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Art

Tansa Eksioglu sits in the conference room of her offices at SPOT, the organization she co-founded with two other Turkish women, her blonde hair casually pinned behind her head, notepad at the ready, and describes, with no small urgency in her voice, the focus of her mission: to educate new collectors in this city’s simmering art scene in the basics of looking at, understanding, and appreciating art.

It is, in many ways, a formidable task. But it is also one that many other women like her are taking on with passion.
Contemporary art – and especially international contemporary art -- came only recently to Turkey, arriving with a distinct stammer only in the 1980s, when a few more daring collectors took the advice of a pioneering art dealer, Yahsi Baraz, and began purchasing works by young artists from abroad – Peter Halley and Mark Kostabi, especially.

Fast forward 40 years, and the former Constantinople, for all its proud Byzantium heritage and spectacular centuries-old mosques, has become a virtually non-stop contemporary art party, an endless celebration played out in nearly a dozen private museums and exhibition spaces, a few hundred art galleries, four annual art fairs, an internationally-renowned biennale, and a public that just keeps wanting more.

And the thing is: it’s being driven almost entirely by women.

That fact would be remarkable anywhere, even anno 2013; but it is the more so in Turkey, where women’s rights still lag behind those of their sisters in the West (among other indicators, Turkey’s forced marriage rate, at 14 percent, is one of the highest in the world), and where a conservative government increasingly encourages women to stay home and raise a family.

Tansa Eksioglu sits in the conference room of her offices at SPOT, the organization she co-founded with two other Turkish women, her blonde hair casually pinned behind her head, notepad at the ready, and describes, with no small urgency in her voice, the focus of her mission: to educate new collectors in this city’s simmering art scene in the basics of looking at, understanding, and appreciating art.

But the Istanbul art scene is not made of supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government. To the contrary, in fact, they oppose it, many having taken part in the demonstrations last summer in Gezi Park and Taksim Square. They are highly educated, many of them having attended American universities; they are non-religious humanists of Muslim and Christian and Jewish heritage, and most of them are among the country’s wealthier elite.

Which, says Tansa Eksioglu, is where the women come in. “It’s a male-oriented society,” she observes. “Men do business, they are business leaders; but art is not for men in men’s minds. They prefer to have it be run by their wives.”

This, for all its male chauvinist implications, may very well be true -- but the result is extraordinary nonetheless: in all its political history – and it is a long, dynamic, and influential one – art has never specifically given women power. Here, now, it does.

Eksioglu is one notable example: the daughter of an industrialist who was himself a passionate collector (of Armenian and concrete Turkish painting), she herself began collecting when she moved into and began decorating her own home. Over the years, she gained an interest in New Media and minimalism – some of the most challenging material – before hiring a private tutor to develop her understanding of contemporary international art. “There is nothing like this in the universities,” she tells me, and so, joining up with curator Zeynep Oz and Laura Carderera, an arts administrator, she created SPOT to provide what no one else did.

It is that leadership role which has characterized so many of the women in power in Istanbul’s art circles. The first contemporary art museum in Turkey, Museum Elgiz, for instance, was established in 2001 by collectors Can and Sevda Elgiz as a way “to share our collection with the public,” as Mrs. Elgiz explains it. That collection embraces works not just by Turkish greats like Komet, Burhan Dogancay, and Fahr El-Nissa Zeid (who, as a woman, also happens to be the record-holder for Turkish artists at auction), but also by Gilbert and George, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Eric Fischl, among others; and when the collection went public, no one in Turkey had ever seen anything like it. In many ways, the Elgiz collection has proved one of the most influential forces on the Turkish art scene -- and it has been so largely under the wing of Sevda Elgiz ,who took the helm of the museum even from the start (though her husband consults on all major decisions and they make all their art purchases in tandem).

Perhaps, even, it was Sevda Elgiz herself who set the precedent, as women immediately began playing a larger role in the burgeoning art scene. When, for instance, philanthropist couple Oya and Bulent Eczasibasi opened Istanbul Modern, the city’s largest contemporary art space, in 2003, it was Oya who immediately took charge as Chairman of the Board, utilizing her Masters degree in Museum Management to establish the Modern as the country’s pre-eminent museum for modern and contemporary art. (Little wonder, then, that SAHA, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Turkish artists, was founded in 2011 by Eczasibasi sister-in-law Füsun Eczasibasi and Can and Sevda Elgiz’s daughter, Ayda.)

Other power women in the art world include none other than Güler Sabanci, Chairman and Director of the Sabanci Holding conglomerate. Frequently named among the world’s most powerful women in business by any number of such list-makers over the years, Ms. Sabançi also serves as Chairman of the Sabanci Museum, where world-class exhibitions well beyond the scope offered at the other such private Turkish museums have brought Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Anish Kapoor and others to the Turkish public.
No less influential are the women who govern the commercial sector. Indeed, in many ways they are the biggest risk-takers – and tell the greatest success stories – of them all. Someone told me recently that most of the top Turkish artists at the moment are women, and though I can’t confirm it, I believe it’s likely to be true. Certainly women dominate the gallery scene. But among all Turkish gallerists, one especially stands out: Yesim Turanli, who this year took the plunge to become the first of Turkey’s art dealers to open a foreign outpost; her Pi Artworks now boasts a sister location on Eastcastle Street, London.

But maybe none of this should, in fact, come as so much a surprise, after all -- particularly at a time when the “most powerful person in the art world” -- according (again) to those who create such lists -- is a Middle Eastern woman, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar. There, as in Turkey, as anywhere, it is often the women, in the end, who really wield the most sway, as Tansa Eksioglu notes. “All these ladies ultimately do have an influence on their husbands on what to buy and where to buy it,” she says. “Things happen with their push.” Certainly in Istanbul, they do.

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