With Thomas Krens as adviser and Zaha Hadid as architect, a Turkish couple prepares to launch a major new museum
The normally staid world of late Ottoman painting and Islamic calligraphic art will soon experience the “wow” factor, with the construction of a Zaha Hadid–designed museum on the banks of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The building, an off-center cube supported by a single column, is the brainchild of Demet Sabancı Çetindoğan and her husband, Cengiz Çetindoğan. It will provide a permanent home for a private collection belonging to the Demsa Group—the Çetindoğans’ family-run conglomerate, with investments spanning luxury fashion, television stations, and hotels—exceeding 2,000 works of art.
The collection is still a work in progress, according to Cengiz, whose interests range from early Korans to Damien Hirst. He is a soft-spoken man with an obsession to collect a full representation of Turkish art—and to bring the best of the international contemporary scene to Turkish audiences. His commitment to assembling samples from an artist’s entire career goes to considerable lengths, such as acquiring 53 works by the late Istanbul painter Ömer Uluç (1931–2010).
The new art center will be called the Demsa Collection, in partial tribute to New York’s Frick Collection, an institution that helped inspire the Çetindoğans to become serious collectors. “The museum juxtaposes Turkish painting from the 18th to the 20th century, Islamic manuscripts, and international contemporary art,” says Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, who is serving as an adviser for the project. Half of the museum’s more than 150,000 square feet of exhibition space will be used for temporary shows.
The Demsa Collection confirms the role of private benefactors in developing Istanbul’s burgeoning art scene. Demet is a third-generation member of the Sabancı banking and manufacturing dynasty, whose family foundation established Sabancı University and the university museum. Her father, Hacı Ömer Sabancı, was responsible for the educational activities of the foundation. Among her own ventures is a private television channel that provides distance learning to prepare Turkish high-school pupils for university entrance exams. “Education will be an important part of the museum’s mission,” Demet says.
Much of the Demsa Collection’s inventory has never been exhibited, although its Korans and medieval and early modern calligraphic texts were recently assembled in a catalogue by the Islamic art scholar Nabil Safwat. At the core of the collection are 19th-century oil paintings by the founding fathers of Turkish fine arts. Cengiz describes a six-year quest to acquire a proto-expressionist still life of oranges by Şeker (“Sugar”) Ahmed Pasha (1841–1907), a royal favorite of Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz, who dispatched the painter to Paris to study with the Orientalists Gustave Boulanger and Jean-Léon Gérôme.
For the moment, that citrus-themed painting hangs in the living room of the Çetindoğans’ carefully restored late 18th-century wooden mansion, which protrudes over the waters of Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait. Çetindoğans occasionally open the house to the public—not a common practice in Turkey. The estate also attracts its share of visiting dignitaries such as Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell.
Due for completion in 2015, the Demsa Collection is part of a shift in Istanbul’s cultural axis away from the classical monuments of the historical peninsula to a new cultural district on the other side of the Golden Horn. The area now includes the santralistanbul, a Tate Modern–style converted power station; a recently constructed convention center and concert hall; Miniatürk, a popular park crammed with 1⁄25 scale models of famous buildings from around Turkey; and a museum of industry and technology endowed by business tycoon Rahmi Koç. Nevertheless, in Turkey, “there are still not many private museums and hardly any that are purpose-built,” Cengiz says.
The Demsa Collection’s architecture will be a big part of its attraction. Demet describes the building as “futuristic with historical touches.” Although Hadid’s final design has not been made public, early drawings show a structure with strict geometrical lines that appear to melt at the edges into muqarnas—honeycomb vaulting that is a feature of Islamic architecture.
This mix of old and new will also be reflected in the collection. The Çetindoğans are aggressively buying contemporary art from around the world. These acquisitions are for the moment being kept secret. “Young people long to see things which up until now they could only see abroad,” said Cengiz on the eve of his departure to an international art fair. “I think they are going to be happily surprised.”
Says Krens of the collection’s confluence of art from many ages: “The history of the origins of great museums is populated by institutions with even more unlikely combinations or geneses, from the Ashmolean in Oxford to Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.”
The Demsa Group includes the Turkish franchises for such upscale brands as Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, and the Istanbul branch of Galeries Lafayette. Cengiz says he will bring his retail-marketing skills to the new museum. He promises that the gift shop will be anything but ordinary.
Andrew Finkel is a journalist based in Istanbul for over 20 years and the author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the same title.