WAF Newsletter - Arter - October 2019

Arter

Jeremy Melvin, 23 October 2019


In Turkey, says Meli Fereli, the urbane and elegant director of the Arter Art foundation, people tend to suppress their inner creativity – which is precisely what the foundation he heads is trying to unlock. ‘We want to hook them early and encourage them to develop an interest in art’.

The foundation’s home, which opened in Istanbul in September, developed from his briefing through a design competition and on into Grimshaw’s winning design, addresses this ambitious programme in several ways. As Fereli says, they want people to come in off the street and visit the free parts – it is all free until 2020, and then a full access ticket will cost 25 Turkish Lira (about £3) though even then some parts will always be free. ‘We hope they will enjoy what they see, have a cup of coffee, maybe browse our publications in the bookshop, connect with their friends on social media and on another occasion maybe to come back and pay to see something.’

It is, in other words, intended to attract people in many ways with varied exhibits including performance, learning events and lectures. Fereli remembers an early conversation with Grimshaw: ‘Sir Nicholas said to me, “You have to remember that architecture is all about the body in space”, and that the conditions vary around the body to the limits of the space’. No doubt influenced by his time as President of the Royal Academy, Grimshaw’s comments showed how important it would be to determine what sort of conditions were required in the galleries, including the possibility of each gallery offering something different, and beyond that to have an idea of what sort of programmes they would run.


(c) Quintin Lake

I suggest to Fereli that what Grimshaw has given him is akin to a machine which invites exhibition-making, and he counters with a brief background to Arter. Funded by the Koc family, one of Turkey’s richest, whose patriarch set up a charitable foundation in 1969, their philanthropy originally focused on medical and educational initiatives. To some extent, as Fereli acknowledges, they were filling in gaps that the Turkish state could not or did not fill. But members of the family individually were interested in and collected art. They felt, however, slightly unsatisfied with their early forays into the art world, so asked Fereli, who had already won a reputation for multi-media arts festivals in Turkey after 20 years in and around the London music world, to advise them on how they could increase their impact. He suggested that they focus on contemporary art.

So the institution started in 2010 with a gallery in central Istanbul which he and his colleagues treated as a laboratory to see how contemporary art would play in the city, and to develop their own skills in and around the craft of curating exhibitions. They mounted 35 exhibitions over the following nine years, produced 37 publications, showcased fine but largely unknown Turkish artists and began to build their collections. Fereli acknowledges ‘it is still small compared to some of the great art institutions’, despite 183 new commissions over the period. Nonetheless it provides a base for many of the curatorial programmes. The scale and detail of Arter’s ambitions are clear: not just to create or steward a collection, or even to combine a collection with outside works, but to go for more or less the full range of what an art institution might do, understanding a community and building links with all sorts of art programmes and events in all sorts of ways.


(c) Quintin Lake


(c) Quintin Lake

For the opening, Fereli and his colleagues presented seven exhibitions, one in each of the main galleries. They include a monographic show on the great Turkish artist Altan Gurman, who died aged 41 in 1976, having worked in Paris and Turkey, as well as several group exhibitions. The character of the galleries and their position in relation to each other reveals much about the essential design. Set on a former Ford showroom below Taksim Square, many of its neighbours are small car and textile workshops.


(c) Quintin Lake


(c) Quintin Lake

The new building has a large presence in the urban fabric. Both Fereli, and Grimshaw’s partner in charge, Kirsten Lees, welcome this, as it signals the presence of art to the city. On the main entrance is a glass façade, with the last-minute addition of a raised pool of water in response to city government concerns about security, something Lees notes gives some depth to the building’s presence on the street. To the rear is an inviting courtyard overlooked both by the foundation and a swerve of existing residential buildings, giving the courtyard something of the character of an amphitheatre.


(c) Quintin Lake

The building has six floors above ground (the top two for offices) and several below ground for more galleries, art handling and conservation workshops. ‘It was slightly squeezed upwards’, Lees explains, to comply with rights of light and planning constraints, but the smaller footprint makes it easier to cut into the floor levels and bring light down to the second basement. This design principle informs many of the upper levels too, with their varying heights, balconies and different light sources.


(c) Quintin Lake

On the lower basement are a fine lecture theatre for 120 and a double-height black box for, Fereli enthuses, rock, classical and other sorts of performance. At the opening this space was taken up with ‘off-road, v.2’, an installation by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, comprising three grand pianos modified to be mobile, with their movements determined by a wind-speed monitor in the roof. Watching them move is delightfully unexpected, until these heavy objects start to cluster and move towards you in a slow but menacing manner.


(c) Quintin Lake


(c) Quintin Lake

Most visitors will probably first sample the ground floor gallery to the right of the entrance. Its inaugural exhibition curated by Selen Ansen, is ‘Words are very unnecessary’, a provocative if welcome title for a selection of works intended to prove it. From here another of the design principles begins to unfold. A staircase, concealed from the gallery entrance, becomes apparent, inviting visitors to move up to the first- and upper-floor galleries in an elegant, undogmatic and pleasurable promenade, along which one can stop to engage with works one feels drawn to. Here again, unexpected light sources, and the architecture itself, through the proportions of spaces and staircases, invites further upward movement. The curatorial approach, of using the architecture to inform placement, and objects to suggest subtle variations in reading the architecture, is highly effective and enjoyable. The promenade ends in a roof terrace, whose screen shows the ceramic motif designed by Grimshaw to enliven the facades.


(c) Quintin Lake

Two further conditions, one architectural, the other curatorial, enhance the experience. The first is that every gallery has an adjacent study space, which looks directly into the gallery, sometimes from above, sometimes alongside. The presence of these spaces shows a remarkable sensitivity to gallery-goers, as it gives respite from the sometimes emotionally demanding experience of engaging with art, as well as publications with additional information, or space where school groups might gather without disturbing other visitors.


(c) Quintin Lake

Other inaugural exhibitions include monographs from the collection, and the splendidly named group show, What time is it?, featuring work by Turkish and non-Turkish artists, as an appreciation, as curators Emre Baykal and Eda Berkmen put it, of the way ‘time rolled by before we realised we had already left ten years behind’ over Arter’s first decade.

Each of these exhibitions has a superbly produced and conceived catalogue, with helpful information and challenging essays. These publications, added to the first 37, add significantly to Arter’s ability to make a footprint in the art world and are an important part of the overall programme.

Overall it is impressive: as architecture, as an institution, as a machine for engaging people with contemporary art. The Koc Foundation has a policy of ensuring that its initiatives are properly funded and this is apparent in Arter’s long term ambitions. Istanbul is lucky to have it, but one senses that that luck derives in part from the Koc vision, Fereli’s warm and broad intelligence, which puts vision into action, and Grimshaw’s perceptive and sensitive architecture that gives it physical presence. All are complementary to each other.

If anyone doubted that Istanbul is a major centre of culture, this institute and its building should dispel it.


(c) Quintin Lake

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