The Arter, art and gentrification

Modern art makeover in Istanbul?

A new modern art museum recently opened its doors at the heart of Istanbul's working-class Dolapdere neighbourhood. An opportunity for this culturally diverse quarter or a threat in an area recognised as a social flashpoint? Ulrich von Schwerin reports on the relationship between art, commerce and gentrification on the Bosphorus

Anyone walking along the steep roads from Taksim Square down into the Dolapdere Valley will pass textile workshops, carpenters' shops and laundries. Washing has been hung out to dry between the houses, children play on the streets while old ladies sit outside their front doors. Kurdish slogans have been sprayed on the walls, leftist posters call on people to join the class war and in the corners, the rubbish is piling up. Then suddenly, in amongst all the scruffy houses, a light, stone cube appears, its large glass windows glinting in the sun.

The contrast between the new Arter Museum and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Dolapdere and Tarlabasi could not be more stark. Barely 10 minutes from Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, Istanbul's showcase shopping mile, both districts are a cultural melting pot and social flashpoint. This is home to students and rubbish collectors, artists and sex workers, Kurdish refugees, African migrants and Roma.

And now in the midst of it all stands the new art museum of the Vehbi Koc Foundation, one of the biggest cultural sponsors in Turkey. Built by London-based Grimshaw Architects, who were also responsible for designing Istanbul's new airport, it's an imposing and elegant structure. The facade of the cube consists of perforated, geometric elements that change colour according to the light and cast filigree shadow patterns on the floors of the rooms inside.

"The neighbourhood loves us"

View of Istanbul's impoverished Dolapdere district (photo: Ulrich von Schwerin)
The contrast between the new Arter Museum and the surrounding neighbourhoods of Dolapdere and Tarlabasi could not be more stark. Barely 10 minutes from Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, Istanbul's showcase shopping mile, both districts are a cultural melting pot and social flashpoint. This is home to students and rubbish collectors, artists and sex workers, Kurdish refugees, African migrants and Roma

"The new building is very transparent and inviting," said founding director Melih Fereli at the opening of the museum. "We will re-kindle interest in contemporary art and make it accessible." Before construction work began, the views of local people were sought on several occasions and now a variety of programmes for local children are in the planning. Entrance is free for residents of the area. "The neighbourhood has embraced us and loves us," Fereli offers his assurances.

With six galleries of varying heights and dimensions, the recently-opened museum has the space to house several temporary exhibitions, while in the auditorium and the Blackbox in the basement, there's room for concerts, dance performances and film screenings. There's also an attractive cafe and bookshop on the ground floor. The new Arter Museum is undoubtedly an asset to Istanbul's cultural life – but nevertheless a certain unease remains.

The Istanbul-based economic historian Orhan Esen, a specialist in the history of the area, believes that the new museum represents both an opportunity for and a threat to Dolapdere. Dolapdere is "not simply any old poor neighbourhood," he says, but rather it has "an extremely high intellectual capital" with many artists and art students living there. "While it may close the door on some, for others the future is only just beginning. That's how it is with any process of gentrification," says Esen.

Link between art and gentrification

Since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in northern Spain, the 'Bilbao effect' has referred to the stimulating effect of cultural institutions on urban development. New museums can change the image of a city, enliven the art scene and attract new visitors. But they can also push property prices up and result in the displacement of weaker social groups. In Istanbul in particular, art and gentrification often appear to go hand in hand.

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