INSTANBUL — Arriving at Art International on the opening day, one could almost have forgotten Turkey’s recent protests. A warm September sun bounced off the Golden Horn, giving the white mosques on its shores a soft glow; collectors Lekha and Anupam Poddar, Sharjah Biennial president Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, and Brussells’s Alain Servais were nonchalantly wandering the marble-floored aisles. The newly-opened Istanbul Biennial, meanwhile, struggles to appropriately address the current political tensions; news of a fresh wave of demonstrations on the Asian side of town kept coming, but Istanbul’s latest art fair seemed blissfully unaware.
Yet it was a close call. “We were hit with the demonstrations and the riots at exactly the wrong time,” founder Sandy Angus told BLOUIN ARTINFO UK. Just as protesters set up camp in Gezi Park to vent their frustration with the city’s government-endorsed urban gentrification, participating galleries had to firmly commit to the fair. Police repression was severe. Several potential exhibitors pulled out. “There are lots of reasons why people won’t come to a first-time fair,” said Angus with characteristically British pragmatism, “but this was made worse by the fact that nobody knew how the riots were going to turn out.”
Angus is a fair veteran with a flair for emerging markets. He is one of the three co-founders of ART HK (Hong Kong’s international art fair), now owning 49 percent of the shares of the India Art Fair in Delhi, having sold a controlling sharehold of ART HK to Art Basel last year. Angus is also behind Art13 (soon to be Art14), a new London fair with a focus on non-western galleries. He believes that Istanbul, ideally located at the nexus between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, can become a truly international contemporary art market.
Art International’s first outing gathers 62 exhibitors – including the heavyweights Lisson Gallery, Yvon Lambert, and Pace – as well as 10 Istanbul galleries, among them Rampa Gallery, artSümer, and Pilot Galeri. The objective of international dealers is evident: to build or strengthen their links with the increasingly Westward-looking local collector base. A gallerist who prefered to remain anonymous told ARTINFO: “Art International is more for Turkish and other collectors from the region, who have these international galleries on their doorsteps.” In Istanbul like everywhere else, the art fair is all about face-to-face meetings. A local collector who had only seen a jpg of Francesco Vezzoli’s sculpture Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (After De Chirico) (2013), shook hands on the deal immediately after the opening. Standing like a household deity at the entrance of Yvon Lambert’s booth, the unique bronze came with a €250,000 price tag, which makes it one of the most significant sales at time of writing.
For all the talk of a bullish Turkish economy, Istanbul isn’t immune to the art market’s global slowdown. “Typically, you have slightly longer conversations,” said Lisson Gallery’s associate director Claus Robenhagen. In an official statement, curatorial director Greg Hilty mentioned “obvious interest” in Anish Kapoor, Julian Opie, and Rashid Rana but did not mention sales. At Pace, pieces by Keith Coventry and Yoshitomo Nara were reported to have found new homes, while at Paris’s In Situ/Fabienne Leclerc, a carpet by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige alluding to the Lebanese Rocket Society (responsible for producing the first rocket of the Arab world) sold for €22,000.
“The contemporary art market is fairly new in Turkey,” Christie’s consultant for Turkey Eda Kehale Argün told ARTINFO. Although she hesitated to give a definitive number of “serious” collectors, the auction house’s local representative quoted a report that estimated it at over 200. With no support from the government, family corporations dominate the institutional scene. Eczacıbaşı Holding is the initiator and main funder of IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), responsible for, among other things, the contemporary art biennial. The Eczacıbaşı family is also behind Istanbul’s most prominent museum, Istanbul Modern. Arter is funded by the Vehbi Koç Foundation (Ömer Koç, heir of the country’s largest corporation Koç Holding, was also spotted at the fair). Then comes a string of museums all bearing the name of their respective benefactors, including the Elgiz Museum, Borusan Contemporary, and the Sakıp Sabancı Museum.
These powerful clans call the shots (and not only on the cultural front). As Turkey’s tastemakers, they stand at the forefront of the country’s changing collecting habits. “It’s very natural for any new market to start with their own art, because that’s what’s familiar to you,” said Christie’s Kehale Argün. “But then over time, you get collectors that are more and more interested in international art, which is something we are seeing very strongly in our own sales. At the same time, you get more and more international collectors that are interested in Turkish art.”
One part of the city’s particularly cliquey art scene has made things very difficult for the fledgling fair, which was originally named Art International Istanbul. Contemporary Istanbul, a mainly local affair that, until then, had a virtual monopoly in town, has filed a legal complaint, arguing — astonishingly — that the organizers shouldn’t be allowed to use “Istanbul” in their moniker. The judge’s final decision will be made public next month, but meanwhile Art International had to rebrand its entire marketing material a week before the inauguration.
The biennial demanded that the fair opened a few days after their own preview to mark the difference between curated and market-driven art events. This move cost the fair biennial visitors who were unable to extend their trip, and a few dealers were grumbling. The installation was also problematic, hugely slowed down by a prime ministerial visit to the site which delayed access to the space. Yet overall, the mood was upbeat. Esra Sarigedik, from Istanbul’s Rampa Gallery, was pleased to report sales to both local and international collectors. When asked if she felt recent events had impacted on the local market, she answered: “Maybe it has slowed down the flow of money, but not the buyers’ desire.” You wouldn’t know from visiting Art International, but the whole artistic community has been very involved with the protests, and Sarigedik shares the hopes of many Istanbulites since Occupy Gezi. “The protests have affected all of our lives,” she said, “and that’s good.”
Art International, The Haliç Congress Centre, Istanbul, until September 18, 2013