A high-profile museum that opened its doors this autumn in Istanbul has created a vast new showcase for contemporary art in an industrial neighbourhood previously better known for its automobile service shops, petrol stations and mannequin stores.

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Arter in Istanbul ©Cemal Emden

Designed by London-based firm Grimshaw Architects, the new Arter museum was established by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, a major sponsor of cultural events and institutions, including the Istanbul Biennial. The lattice-covered building’s 18,000 square metres of interior space spread across six floors encompass multiple galleries of different shapes and sizes, a library, a bookstore, a cafe and two performance venues hosting cinema screenings, live performances and talks. 

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Ayşe Erkmen's ‘Blue Stone’ (2019), featuring a rock found in the excavation site during the construction of Arter’s new building in Dolapdere © FluFoto

The museum opened in early September with seven exhibitions running the gamut from sound installations and performance art to more traditional paintings, sculpture and photography. These inaugural shows are largely drawn from Arter’s collection of 1400 works by 300 artists — primarily from Turkey and its nearby region, but also including internationally-known figures such as Joseph Beuys and Mona Hatoum — dating from the 1960s to the present day.

“Arter’s new building is conceived as a versatile space, with its physically intersected galleries presenting multi-layered possibilities to discover, enjoy and engage in a closer dialogue with art,” says İlkay Baliç, director of communications for Arter.

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Sarkis’s ’Çaylak Sokak’ (1986) installation © Hadiye Cangökçe

The Dolapdere neighbourhood where Arter is located is less than a 15-minute walk from Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square, but has previously been little-visited by tourists and is poorly-served by public transportation. To try and overcome these hurdles, the museum offers free shuttle services from Taksim and a location in front of the more central Pera Museum. Until 2 January 2020, admission and audio tours have also been made free to all (prices will be set at 25 Turkish Liras (€3.88) for entrance and 10 TL (€1.55) for the guides after that date) in an attempt to entice visitors off the beaten track.

“Even my friends sometimes say they have a hard time getting used to coming here, that they think it’s too far away,” admits Ceren Erdem, senior director of Dirimart, the first gallery to open in the Dolapdere area, back in 2016. Originally located in a small apartment in Istanbul’s upscale Nişantaşı shopping district, Dirimart traded a prestigious address and higher foot traffic for the artistic opportunities afforded by its large new venue on the ground floor of a modern office building.

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George Brecht’s ‘Chair Events’ (1969) © Hadiye Cangökçe

“This was a very beautiful raw space that we can still play with in many ways, changing the wall settings for every show to accommodate large sculptures, paintings and video projects, or dividing it into smaller areas,” says Erdem. “Having such a flexible space allows us to reach out to artists with more options to offer.”

Other galleries have followed: Pilevneli in late 2017 and Evliyagil Dolapdere, a branch of the private Evliyagil Museum in Ankara, in 2019. Both are within a couple of blocks of Arter and Dirimart, on the same busy roadway.

“Everyone knew Arter would be a centre of attraction,” says Erdem, though she adds that the construction and tourism industries are driving change in the neighbourhood as much or more as the cultural spaces. New residential, commercial and hotel projects sprout along the area’s often traffic-clogged main road, towering over scrappy weekend street markets and a smattering of small bakeries, tea shops and canteen-style restaurants. To one side of Dirimart and Arter, there’s a Sheraton hotel with a branch of Espressolab, a local gourmet coffee chain, on the ground floor; to the other, a large black billboard announces the pending arrival of Shopi Go, a trendy clothing retailer and concept store.

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The bookstore in the Arter museum © FluFoto

Many of Arter’s airy exhibition spaces look out over this rapidly-changing neighbourhood, which once had a large Greek community, as some tucked-away churches and a sole Greek butcher still attest. Today Dolapdere and adjacent Tarlabaşı are home to many migrants from south-east Turkey as well as refugees from Syria.

“Our new neighbourhood is one with a complex history and one in the process of urban transformation,” says Baliç, who adds that the museum is working to organise events in collaboration with local community centres and NGOs and will offer free admission to neighbourhood residents. “We’d like Arter to be a meeting place, a vibrant cultural hub making its a broad range of programmes accessible to everyone.”

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