Just off Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, at the top of the street that curves down toward the Dolmabahçe Palace, is a small space with two glass walls facing the street. In June, hanging in this 12-square-meter room was a single framed sheet of paper, with a small hole burned in its center, an untitled 1976 piece by Rome-based Jannis Kounellis, from the Collezione Ramo in Milan, which only acquires works on paper by 20th-century Italian artists.
Over the past four years there has always been something to see in these windows. Two years ago, you might have seen a mime performing—an artwork by French artist Julien Bismuth, from the collection of Marseille psychiatrists Josée and Marc Gensollen, who primarily acquire artworks that have minimal or no physical presence. Two years before that, when the space had first opened during the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, there was the lifelike figure of a supine woman seeming to levitate between two chairs: installation artist Goshka Macuga’s portrait of Russian-German heiress and psychic Madame Blavatsky (2007), a piece owned by London’s Valerie Napoleone, whose collection focuses exclusively on female artists.
This little jewel box is Collectorspace, a nonprofit founded and directed by Haro Cümbüşyan, a former management consultant and now entrepreneur. Born into an Istanbul Armenian family, he grew up in this very building. His family’s name is written in white-painted iron letters over the entrance. In the mid-1960s, Cümbüşyan’s father had transformed a portion of the domestic area facing the street into an antique shop specializing in European lamps. Over coffee in June during Art Basel, Cümbüşyan says he remembers as a young boy having to carefully navigate the fragile antiques that overflowed from the space, as well as the many people who would come seeking his father’s expertise.
While the younger Cümbüşyan’s aesthetic interests are different than his father’s, Collectorspace bears similarities to the lamp shop, as a place where foreign, often valuable things can be appreciated and knowledge about them exchanged. To date, Collectorspace has organized almost a dozen projects, exhibiting exemplary works found in private collections around the world that reflect the diverse approaches collectors bring to contemporary art. Cümbüşyan and the space’s manager Özge Ersöy intend the artworks to be experienced by the Istanbul public, but they are also meant to be representative of their owners’ collecting practices, and are accompanied by a video documentary produced about the collectors. As Cümbüşyan explains to me, “What we are trying to do is talk about contemporary art; we are just approaching it from a different angle.”
The idea for Collectorspace stems from Cümbüşyan and his wife Bilge Öğüt’s time in New York, where they lived for a decade until 2008. They were members of many museums’ patron circles at the time, granting them access to the city’s private collections, which Cümbüşyan remembers fondly because of how open New Yorkers were. “When you stand in someone’s bedroom what they will say about their collecting habits is very different than when they are at an art fair. It’s not scripted. You get a window into their minds. I liked that intimacy.” Their experiences led them to the idea for Collectorspace, but they knew it wasn’t right for New York. “It was an idea for emerging art markets, to simulate the ‘collection visit,’ and talk about different approaches, so people get an idea about what can be done with a collection, rather than re-creating the wheel,” Cümbüşyan explains.
The same week as when Kounellis’s piece went on view at Collectorspace, at Salt Beyoğlu the exhibition “Every Inclusion is an Exclusion of Other Possibilities” opened, with works drawn from three private collections from Turkey: those of Ayşe and Saruhan Doğan, Tüten and Agah Uğur, and Cümbüşyan and Öğüt. With much the same intentions as Collectorspace itself—but with much more floor space—the exhibition’s aims were two-fold: to publicly display works held in private hands and to look at what works were acquired in the last decade by three prominent collectors. The show spanned [well-known artists from Turkey such as] filmmaker Kutluğ Ataman and sculptor Ayşe Erkmen, to younger international figures exploring digital imagery (Ed Atkins, Jordan Wolfson and Oliver Laric).
Over dinner in Istanbul the week before we met in Basel, Cümbüşyan was in a reflective mood about his own acquisitions. He stated that he had realized in the process of contributing works to the Istanbul show that in many cases the artists’ strict stipulations for the conditions of public display could stretch even a resource-rich institution’s budgetary, spatial or technical capacities. He had also discovered that some of the video works he owned had been uploaded onto the internet by the artists themselves and were available for public download—which sparked a table-wide conversation about how collectors often misunderstand their relationship to the work’s copyright (which, in most cases, the artist retains). Cümbüşyan related his own ongoing dialogue with fellow collector Alain Servais, who wants to propose that artists and collectors sign a contract after the purchase of work that stipulates terms for the work’s future.
While Cümbüşyan appreciates the need to clarify the gray areas around new-media works, he explained that it can be hard enough to convince the galleries to even sell him works by in-demand artists. And if he, as the buyer, turns around and requires the artist to sign a complicated agreement, it could be off-putting to the artist and gallery. Yet, on the other hand, he believes that the values of moving-image artworks are hobbled by the ambiguities of ownership and the impediments to displaying them, and that artists would also benefit if collectors were more confident in what they were buying.
For someone interested in data-crunching—“In art it is difficult to see the numbers, but I also view it in a more analytical way, maybe, than some,” he says—Cümbüsyan is constantly looking for new terrain. This time, it is urban farming, which he jokes is “another 90-degree turn.” The floor beneath Collectorspace, where an evening conversation with Collezione Ramo’s curator Irina Zucca Alessandrelli was held in June, will soon open as a café Ek Biç Ye İç (meaning “Plant’n Harvest, Eat’n Drink”) where much of the produce will be grown on-site or sourced from historical, public gardens (known as bostan). Cümbüşyan says this venture is his response to the 2013 Gezi protests, which started when Istanbul residents rallied against the government’s plan to demolish the nearby park in Taksim Square to make way for yet another shopping mall. Cümbüşyan envisions the café as a meeting and exchange point in the manner of Collectorspace, where a new generation of urbanites swap ways of making Istanbul a more sustainable place to live. With his only purchase (at that time) at Art Basel sitting on the table—a volume of essays that examine alternative models of economic exchange, Giving and Taking: Antidotes to a Culture of Greed—Cümbüşyan elaborates, “Certainly a lot of artists are involved right now in unresolved issues about our current economic and political systems. Artists are supposed to challenge them, or at least be one of the groups that do. Right now the art projects that interest me most are the ones that don’t call themselves art.”