Feb 15 2013

Controversy Brewing as Istanbul University Museum To Disperse Its Collection

by HG Masters

Interior of the Santralistanbul Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011. Photo by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific

The privately run Istanbul Bilgi University is coming under fierce criticism from the Turkish art community for its proposed deaccessioning 70 works out of the more than 150 officially registered works in the collection of its museum, the Santralistanbul Museum of Contemporary Art. Seminal pieces by Turkish artists such as Nejad Devrim, Yüksel Arslan, Sarkis, and Ayşe Erkmen will be sold off at an auction by Maçka Mezat, on February 17 in Istanbul.

The outrage from the art community has focused on several points, beginning with the lack of transparency about the university’s decision and the government’s apparent approval of the sale. Word about the deaccessioning spread only two weeks ago after the contents of the upcoming auction were announced—and in fact, since the museum’s exact holdings are unknown and the auction house does not disclose the works’ provenance in its catalog, it is difficult to determine the precise number.

Another point of contention—voiced by various cultural groups in a series of petitions and statements released over the last two weeks—is that artists were purportedly convinced to sell their works at discounted prices since the pieces would be part of a museum collection. Certain works were even given away as donations. Furthermore, as the museum of a university, it was expected that the works would be used for scholarship and be available to the public for viewing.

In the week before the auction, Bilgi University has defended its right to deaccession works. It cited the examples of other museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Musem in New York which have sold works from their collections in the past. However, it should be noted that neither of these museums has ever parted with such a significant percentage of its collection as Bilgi University intends to do, nor auctioned off works of historical significance. 

Although Bilgi University’s museum is not a member of the International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), concerned artists groups have asked the institution to adhere to CIMAM’s standards for ethical reasons. These guidelines state that deaccessioning should only be done to improve the quality or composition of the collection, which, the sale of works from Bilgi’s collection clearly violates given the status of the artists and artworks it is selling. The back-and-forth dialogue between the university and citizen groups, however, will do nothing to stop the auction on Sunday and the works’ return to private hands and possibly even to destinations abroad. 

Bilgi University operated the Santralistanbul Museum of Contemporary Art from 2007 until its closure in 2012 in a converted power plant on its campus in the Eyüp neighborhood at the top of the Golden Horn. In its five years of operation, among its most notable exhibitions were touring exhibitions from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the ZKM center in Karlsruhe, Germany, along with a major survey of more than 100 postwar Turkish artists—but these exhibitions took place in Santralistanbul’s first two years.

The closing of the museum and the dispersal of the Santralistanbul collection follows changes in the ownership of Bilgi University, which was acquired by Laureate International Universities, the largest private network of higher education institutions in the world, and whose Honorary Chancellor is former US president Bill Clinton. Bilgi University has reportedly already started to transform the modern addition it built next to the power plant—formerly gallery spaces—into classrooms. The latter development was largely unremarked upon by the art community.

Before ceasing in 2011, programming at Santralistanbul had already grown increasingly sporadic. A retrospective of Yüksel Arslan held in 2009–10 was perhaps the museum’s last significant project. Some of Arslan’s works from that exhibition, such as Arture 188 (1978), from the series “Actualisation du Capital” (1975–80), showing two hands with suit sleeves adorned with the Turkish and US flags shaking in a room lined with the logos of corporations, are now on the block at Maçka Mezat. Arslan’s painted protest against the influx of international corporations into Turkey has become a witness to history repeating itself.

The case highlights several systemic problems with the museum culture in Turkey. There is no national modern art museum, either in Istanbul or Ankara. Instead, the government has periodically given its tacit approval for private ventures such as the Istanbul Modern museum, in that case by permitting the museum’s foundation to lease a former customs warehouse on the Bosporus. In the case of Bilgi University, the government allowed the school to lease the defunct Silahtarağa power plant on the condition that the building become a museum for both art and also industry (specifically the history of electric power production in Istanbul).

The status of private museums in Turkey is complicated and the laws intended to protect the integrity of their collections apply only for objects from the Ottoman era. Each private museum must be affiliated with a national museum that ties them to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. In the case of the Santralistanbul Museum, it was overseen by the Topkapı Palace Museum, which holds the treasures of the Ottoman sultanate. According to Turkish law, experts from the Topkapı Palace Museum—which has neither expertise, nor holdings in modern or contemporary art—would have had to certify the deaccessioning, as would the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Meanwhile, Maçka Mezat is attempting to protect its financial interests in the sale against any taint of controversy. Its legal counsel sent notices to some of the almost 3,400 people who signed a change.org petition warning that they would sue these individuals. The auction house has claimed that all the works they will sell have the requisite permissions and posted warnings on its Twitter feed that: “All third parties attempting to interrupt this organization unlawfully by creating negative grounds, including the use of any and all social media will be deemed to breach the code of fair competition and thereafter reported to the Republic Prosecutor and charged with indemnification of any loss or damage thus incurred in accordance with the Turkish Code of Commerce no. 56.”

There is little legal recourse for the artists, or possibility of stopping the sale. However, following a meeting on February 2 with more than 50 artists, curators, journalists and arts professionals, a list of questions and concerns has been drafted to be sent to the university, seeking more information about its intentions and motivations.