist studios. “Its unique location means it’s easily accessible for artists, collectors, arts professionals and art lovers, and it was one of the first countries in West Asia to establish an international biennale, in 1987 - along with a suite of private museums, galleries and artist communes.”

Among Raza’s favorite arts spaces are Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum “both of which mount interesting exhibitions, as well as showcasing their own collections. Istanbul Modern has a collection of international modern and contemporary repute and was modelled on Tate Modern, whereas Pera has a historical collection of Anatolian weights, measures and Orientalist paintings.” Other must-see spaces in the city include Salt – “an arts institution driven by research, which mounts stellar exhibitions and programs.”

Opening on 3 September, Artweeks@Akaretler will, Raza anticipates, “augment the existing arts infrastructure in Istanbul, creating opportunities for artists and independents to engage with innovative projects and network with collectors and art lovers, both at a local and global level.” Conceived by gallerist Sabiha Kurtulmuş and collector Serdar Bilgili, the three week event takes place in Akaretler Row Houses, a central landmark built in 1875 on the order of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz to house employees of Dolmabache Palace and later the recipient of an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence in 2009 following a major renovation project. Now in its third edition, Artweeks@Akaretler showcases work by Turkish and international artists alike, bringing together galleries, collectors and curators for a program of exhibitions and workshops. The event will also play host to a series of talks, featuring speakers including UBS Art Collection artist Haluk Akakce.

“We are proud to support Artweeks@Akaretler in Istanbul for the first time and especially at an early stage in the initiative’s development,” comments Christine Novakovic, CEO of UBS Europe SE and Head of Wealth Management EMEA, who shares Raza’s enthusiasm for Turkey’s “dynamic” arts scene. “We are always looking for ways to share our passion for contemporary art and collecting with our clients and the public, and I’m thrilled we now have a big opportunity to do that in the Turkish market.” 

As Turkey’s arts scene grows, many of its artists and art initiatives have gained global recognition – a feat Raza attributes to their “conceptually rich practices, which explore a myriad of social and political concerns.” She describes herself as “a huge fan” of conceptual artist Hera Buyukasciyan, whose multi-faceted installations are rooted in memory and absence, as well as Inci Eviner – the subject of a recent five-decade retrospective at Istanbul Modern, who explores social issues from gender to migration.

With so much to explore, those eager to experience September’s “Art Month” may feel overwhelmed. Raza’s survival tip? “I think it’s always best to plan ahead.” The curator recommends creating “a personal art map, highlighting the artists, spaces and booths you want to see” – ensuring you hold back “a little bit of space and time to see something spontaneous too.” An art party on the Bosporus, she advises, could be the perfect end to a busy day.

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