Istanbul Modern, which first opened in 2004 as Turkey’s “first museum of Modern and contemporary art”, reopens this week (4 May) following a five-year rebuild. The 10,500 sq. m building has been designed by the high-profile Italian architect Renzo Piano. “The new building's transparent and accessible design reflects the ethos of the museum,” a press statement says. The new space—covered in 3D aluminium panels “evocative of fish scales”—incorporates a museum library, education and event spaces across five floors.
Istanbul Modern was first unveiled almost 20 years ago in a former warehouse in the Karaköy neighbourhood, overlooking the Bosphorus. After five years of construction—during which the collection has been temporarily shown in a nearby 19th-century building—the new venue will open on the museum’s original site.
Istanbul Modern’s new building was constructed with the joint support of the Eczacıbaşı Group, the museum’s founding sponsor, and Doğuş Group-Bilgili Holding, its principal sponsor. The Eczacıbaşı family—one of the country’s main arts patrons—runs a conglomerate encompassing building products, consumer products and healthcare, according to the company website. The cost of the new building is undisclosed.
The launch programme comprises five exhibitions including a chronological survey of Turkish art from 1945 to post 2000, featuring works by Fahrelnissa Zeid, Sarkis, Ayşe Erkmen and Gülsün Karamustafa. A newly commissioned installation by the AI artist Refik Anadol, entitled Infinity Room: Bosphorus, will also be unveiled (the site-specific piece is informed by real-time environmental data gathered in the Istanbul area).
Another show, Always Here, includes 17 works by 11 women artists that have been added to the collection through the Women Artists Fund established in 2016; artists featured include Mehtap Baydu, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, İnci Eviner and Selma Gürbüz. The museum’s dedicated photography gallery, billed as the first of its kind in Turkey, will present 22 portraits taken by the filmmaker and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan in the exhibition In Another Place.
A new three-part work by Olafur Eliasson, Your unexpected journey (2021), will hang in a central stairway while sculptures shown in an outdoor area include The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (I) (2015) by Adrian Villar Rojas, Richard Deacon’s House Version (2005) and Tony Cragg’s Runner (2017).
Last year, Cragg defended his decision to loan his sculpture to Istanbul Modern after the artist Mürüvvet Türkyilmaz criticised the move, telling The Observer newspaper: “If there is freedom of expression in Turkey, why are so many people still in prison for just expressing on human rights?” Cragg responded: “Art is a force for good. I exhibit my work for everyone, not for a specific group but for the entire, in this case, Turkish population.”
In a report last year, we highlighted how in the past 40 years, plenty of institutions dedicated to art have sprouted in Istanbul. “They have done so under the watchful eye and implicit threat of [president] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's regime,” said Osman Can Yerebakan.
The Istanbul Modern opening is timely as the country is due to hold crucial presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May that could unseat Erdogan for the first time in two decades. Human rights commentators point out that during his tenure, the crackdown on freedom of speech has intensified. “Baseless investigations, prosecutions and convictions of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and others persisted,” said a report published in 2022 by Amnesty.
In 2019, the Turkish art director Fevzi Yazici was charged with membership of a terrorist organisation and sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison. According to the Swedish advocacy organisation, Stockholm Center for Freedom, Yazici was accused by the Turkish government of helping mastermind the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2016.
He subsequently stood trial on terrorism charges and was given an aggravated life sentence in February 2018 along with five other journalists. The Art Newspaper understands he has since been released.