Hardly anyone I know has ever heard of the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, so I really think it’s the best-hidden gem in Istanbul.
Coming to this grand city on the Bosporus river, obviously, everybody is standing in line to see the antique masterpieces at Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace. Or – if they venture away from Sultanahmet – the very ‘French’ Dolmabahçe.
But hardly anyone comes to Istanbul to see the young, fresh, and daring Turkish contemporary art.
Famous Private Collections
You know like when travelling, you keep getting asked what you are going to do and to see?
So when I answered that I was going to see some art patron’s private museum, everybody was all awestruck: ‘Ah, Sakıp Sabancı!’.
And indeed Sakıp Sabancı – coming from a highly wealthy family – has also a private collection in Istanbul, but this one, housed in the former family mansion on the banks of the Bosporus, is rather famous for calligraphy, china, and the family’s furniture and decoration.
So Sakıp Sabancı is very famous and popular. He’s even said to have been a great philanthrope. While it’s true that he donated to many institutions, at the same time he invested in really bad corporations. Nonetheless, at his death in 2004, he left 2.65 billion of €uros. Hence, he was #147 on the Forbes list of billionaires.
But I didn’t want to go to the Sabancı collection, I had to see the Proje4/Elgiz museum, Istanbul’s first museum for contemporary art – founded in 2001 by Drs. Sevda and Can Elgiz.
Although Dr. Can Elgiz is – as far as I know – not on the Forbes list, I think we don’t have to worry about his financial situation: In spite of everything, Istanbul is booming, and Dr. Can Elgiz is not only an architect, he also owns companies building skyscrapers and luxury housing.
So Dr. Elgiz seems to be wealthy. Very wealthy.
And he seems to be guarded. Very guarded.
And Dr. Can Elgiz collects art and has excellent taste.
Which, is not always automatically connected, by the way.
However, Can Elgiz’s amazing lack of vanity makes it difficult to write about him: One sentence on his person on Wikipedia, nothing on the founder on the museum’s website.
The art – and the art alone – is in focus.
According to Can bey’s wife, political scientist Dr. Sevda Elgiz, the couple started collecting in the 1980s and owns an eclectic collection including Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Jan Fabre, Tony Cragg, Sol LeWitt, and Jonathan Meese.
Hence, a really exquisite selection.
Off the Beaten Paths
How do I know this? Because the couple opened a gallery, and I’ve been there. Albeit, I have the feeling that not too many tourists share this experience. Dr. Elgiz’s company is in the financial district of Istanbul, the pretty secluded neighborhood of Maslak.
Since he has chosen this zone for his museum, too, visitors have to venture a bit.
They need to go by subway all the way up to ITÜ Ayazağa station and then walk along construction sites – did I mention that Istanbul was booming?!
As you are crossing a huge parking lot, you are asking yourself whether you’ve lost your way. After all, it seems improbable that there is an art venue in these unappealing surroundings.
However, once you reach the unimposing building…there they are: Overwhelming works of Turkish and international artists are greeting you.
And since Dr. Elgiz is the real philanthrope, entrance is free.
The Roof is On Fire – Metaphorically
To top things up – metaphorically and literally – on the flat, plain roof is a lot of space for temporary sculpture exhibitions.
Each one of the exhibitions was composed according to a motto. There were for instance Artists over 40, Artists under 40, Artists born between 1952 and 1962, etc.
In 2020, for the 12th Terrace Exhibition, the open call ended on March 15. The motto is ‘‘Despite All’’.
What do the artists have in common? Besides being excellent, you mean? They are Turkish, that’s key, Dr. Elgiz acts locally.
Some are on show for the first time, and some, like e. g. Caner Şengünalp or Mahmut Aydın have already participated in former issues.
I might be wrong, as a matter of fact, I hope I’m wrong, but I have the impression that the sculptures are getting less political, and less audacious. But let’s hope I’m wrong since it would be a shame if the wonderful Proje4/Elgiz Museum lost its grit’n’edge.
I took the picture on the left showing Mahmut Aydın’s pretty daring sculpture on my visit to the 5th issue that promoted young Turkish sculptors under 40. That show presented a noticeable number of works dealing with feminist and freedom subjects.
How I Gained a Free Exhibition Catalog
After meandering all bye:myself between the skyscrapers and a couple of construction sites – Istanbul is booming! – I reached the complex. Nodding ‘merhaba’ to the guard, I crossed a huge parking lot to get to the main building. Nothing “artsy”, nothing “trendy” around here. And no people.
Even inside the museum, I was the one and only visitor. Never mind. I took the elevator to this open-air terrace exhibition. Almost reaching up there, it rattled a bit and stopped about two inches below the terrace level. The sliding door seemed stuck and slid open only a couple of inches. I’m not made to exit through a slot of a couple of inches, so I had to pull the door more open to squeeze myself out.
Oh, this place was so special – 1500 square meters of awe! Remarkable how many of the works dealt with the topic of – female – freedom and self-determination. Outstanding – I was amazed.
It was the beginning of July and it got slowly quite hot on this white cobblestone-covered terrace with no shade. Time to go. I squeezed myself back into the elevator – which unfortunately didn’t show any reaction to my button-pushing. Hmm, what now? Out of the elevator.
Standing between the seven orange figurines of Düzel’s work “Monads” at the terrace fence, I put my hand over my eyes and tried to see against the sunlight whether the parking guard could spot me. Nope, far too far.
Bending over the terrace fence, I raised my voice sheepishly to a handful of “Hello?!”s.
While I was keen on someone noticing me, I felt a bit stupid at the same time.
No, not a chance.
Saturday at the financial district. But hey, what was this cage at the opposite end of the terrace?
A Caged Bird
An emergency exit! A grid door, a door latch, an open lock – problem solved. Two flights of stairs down laid my personal – female – freedom.
At the lowest step then another grid door, a door latch – and a locked lock; problem back again.
So I climbed the stairs back to the still awesome, still hot terrace. Back to the fence.
There, on the patio of the small chain coffee shop next door: humans! The two ladies working at the museum!
They looked around a bit confused.
Now they looked up.
They saw me.
I didn’t have to explain much, they got me.
One of them jumped up and rushed into the museum.
Hence, time to walk down the stairs again.
By the time I reached the ground floor, the jumpy lady got hold of the janitor and he was holding an enormous set of keys, trying one after the other. The jumpy lady – completely petrified – didn’t stop to apologize; in English. And to whoop the janitor; in Turkish. I felt bad. For him for being whooped, for her for being so freaked out, and finally for myself for being locked in. They at least had something to do, I was just standing there replying that it was not their fault and not that bad.
Free At Last
Eventually came the great moment for the three of us – but before that, the janitor had to get some more keys – and one of the keys clicked in the lock and the door sprang open and I had my – female – freedom. Only the jumpy lady was still jumpy and apologetic and begging pardon. “I’m so sorry. It’s terrible that something like this happened. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. What can I do?! Do you want a catalog? Here – take a catalog. I’m so, so sorry!”, and with that, she imposed me the exhibition catalog – a really nice paperback with images of the beautiful works and information on all the participating artists.
Under one Roof
Besides the Terrace Exhibition, the Elgiz rearrange works from their impressive collection For instance, under the motto – and the title – “Grey and Beige Portfolio”.
Although the title doesn’t sound very promising, don’t let it fool you: There are big shots like Eric Fischl, David La Chapelle, Jan Fabre, and Erwin Wurm, currently Austria’s top seller who had recently big shows in Duisburg and the Venice Biennial and individual pieces all over the place.
I just hope that he never becomes another Keith Haring, whom I used to like a lot until they started to decorate basically everything with his iconic stick-men.
Next to these internationally renowned names, there are also many not-so-famous artists to look out for.
You see – if you are an art enthusiast like I am, the trip to inhospitable Maslak is absolutely worth it!
To get more tips and info on Istanbul, check my post on 24 hours in Istanbul.
Where to Find Them
Beybi Giz Plaza
Phone: +90 – 212 – 290 25 25
How to Get There
Once you get to the İtü-Ayazağa İstasyonu, exit towards the Plazalar. Across the street, about 50 meters down, you will see Beybi Giz Plaza to your right.
On the museum’s website, you’ll find more directions for if you are going there by car or by bus.
If you choose to pin this post for your next trip to Istanbul, please use one of these pictures:
Note: I’m completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in November 2022.
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