Conglomerate interests (Koç Holdings)
After a sustained period of economic turmoil, Istanbul’s contemporary art scene has achieved a comeback—in no small part thanks to the efforts of billionaire collector and patron Ömer M. Koç. In 2007, Koç Holding committed to sponsoring the Istanbul Biennial through 2026 in addition to partially bankrolling Turkey’s participation in the Venice Biennale. Koc’s $55.7 million contemporary art museum in the city’s Dolapdere district opened in 2016 and today displays pieces from the Vehbi Koç Foundation; the collection holds more than 1,300 works by celebrated Turkish contemporaries including Ayşe Erkmen, Ottoman antiquities, and major international names such as Sigmar Polke and Theaster Gates. Called a “game changer” for Istanbul by Melih Fereli, the museum’s director, the roughly 200,000-square-foot building includes two theaters, a sculpture garden, and programming already planned through 2022 (expect an opera co-commissioned with IKSV in 2021).
Despite the opening of multiple major contemporary art spaces, the specter of censorship continues to hang over art and artists in the largely Islamic country, and exhibitions in Koç’s gallery’s have not escaped protest. At a 2017 show in Koç’s Ottoman Villa, conservative protesters destroyed a Ron Mueck sculpture of a naked man exhibited in a tiled fireplace that they mistakenly perceived as a mihrab, a mosque’s prayer niche. But Koç has remained undeterred. The nonprofit exhibition space Arter, which Koç chairs, opened in 2010 with free admission for visitors under 24. And he has spoken out in favor of speaking up. “Uncensored art is indispensable to real democracies,” he told the New York Times. “Even conceptual art.”