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Istanbul’s new cultural center seeks to make art more public

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Istanbul has a new public art space in a sprawling 19th-century former factory on the banks of the Golden Horn which it hopes will host the prestigious Istanbul Biennial and expand local government support for cultural initiatives.

ArtIstanbul Feshane, spread over 8,000 m², includes galleries, a library, a concert space and a conference hall in the 190-year-old building, named after the fez cap produced here for Ottoman soldiers. Restored by the cultural heritage department of Istanbul Municipality over four years, the complex will eventually double in size when the auxiliary buildings are rebuilt, says Mahir Polat, deputy general secretary of the municipality.

“A public and contemporary space contributes to Istanbul becoming one of the world’s centers of arts and culture,” Polat said. The arts journal. “Feshane was historically linked to the rest of the world as part of the city’s port. Today, it symbolizes how Istanbul is once again assuming its seemingly forgotten role as an intercultural hub.

In a nod to Venice’s Arsenal, the collection of former shipyards and armories that hosts the Italian city’s biennale, Polat said converting industrial space to cultural use was the best way to preserve the historically significant site, where mass production began in the Ottoman Empire. Empire.

ArtIstanbul Feshane is housed in a former 19th century factory on the banks of the Golden Horn

Built in 1833 by a modernizing Sultan to sew Western-style military uniforms, the brick-built Feshane is one of the earliest examples of steel construction in the world. It functioned as a factory until shortly after the founding of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923 and the fez was banned in an effort to promote Western dress. More recently, the building served as a convention center. Polat declined to give the final cost of the restoration, but local media reported the original budget was around $7.5 million.

Feshane is part of a ambitious conservation program by the opposition-controlled municipality which has turned several abandoned sites into public spaces, including an art nouveau design center Casa Botter and a museum in a former gasworks, which has been used by the Istanbul Biennale in 2022.

The Biennale, which is organizing its 18th edition next year, was forced to move at the last minute in 2019 after an asbestos scare at a former shipyard across the Golden Horn, which is being transformed into a luxury marina and residential development of a billion dollars. “The Biennale has repeatedly struggled to find the space it needs in recent years… Of course they will use Feshane because we support the institutions that support the cultural life of the city,” Polat said.

Feshane joins a overabundance of mostly private art institutions that have opened in Turkey in recent years, almost all created by wealthy families. In May, Istanbul Modern, created by the Eczacıbaşı Family Foundation, reopened in a magnificent building designed by Renzo Piano on the Bosphorus Strait. The institution was Turkey’s first contemporary art museum when it opened in 2004 in a former customs warehouse, which was demolished to make way for a cruise terminal and commercial development.

Public institutions have largely failed to fulfill their responsibility in contemporary art, placing the burden on the private sector

Mahir Polat, Deputy Secretary General of Istanbul Municipality

Yet this city of 16 million has few government-funded art venues. “Public institutions have largely failed to fulfill their responsibility in contemporary art, placing the burden on the private sector,” says Polat. This contributed to making “art and culture a class issue considered the domain of the elite. We want to fill the void [with] a non-commercial space in a disadvantaged neighborhood where children from all social strata can discover art.

In this spirit, entry to Feshane is free and its inaugural exhibition, Starting from the middle, presents the works of 327 artists, chosen by more than a dozen curators. Among the works are photographs of controversial real estate projects in historic neighborhoods and anti-government protests in 2013. The exhibit “prioritizes solidarity for an art community weary of the competitive market,” says Polat. “Public space is not a luxury but a necessity, including for democratic debate.”

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