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Owners, Custodians and So-called Futile Claims

Özge Ersoy »

Last year, curator and writer Ceren Erdem invited me to write a text on private museums in the new hubs of the contemporary art world for ArteEast Quaterly, a publication that aims to reshape the vernacular of this field around the Middle East. This commission came out of our conversations about what kind of a role we, as practitioners, can possibly play in shaping the new infrastructures in our locales. Ceren’s task as the guest editor of “ANEW: Retelling the Stories of the Past and the Future” was to inquire into the ideas of memory, amnesia, and subjectivity in the post-1989 world where there has been a rising need for new strategies and questions to replace decaying categories and narratives.

To respond to Ceren’s invitation, I departed from an editorial project I had pursued in 2010, “How to Begin: Envisioning the Impact of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi” where I, along with five writers, posed the question of whether the new museums in the Middle East are merely symbolic capital—or could they possibly offer new structural support? The flamboyant public relations strategies aside, I argued that emerging museum collections do have the potential to reshape recent contested histories that are yet to be canonized. In places where there are very few established collections from the last century, the new museums have the ability to tackle the idea of so-called ‘belatedness’ compared to the Western art history canons, which would reveal the emancipatory potential of non-canonized histories. That could be an opportunity to reframe shared visual histories—only possible if there’s an ongoing negotiation about what makes these museums “public.”

This is certainly an urgent question in places like Turkey where all the contemporary and modern art museums are privately initiated and run (the state’s only museum of painting and sculpture remains closed). Publicness can be defined as the act of opening the doors of a collection to the public, or it can refer to the ideals of the institution's transparency and accountability towards the public. Yet the sine qua non of going public depends on concerned people claiming ownership of public heritage and holding institutions, including privately owned ones, accountable for rightful and ethical ownership, care, accessibility, and responsible deaccession. That would mean to take an active part in ongoing conversations about institutional collection building, a process that many private organizations are currently caught up in.

In early February this year, public trust in a private modern and contemporary art museum was violated, as a private university in Istanbul decided to sell parts of its museum’s collection at an auction, without contacting the artists or the donors—let alone having their consent. Opened in 2007, Istanbul Bilgi University’s santralistanbul collection included around 150 works by notable artists such as Yüksel Arslan, Sarkis Zabunyan, Nil Yalter, Nejad Melih Devrim, among many others. The online petitions requested that the around 60 works prepared for the auction—either acquired by or donated to the museum—stay in the public domain. The goal was to develop an ethical debate and an informed public opinion about the museum’s arbitrary decision to remove a significant part of its holdings and hence betray its custodial responsibilities. At the end of the day, what does the ownership of an artwork mean when it’s part of a museum collection? What constitutes the thin line between owners and custodians of such artworks?

Given the growing hype to open private collections to the public, it’s not difficult to expect that similar examples of hasty decisions of deaccession will follow in the coming years. As the interest in going public grows, the basic protocols and regulations for deaccession in private museums and corporate collections of modern and contemporary art remain lacking. Commenting on the Bilgi’s decision of auctiong off a big chunk of the santralistanbul collection, the co-founder of santralistanbul Oğuz Özerden said to a newspaper: “The thing I don’t get is... When we bought these works, we got them registered in the museum inventory as belonging to the public domain. And actually they got inspected annually. But I guess they got approval to sell the works.”[1] In the following days, the auction house published a document on their website, issued by Istanbul’s Culture and Tourism Directorate, stating that there is no legal obstacle to sell the aforementioned works at the auction.[2]

Such an approval is not surprising as the Turkish laws abide museums to have an inventory only if the collected objects are legally deemed as cultural heritage, i.e. older than 100 years. The purposes and criteria of deaccessioning in modern and contemporary art museums in Turkey are not laid out on paper, and there is no legal framework that states that deaccessioning is “only justified to improve the quality or composition of the collection.”[3] This loophole takes me back to my previous point: when the legal framework is not strong enough, the conversations should continue on the level of ethical codes that need to be constantly reviewed and updated.

It was also not surprising that the petitions and protests against the university’s decision to go to the auction were dismissed as hue and cry. Harsh criticisms targeted artists for not demanding sale contracts that would protect their works from such a sale in the first place. The contract issue is symptomatic of the current situation in Turkey where living artists are eager to have faith in prospective contemporary art museums—a rapidly growing field that now attempts to historicize the recent artistic productions—and don’t necessarily foresee the second sales or the dissolution of collections that are currently developing. The santralistanbul incident clearly shows that sales contracts constitute a major role in reconfiguring artists’ rights towards their own works that are entrusted to art museums. But the yet-to-be-improved state of the contracts are far from being able to clear up museums’ responsibilities towards artworks.

Some critics argued that the works were better off in private hands, since they were not taken good care of in the museum’s storage; also, the public wouldn’t be able to access the works easily as the museum has also scaled down its exhibition spaces despite the claims that it was not shut down. The pragmatist argument, however, turns a blind eye to what the museum should have done given its most essential premise and promise—that is to find ways to provide good custodianship and keep the collection in the public realm, by donating the artworks to other institutional collections rather than liquidating them to create funds for the university.

Some artists told me they believed that the energy that was poured into this debate could be better used to initiate small-scale projects that create breathing air pockets for similar discussions—dealing with the large-scale institutions was a battle already lost. But I’m confident that there’s pressing need to keep monitor track of private art museums, not because of the naďve belief that mentalities and/or policies would change overnight, but because today, there is an urgency to remind all art institutions that ownership of artworks comes with a responsibility to artists, artworks, and the general public. And that would be possible only if we claim public ownership of our own recent history, amd thus of contemporary art museum collections, be it state or private initiatives.





Özge Ersoy

Özge Ersoy is a curator and arts writer based in Istanbul. Her research interest lies in the relationship between art infrastructures and artistic production. Ersoy is the program manager of collectorspace, a nonprofit organization based in New York and Istanbul. She is also the managing editor of the artist-centered online publication Ersoy's writings have been published in Modern Painters, ArteEast Quaterly, Domus, Bidoun, Nafas, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, among others. In 2010, she edited and produced the book "How to Begin? Envisioning the Impact of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi." Ersoy holds a BA in International Relations from Bogazici University and Binghamton University, and an MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College.

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