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With Contrasts and Similarities İstanbul Modern, Bilbao Guggenheim and Tate Modern

Every year all around the world countless exhibitions open. Some of these exhibitions take place in various venues such as in grand art institutions, some in small art galleries and few in public spaces. Those shows that open in large institutions and museums manage to spread the word and welcome visitors. However, small-scale art venues with limited funds struggle to find audience.

But how do these “big” art institutions that we talk about manage to reach large numbers of audience and promote their exhibitions; and even attract millions of tourists to their cities?

Before answering this question, perhaps we should talk about these giant museums. If we want to get a grasp of these art institutions that have become cultural hubs; contrasts and similarities may yield clues regarding these mentioned “modern art museums” or “contemporary art museums”.

In order for comparisons to make sense; let’s take locally and internationally known İstanbul Modern from Turkey, Tate Modern from Britain and Guggenheim Bilbao from Spain. Among these institutions, interesting similarities and contrasts exist. Architecture, branding, position in urban structure, programming, corporate communication and how they evolve throughout the years particular to each institution may be reviewed as main points of interest.

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Photo credit: Pawel Paniczko

It is possible to create wonders through architecture! One of the most vivid examples of this is perhaps Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry. The buildings they occupy are equally important to Tate Modern and İstanbul Modern.

After Herzog & de Meuron from Switzerland have renovated in 2000 the old Bankside Power Station of Giles Gilbert Scott, this place began to host Tate Modern. Even though the new addition to the building, “Switch House” that opened in the recent past faced mixed responses, it managed to please museum director Frances Morris (Chatel, M. 2016). Morris states that possibilities are endless with such an open space.

According to the article The Guggenheim Bilbao by Jim Lane, the renewed architecture of the Tate Modern Museum can be classified as a building with characteristic 20th century features whereas the rather newly built Guggenheim Bilbao’s architecture reveals the trends of the “22nd or even the 23rd century”.

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Photo credit: Andy Haslam for The New York Times

Besides this, the building of the Tate Modern situated near the Thames River transforms the area since the day it has opened its doors to its visitors. According to another article titled Artists, Galleries and Regeneration, “Tate is a very physical building, it also recognizes that it is not just an exhibition space and it recognizes the value in longer term engagement”(Gallery of Modern Art Glasgow, 2008). When compared to each other, these two buildings, Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Modern; while one bares the marks of history, the other has been created from scratch with an innovative approach.

Actually, the most significant feature that draws Guggenheim building apart from the other two examples (İstanbul Modern and Tate Modern) according to Evdoxia Baniotopoulou in the article Art For Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and Their Role In Transforming Societies: The Case of The Guggenheim Bilbao is that “The “emblematic buildings” can in addition be related to the particular political situation. In a region where ethnic identity has a significant importance, both on a private and a governmental level, a visual reminder of it distinctive enough to become an emblem could serve as a point of reference and generator of civic pride”, where it’s implied that Guggenheim building is an “emblematic building”.

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Photo credit: hurriyet.com.tr (25.06.2017)

On the other hand, İstanbul Modern that has emerged in 2004 with its recently constructed building near the Bosporus in an area consisting of 8.000 meter squares; as Tate Modern, continues its relationship with its past with a new function. While the speculations around the under construction venue of İstanbul Modern persist; rather than starting from scratch the space was transformed from an entrepot.

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From the exhibition “HARBOR” at İstanbul Modern, 2017

The impact of architecture is visible especially in Guggenheim case where; Bilbao was relatively undermined among other Spanish cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Seville) based on tourist attraction.

Yet, would these institutions be as successful solely with their architecture, without paying attention to their exhibition programs?

The Modigliani exhibition of Tate Modern, which opened on November 2017 and on view until April 2, 2018 and the upcoming Picasso exhibition gives us a glimpse of its exhibition calendar. Along with the exhibitions of pioneers in modern art (Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, etc.), works of today’s brilliant names (Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Superflex, Philippe Parreno, Tacita Dean, etc.) are exhibited at Turbine Hall. Only the audience attracting power of the exhibited names can bring prestige to the institution. When we look at the exhibition calendar of Guggenheim Bilbao, again as Tate Modern, we can see a variety of prominent artists of their genre (Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono), focusing on modern and contemporary art. There are also thematic group exhibitions within the museum schedule, along with the exhibitions of such artists. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, displays in addition to the solo (Fahrelnissa Zeid, Fikret Mualla, Erol Akyavaş, Mehmet Güleryüz, Sarkis, Cihat Burak, Kutluğ Ataman, Hüseyin Çağlayan, etc.) and group exhibitions from Turkish Modern and Contemporary Art, aimed to reach a vast audience; selection of works from all around the world focused on photography. Hosting an exhibition each year within the scope of Istanbul Biennial and Design Biennial; Istanbul Modern also welcomes the domestic and foreign tourists who are in town for these biennials. All three art venues located in different cities manage to keep themselves alive and attract visitors, through a wide range of events such as interviews, panel discussions, workshops, exhibition tours and events they conduct regularly for children, as well as the exhibitions.

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Kemang Wa Lehulere’s “Conference of the Birds” at the 15th edition of İstanbul Biennial, 2017

Well, how is the relation between these art institutions and their neighborhoods?

It’s equally important as their architectural characteristics that these institutions manage to communicate efficiently with their fellow citizens, and their neighbors. The extent to which these museums affect their surroundings is often discussed. Developing their region economically and socially, these museums are also investigated through various researches. Public spaces reconstructed by the local municipalities, hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops heaving into sight around these art spaces are the outcomes of the transformation they generate within their vicinity.

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Alper Aydın’s “D8M” at the 15th edition of İstanbul Biennial, 2017

The research called “Transforming the Thames” published by Locum Destination remarks that Tate Modern is a “high-profile” public sector project. Even though the newly opened division has created some squabbles with its neighbors recently; Tate Modern “opened with a bang and has attracted only positive public and media reaction. As well as succeeding commercially, welcoming 2.9 million visitors in its first six months alone, it has been able to participate in plans for a socially inclusive economic transformation of its locality, led by the local authority.” (2001) Without a doubt; media, advertising activities, planning and exhibition policies, architectural investment, staff and local government plays an instrumental role in this success.



On the other hand, success (or failure) of the Bilbao “branch” of Guggenheim which can be referred to as an American chain with Baltimore origin has surely been an issue of concern worldwide prior to its opening. It managed to exceed the expectations that were generated by the existing brand through positive remarks such as; “What renders this museum particularly interesting is that it’s phenomenal success – due to a combination of stunning architecture, a big name collection and huge amounts of publicity worldwide – will most probably set it as a precedent for other projects” (Smyth 1994).

Behind Istanbul Modern’s nation and worldwide success; the role of Eczacıbaşı and İKSV’s (Istanbul Foundation For Culture and Arts) support is essential on top of the institution’s art policy, publicity, membership programs and its architecture.

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