santralistanbul’s Impending Auction Reminds Us that Owning Art is a Responsibility, as well as a Privilege

Collectorspace_14_450x720pxThis late January, those visitors to Istanbul’s Taksim Square who chose to stroll up the stately İnönü Caddesi were treated to quite the window display: upstairs from Protocinema (where Jacob Kassay was synching helicopter blades to film), in a modest glass box known as Collectorspace, the performance artist Ryan McNamara crouched over cardboard boxes of his mementos from childhood.  The inquisitive could go inside and receive a live walkthrough of the artist’s life, from family photographs, to earliest artworks, to… well, we’re still not quite sure.

The piece – “And Introducing Ryan McNamara,” which was originally performed over four days in at New York’s Elizabeth Dee – is part of Collectorspace’s “Presenting the Aarons Collection”  program, which features collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons, of New York. Founded by the genial Haro Cumbusyan, the nonprofit Collectorspace aims to raise the culture of collecting within Turkey, by bringing local collectors in contact with their international colleagues. The model is simple, but surprisingly unique: an invited collector chooses one work to display from their collection. This work than serves as the platform to discuss and debate differing models for collecting.

In the case of the Aarons, they like to see their focus as more on the process than the product. To quote Phil: “We see ourselves as being involved with artists and supporting artists through the purchase of works of art . . . We do not consider ourselves to be building a collection of contemporary art.” To back up this statement, the Aarons chose to bring McNamara’s performance as an example of a piece that defies traditional market conventions (after all, it requires McNamara’s physical presence to enact what is otherwise a collection of banker’s boxes. Not exactly something to match the sofa.)

It is intriguing to have these conversations in a city distinguished by its collection culture. Afterall, the Istanbul Modern is actually a private endeavour, as is the Borusan Contemporary, as is SALT. While the quality of the collections of the first two institutions is a popular target, there is no denying the impact that SALT has had in elevating the international cache of the Turkish scene. When the sprawling santralistanbul opened its doors in 2007, it aspired to continue in this direction, converting a former power plant into the country’s foremost venue.



Housed in the former Silahtarağa Power Plant, and operated under the auspices of Bilgi University, santralistanbul hosted high profile international exhibitions while also serving as a nexus for Turkish art of the 20th century. According to the Global Art and the Museum website, which nominated santralistanbul as a “MoCA of the Month,”  “the fact that santralistanbul represents an academic affiliation promises to motivate potential collaborators world-wide who can trust on santralistanbul being more experimental, critical and analytical about building an institution.” The campus cemented its reputation for daring with its stunning, industrial-inspired architecture and accompanying Energy Museum.

Now it seems these promises have come to naught. Earlier last year, rumors began to circulate that the University may be shutting down the center and auctioning off the collection – many of whose works were donated or discounted. While this was originally dismissed as wild rumor, the latter part now appears to be true: Today’s Zaman reported that an auction of over 150 works from the collection – including pieces from leading Turkish artists like Nejad Devrim, Ayşe Erkmen, Mehmet Güleryüz, and Selma Gürbüz – is scheduled to take place February 17, 2013.

The news was met with immediate protests, including a coalition of artists, curators, and critics including Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Murat Morova, and Seza Paker. An online protest penned by Douglas L Becker (of Laureate Education, an international advocate for alternative learning strategies) is circulating on, as is this statement by Vasif Kortun, director of SALT, which sums up the sticking points of the situation:

Istanbul, 07 February 2013In the process of decommissioning santralistanbul, formerly one of Istanbul´s most celebrated new cultural institutions, Istanbul Bilgi University has broken faith with the art world by putting the works in its collection on the auction block. Since its opening in 2007, santralistanbul served host to exhibitions from Centre Pompidou, ZKM in Karlsruhe, to MUSAC in León, and organized ambitious local exhibitions. However, after a rather combative change of ownership the university has recently decided to dissolve its “santralistanbul Museum of Contemporary Art” and liquidate the collection. The university has furtively sought the approval of Turkey´s Ministry of Culture and Tourism in order to scrap more than 70 works off the museum´s inventory. Since the Ministry´s benchmark for museum quality is how old the object in question is, the university quickly received the green light for sale of the collection that includes critical works by artists such as Yüksel Arslan, Nejad Devrim, Sarkis, Nil Yalter amongs others.A local auction house, Macka Mezat has taken up the sale. The auction catalogue makes no reference to the origin of the works, and refers to them as follows: “The private collection comprises important works by prominent Turkish modern and contemporary artists.”This is not a simple case of deaccession. The question is whether works donated or sold to a museum collection that set out to be a preeminent compendium of 20th Century art in Turkey could be reverted to the private domain. Public custodianship has been let go. Research and scholarship in the context of an academic institution has failed to materialize.

Artists, curators, critics and concerned members of cultural institutions have been active in informing the public and seeking acceptable means of keeping the works in the public domain.

Vasif Kortun
CIMAM Board Ykon Member

We will be following these events with interest and send our support to the Istanbul art community and patrons like Haro Cumbusyan and Collectorspace, who are working to raise awareness that, yes, owning art is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility.

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5 Responses to santralistanbul’s Impending Auction Reminds Us that Owning Art is a Responsibility, as well as a Privilege

  1. Ozge Ersoy says:

    Hello- many thanks for your piece. The discussions about private collectors’ responsibility towards artists and the general public are crucial for the arts community in Istanbul where there are no public contemporary art museums for the moment, and private collections are now turning into institutional ones, as you mentioned in your text.

    Correction about the auction: the museum has decided to auction off around 70 works from the collection, and they’re not sending all of them to the auction on the 17th. The auction this Sunday also includes works by 2-3 different private art collections–hence 150 works.

    Also, if you’d like to follow the petition about the University’s decision, please click on the link:


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