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A New Art Museum in Turkey Looks Beyond Istanbul

Odunpazari Modern Museum, Turkey’s first purpose-built modern art museum, has opened in a college town hours from Istanbul, but can it shift the center of gravity in a country seeing a wave of new art museums?

Ramazan Bayrakoğlu, “Sleeping Man” (2010) (photo by Ozan Çakmak) (all images courtesy Odunpazari Modern Museum)

ESKİŞEHIR, Turkey — Turkey’s first purpose-built modern art museum has opened in a college town hours from the country’s biggest city of Istanbul, an endeavor to redraw the boundaries of the art scene and embrace the long-snubbed provinces.

Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the Odunpazarı Modern Museum, or OMM, is a series of bright boxes formed from interlocking wooden beams that enclose a 4,500-square-meter space, seeking to become a new cultural destination in Eskişehir, Turkey, 150 miles away from the metropolis.

“We want to bring international artists and people from all over together under this roof,” said Erol Tabanca, the construction magnate who built the $15 million space in his hometown and filled it with pieces he has amassed over the past two decades. “Other collectors with capital are now looking around and wondering ‘what if?’ This museum shatters the perception that everything has to be in Istanbul.”

The OMM in Eskişehir, with a population of about 800,000 people, joins the ranks of world-class museums in far-flung locales that aim to shift the art world’s center of gravity. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is easily the best known, and the V&A Dundee, also designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates, is among its most recent examples after opening last year in Scotland.

Exterior view of OMM (photo by Kengo Kuma and Associates ©NAARO)
Installation view of opening exhibition at OMM (photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz)

Contemporary art in Turkey, a country of more than 80 million people, is almost exclusively concentrated in Istanbul, home to scores of museums and galleries and one of the world’s most prestigious biennales.

Eskişehir, a three-hour train ride from Istanbul, is no cultural wasteland. Its Anadolu University boasts a respected fine arts departments, and the old quarter of Odunpazarı is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites for its 18th-century wooden residences.

The splash of ultramodern architecture among the densely situated Ottoman houses is in clear homage to its historic setting. The OMM’s stacked timber walls evoke the erstwhile firewood market that gave the district, and the museum, its name.

Kuma found inspiration for the OMM’s rotated, cantilevered volumes from the surrounding off-center buildings, which reminded him of pastoral homes in the Japanese countryside.

Installation view of Hans Op de Beeck, “Sleeping Girl” (2017) (photo by Kahan Kaygusuz)

“Landmark in the 20th century meant a kind of monument, like the [Guggenheim Museum] Bilbao. Instead, with this building we tried to make the landmark an experience,” said Kuma. The wooden beams will age with time, he said, taking on greyish hues, while still giving visitors “the sense that you are among the trees.”

The scent of Siberian yellow pine permeates the galleries, which shift in size and scale, growing smaller at the upper levels. A central atrium of timber blocks allows sunlight through and creates a trompe-l’œil effect that makes it feel like the space is contracting in reverse. 

In the OMM’s inaugural exhibition The Union, curator Haldun Dostoğlu traces the development of Tabanca’s collection with 90 of his 1,000 or so pieces made in the last 70 years. The emphasis is on Turkish artists and includes paintings and video installations by İnci Eviner and the patchwork portraits of Ramazan Bayrakoğlu. Standout work from international artists includes Assa Kauppi’s playful bronze suite of young swimmers, “The Race Is Over” (2011), and Hans Op de Beeck’s “Sleeping Girl” (2017), a life-size sculpture of a monochrome figure in repose upon a couch.

The largest installation to date by Japanese bamboo-artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV at OMM (photo by Kengo Kuma and Associates ©NAARO)

Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, a third-generation Japanese bamboo master, wove together a site-specific installation, which takes up much of a 10-meter-tall gallery. Tanabe used nothing but tiger bamboo, and the work’s four ascending tubes stay in place with sheer inertia and a couple of hooks.

The OMM earned the title of Turkey’s first purpose-designed modern art museum by just a couple of days, beating out the billionaire Koç family’s non-profit Arter in Istanbul, which also opened in September. And the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture, which officially opens early next year, is currently one of the venues hosting the 16th edition of the Istanbul Biennial.

But the OMM’s foray into the Turkish hinterland is already energizing the scene in Eskişehir. The gallery Eldem Sanat Alanı is showing work by young Turkish artists in a painstakingly restored 19th century mansion to coincide with the museum’s opening a few blocks away. Gallery manager Esra Eldem, who left “the rush” of Istanbul three years ago to return to her hometown, said other small artist spaces are slated to open in the neighborhood, emboldened by the OMM to create an environment for culture and dialogue among art-starved local residents.

Turkey’s raft of new art museums belies a painful economic slowdown and a restrictive political atmosphere under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has vowed to reshape arts and culture to mirror the Turkish population’s conservative values. But the OMM literally won Erdoğan’s stamp of approval after the president hung his own calligraphy — a stylized Arabic wāw letter — on its walls at the September 7 opening.

Armen Gevorgian “The Parade” (2014) (photo by Ozan Çakmak)

Nonetheless, The Union retains a subversive streak, featuring marine plywood and acrylic sculptures by Erdil Yaşaroğlu, once a cartoonist for the now-defunct political satire Penguen journal, and a handful of queer artwork, like a portrait by Turkish-German artist Taner Ceylan. Dostoğlu said that opening an art museum far away from the cultural capital is itself an act of defiance.

“Art remains the realm of resistance, and we are again seeing it triggering a new, positive spirit in Turkey. The artist by definition stands against power. This space says, ‘It can happen, we can do it, there’s a chance,’” he told Hyperallergic.

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