Fall 2012 | ArteZine

Contemporary Art Museums, Presumed Ruptures, and Urgent Demands


Contemporary art collections and museums are in a state of flux. In the last twenty years, private collectors have gained enormous visibility, and now have the strength not only to manipulate the art market but also to lead art institutions and influence the circulation of art works around the world. While public museums in Europe are suffering severe budget cuts, private museums continue to spread as a result of growing economies in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Are these new institutions merely symbolic capital? Do they have the potential to create new support structures for the arts? And more importantly, how can they respond to the urge to rewrite histories as well as the changing needs of artists and other art practitioners?

I began articulating these questions through a publication I edited in 2010, titled How to Begin: Envisioning the Impact of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (i). For this project, I commissioned five texts from a group of international artists, writers, and curators—including Regine Basha, Hassan Khan, Sohrab Mohebbi, Didem Özbek, and Sarah Rifky—to imagine the possible effects of the planned museum on their own practices in particular, and the art scenes of the Middle East in general. The reason why I chose to focus on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was not because it was a relatively easy target as there was an already existing literature critical of grandiose and semi-autonomous Guggenheim satellite museums. This discussion had surfaced with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that was opened in 1997. On the one hand, the museum enhanced the city’s image, attracted intellectual and financial capital, and served as the engine of an economic transformation to a services city (ii). On the other hand, the museum has been severely criticized for absorbing local financial resources allocated for arts and culture and thus monopolizing itself; promoting its architecture rather than the collection; and adopting the logic of gentrification, among others(iii). The discussion on the museum in Abu Dhabi had the risk of getting caught in similar binaries, which would not complicate the already existing arguments about the museum’s expansion strategy.

Nor was I encouraged by sweeping and condescending generalizations such as the following quote that appeared in a major art magazine in the US: “Is it possible, some academics and art experts ask, to create an ‘oasis of culture’ in a place that has no history of museums, no community of artists to speak of, no collectors, no donors, and where the local passions run to falcons and racehorses rather than Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons?” (iv).  I was certainly amused by such an approach but definitely not interested in taking a defensive position about the existing art infrastructures in the region. The motivation for How to Begin? rather came from the urgency of being part of a community that does not simply complain but articulate demands from a new support structure that casts a regional coverage area for its programming and collection.

At the early stages of How to Begin?, the conversations about the planned museum revolved around the decision-makers while the museum’s operations remained opaque, and all strategic plans and arguments were conjectural. For instance, knowing that the museum would try to adapt itself to an art infrastructure it was unfamiliar with, we were told that it had to develop new strategies, which at some point included the invitation of a group of regional curators and art directors to be in an informal advisory board for the collection. Regine Basha writes in her text titled “The Agreement”: “It is so interesting to see this kind of flattening of production and hierarchies happening—the museum or school once being ‘teacher’ is now the student,” (v).  Such decisions on the part of the museum eventually reveal the contested questions about the ethics of collaboration and the positioning of the institution—how is it possible to engage with local histories and create a critical edge at the same time? In “In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual,” Hassan Khan reverses this question and asks how the new contemporary museums can reveal the already existing binaries that dominate the local cultural scenes.

In his text, Khan invokes the figure of the corrupt intellectual to reclaim local histories when new contemporary art museums have the potential to dehistoricize the contemporary by sidelining the past to establish a new discourse of power and knowledge. “This recuperation is concerned with the question of how to understand cultural production, namely, by means of an insistence on what is always contextual,” Khan writes, “not as a source of explanation as much as the site of accents, of something that can never be taken for granted and assumed to be a basic right, of what is, by definition, always a constant series of negotiations that one finds strangely productive,” (vi).  To my mind, the figure of the corrupt intellectual represents an affirmation of an already existing system or order, dependent on validation and populist recognition. This figure is indeed helpful for challenging the tired dichotomies between what is modern and contemporary, the presumed ruptures that have been mostly ignored by institutions of contemporary art, at least in my immediate environment in Turkey.

As a curator and critic based in Istanbul, I operate in a cultural scene that is undergoing a major transition characterized by booming buying power, a growing art market, and resulting in a rising demand for new institutions. This rapid change, however, is coupled with a jarring lack of established collections of art from the last century. Turkey has favored a model of contemporary art philanthropy led by the private sector since the 1980s, and there have been a rising number of private museums in the first decade of the 2000s, including Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, and Sabanci Museum that have different type of collections ranging from contemporary art to calligraphic art and Orientalist art, among others. Yet it is a recent phenomenon that private and corporate collections are taking the lead to establish museums solely dedicated to contemporary art: Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, Borusan Contemporary, and the prospective museum of the Vehbi Koç Foundation are the most prominent examples. These museums have the potential to canonize certain contemporary practices over others, especially when there are no public contemporary art museums in the country. These institutions are therefore capable of rewriting art histories and possibly enforcing or ignoring the connection of local art production to its local predecessors.

In her recent book titled Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, art historian Wendy Shaw argues that contemporary artists in Turkey often adopt local subject matters and use a visual language that is unfamiliar if not unintelligible to local audiences beyond the professional circles. Shaw adds that, with the support of transnational art events, such as the Istanbul Biennial, international residencies, as well as the Internet, artists “turn away from the local legacy and write themselves into the global” while failing to acknowledge that there has been a continuous connection between the visual arts and social change for almost two centuries (vii). This is not to say that the readings of contemporary art should be disinterested in transnational or international context and simply turn to the local history. Shaw’s argument rather emphasizes that the visual arts have reflected social change for a long time, and it is high time that we moved beyond formalist readings, explored artistic intentions and their link to social histories, and investigated why and how artists had a disposition to revolutionary and often nationalist order in the last two centuries. Such a task becomes more crucial when there is a tendency to isolate artists from their predecessors, and this is clearly not a brand-new phenomenon of the last decades.

Starting with the late 19th century, almost each generation of artists in this geography has promoted their more accurate and relevant practice, and repeated what their predecessors did by revoking previous visual paradigms. For instance, artist and writer Nurullah Berk (1906–1982) wrote about the 19th century Ottoman painters in 1943: “They had no claim of expressing their inner worlds. They had neither a worldview nor a philosophy. The situation in Turkey was not suitable for thinkers and artists to be interested in the movements of their time. In fact, one could not even speak of a national consciousness,” (viii).  Similar to Berk, many artists in the 20th century have reconfigured political subjectivities, and at times negotiated their political identities when faced with new social realities; they experimented with medium and subject, and reflected the social change of their times, just like their 19th century peers. The common thread between these periods has been a discussion of belatedness: the claim that artists in this geography have always had to catch up with their times.

A recent example of this attitude was apparent in a statement about a private collection show that took place at santralistanbul last year in March. Titled 20 Modern Turkish Artists of the 20th Century, the exhibition included four hundred thirty works, mostly on canvas, by “modernist masters.” The collection advisor explained the emphasis of the collection to an Artinfo writer as follows: “The reason why we chose with [the collector] to focus on the Paris school of Turkish artists is because it was only then, after World War II, that our artists caught up with the times and produced works that reflected the current ‘isms,'”(ix)  [emphasis the writer’s]. The contextualization of the works, modern paintings around the mid-20th century in this case, clearly ignores the different temporalities that existed in different geographies, which results in an idea of following the “better” art to be “contemporary.” This idea of belatedness, however, does not seem to be over. Today, there is still a tendency to isolate and praise contemporary art for being more experimental, more relevant, more responsible, or simply better. The presumed ruptures between modern and contemporary art in this geography therefore lie at the crux of the question of how new contemporary art museums will rewrite histories. Investigating continuities and discontinuities within the visual culture then becomes essential for historicizing the contemporary.

From the İstanbul Eindhoven-SALTVanAbbe: Post ’89 exhibition, SALT Beyoğlu, 2012.
Photo: Refik Anadol

A recent project in Istanbul presented a well-thought proposition about rewriting art histories.Istanbul Eindhoven SALTVan Abbe—a collaboration between SALT in Turkey and Van Abbemuseum in The Netherlands—has evolved over the course of three exhibitions organized at SALT from January through December this year. For the duration of approximately three months, each exhibition tackled a time period, following a reverse chronological order. The first one included works after 1989 and questioned the relevance of a universal language in the arts that has been promoted by biennials, international museums, and the globalized art market, to say the least. The second show started from the mass movements of May 1968 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, reflecting how artists moved beyond studio practices and engaged the viewer to complete their works. And the last one, currently in display at SALT, tackles a period between the early twentieth century and the 1960s where artists favored a self-contained artistic authority and reflected rationalistic, revolutionary, and often national orders. The two immediate premises of this series are the following: (a) SALT is a private nonprofit organization but not a museum with a collection, and therefore mimics the formal qualities of a museum throughout a year by dedicating a space to a series of collection shows, and (b) SALT selects the works to loan from the Van Abbemuseum collection, and combines them with works by artists from Turkey, suggesting new art historical readings.

SALT is a nonprofit organization that defines its mission around the word “research”; it does not collect art works, but build archives that lead the way for exhibitions and public programming that explore issues in visual culture ranging from architecture and design to social history and contemporary art. In Istanbul Eindhoven SALTVan Abbe, SALT investigates the most urgent type of art institution for the local context today where the discourse on art collecting is suspended between two positions: the impulsive and hasty attitude to buy art works for private collections, on one hand, the intellectual urge to build critical narratives around them on the other (x). This exhibition series shows that a non-collecting organization is capable of experimenting with a permanent collection by creating a one-off display model for a year, moving beyond the restrictions of a conventional museum.

From the İstanbul Eindhoven-SALTVanAbbe: 68-89 exhibition, SALT Beyoğlu, 2012. 
Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

For Istanbul Eindhoven SALTVan Abbe, SALT selects works to loan from the collection based in the Netherlands, and incorporates works from Turkey that have not been part of canonized recent art histories. This approach connects local artistic production to a wider international history, and ultimately aims to complicate the already existing art historical narratives rather than complementing them. The series thus departs from a simple representation of a foreign museum collection, and interrogates the relevance of both historical and contemporary works: how have they performed historically and what do they tell us now? The project, in the end, attempts to reconcile different, if not contested, temporalities, by proposing that today’s art discourse is based on the compression of time and the proximity between geographies. Here, it is clear that the local vs. global binary, a construct of the 1990s, can only be a starting point for such an institutional framing. And to further complicate the conversation, one has to deal the “unfinished narratives” of local/national, as well as the regional/geopolitical and transnational/global (xi).

From the İstanbul Eindhoven-SALTVanAbbe: Modern Times exhibition, SALT Galata, 2012. 
Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

Recent art history in Turkey, similar to many countries in the Middle East, is yet to be rewritten, and museum exhibitions constitute a major tool to reconfigure contested histories. The new private museums, and the dearth of public ones, will have the capability to establish the value of contemporary art works, and therefore to contextualize and historicize them. One of the most crucial tasks is to acknowledge the discussion on the notion of belatedness and move on to discover the emancipatory potential of the histories that are yet to be canonized. This exploration is indeed possible only if there is continuous negotiation about the public role of art works. If we hold on to the belief that art works are part of a collective memory and public heritage, this should reflect in the structural decisions in institution-building, especially in regards to its openness and publicness. This poses the question of what makes a museum public when it is not supported by the state. Is it the opening of the doors to the public, or is it about the debated transparency and accountability of the institution towards the public? Or perhaps, the private museums can be public as long as practitioners continue claiming ownership on public heritage and the memory of the visual culture and hold the institutions accountable for their decisions.


[i] How to Begin? Envisioning the Impact of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is an M.A. thesis project at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.

[ii] See Jon Azua, “Guggenheim Bilbao: ‘Coopetitive’ Strategies for the New Culture-Economy Spaces,” in Learning from the Bilbao Guggenheim, eds. Anna Maria Guasch and Joseba Zulaika (Reno, NV: Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, 2005).

[iii] See Joseba Zulaika, “Desiring Bilbao: The Krensification of the Museum and its Discontents,” inLearning from the Bilbao Guggenheim.

[iv] Sharon Waxman, “An Oasis in the Desert,” ARTNews (February 2009): 70.

[v] Regine Basha, “The Agreement,” in How to Begin?, ed. Özge Ersoy (New York: CCS Bard, 2010), 16.

[vi] Hassan Khan, “In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual,” e-flux journal #18 (September 2010),http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-corrupt-intellectual/.

[vii] Wendy Shaw, Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 4.

[viii] Berk quoted in Shaw, 170.

[ix] Sarah P. Hanson, “Retracing the Arc of Turkish Modernism, By Way of Montparnasse,” ARTINFOInternational Edition (March 15, 2011), http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/37207/retracing-the-arc-of-turkish-modernism-by-way-of-montparnasse.

[x] See Vasif Kortun’s introduction, Treasure Chests or Tools: Some Histories and Speculations About Art Collections conference, SALT Galata, May 26, 2012. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCHGlJ8HXC0&feature=plcp

[xi] See Okwui Enwezor’s talk at The Now Museum: Contemporary Art, Curating Histories, Alternative Modelsconference, organized by CUNY Graduate Center and New Museum, Friday, March 11, 2010, New York. More info: http://curatorsintl.org/journal/the_now_museum.



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