The backdrop of Turkey’s struggling economy and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on free speech don’t necessarily create the best environment for opening a hefty new art museum outside of the capital of Ankara, but that’s exactly what’s happened.
A university town, Eskisehir is one of the many cities that has suffered from lack of investment over the years, but has a strong cultural offer – it hosts many events and festivals, Anadolu University has a thriving arts department, and the historic district of Odunpazarı is on the tentative list of Unesco World Heritage sites for its Ottoman-era wooden houses.
Although Istanbul remains Turkey’s art capital, Eskisehir may now be a close second. Odunpazarı Modern Museum (OMM) opened days before Istanbul’s Arter, pipping it to the post as the country’s first purpose-built modern art museum.
With a focus on Turkish art since the 1950s, shown alongside international artists, OMM houses the construction magnate Erol Tabanca’s collection in a sensitively designed space by Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect who also worked on the V&A Dundee.
So with a bold architectural statement, and a plan to bring outspoken artists to a region outside of Istanbul, does OMM stand as a bastion of free speech? The museum’s inaugural temporary exhibition, Vuslat – The Union, is subtly subversive with sculptures by Erdil Yasaroglu, once a political cartoonist, and includes a handful of queer artworks. It’s curator, Haldun Dostog˘lu, said that opening an art museum far away from the cultural capital is itself an act of defiance.
But the political environment is such that any establishment seeks the stamp of approval from the president, even if it has no government funding. Indeed, as well as opening the museum, President Erdog˘an showed a piece of his calligraphy.
Idil Tabanca is OMM’s chairperson and creative director
How was the Odunpazarı Modern Museum born?
Idil Tabanca: My father Erol Tabanca began collecting art about 30 years ago, and when he’d filled up the house and his office, he became interested in the idea of sharing the artworks. OMM is the solution – a way of opening up the collection to the public and creating a space for artistic and cultural regeneration in Eskisehir, our home town and a region that historically has received little contemporary arts funding.
Can you tell us about the bold architecture?
We chose Kengo Kuma & Associates because its designs are iconic, and we wanted OMM to be a landmark not just for Eskisehir, but for Turkey and the world. Kuma’s practice works with natural materials and we wanted the architecture to take inspiration from its surroundings – Odunpazarı means “wood market”, so the design pays homage to the history of the town.
What original features does the museum have?
I think people will be surprised by the level of originality and detail, from its architectural design, exhibitions and events, to our museum shop and even the staff uniforms. Part of that originality is collaborating with creatives from all over the world to bring new perspectives to Eskisehir and trial their ideas in our space.
For instance, we worked with leading Turkish fashion designer Dilara Findikoglu to create a collection of staff uniforms in her signature dramatic aesthetic, which draws on Anatolian mythology and imagines OMM as an alternative, space-like universe. The OMM shop is another first – the only concept store in Eskisehir, it stocks unique items created through collaboration between the museum and local artists, as well as art and design books.
The bookshop has been curated by Jessica Calderon, of New York bookstore 192 Books. Our public programme is also unorthodox, incorporating everything from museum yoga to a student VR masterclass.
What’s in the collection?
Erol Tabanca’s collection is the foundation of the museum and is displayed on rotation. It comprises more than 1,000 works spanning the 1950s to the present day, with an emphasis on Turkish artists, championing pioneering 20th-century figures as well as the next generation of contemporary artists.
What is the temporary exhibition programme like?
Our programme aims to be multidisciplinary, collaborative and innovative, reflecting the confluence of contemporary art, design and technology. Our inaugural exhibition, Vuslat – The Union (until 27 March), curated by Turkish curator Haldun Dostog˘lu, features 100-plus works by 65 leading artists, as well as Japanese bamboo artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV’s largest installation, and a virtual reality work by British collective Marshmallow Laser Feast.
It was important that the opening exhibition showcased primarily Turkish artists, alongside international works, and we plan to carry on inviting curators and creatives to respond to the space. Our next arrival will be Karina Smigla-Bobinski’s giant, interactive, analogue installation ADA – a mesmerising helium balloon.
How does the museum use new technology?
Our first foray into VR has been inviting Marshmallow Laser Feast to show two installations that use technology to take people back to nature and connect with the environment in an immersive, breathtaking way. I want OMM to be a place to consider the challenges our planet faces in the 21st century. We want to have a dedicated new-media zone, which will investigate cutting-edge practices and use them to critique ourselves and the museum space.
How is the museum fostering progressive culture?
We want to ensure that OMM brings the town with it, encouraging new visitors and giving local people the opportunity to discover contemporary art. With that in mind, our fully funded artist residency facilitates cultural exchange through talks, workshops and seminars exploring local traditions and practices.
It’s my passion project. Our first artists have created some amazing work around the theme of biomimicry – immitating nature to solve problems – which is on show. We have also established The Vegetarian Kitchen – the first restaurant in the city offering non-meat alternatives. It’s more of a big deal than it sounds.
- Cost Undisclosed
- Main funder Erol Tabanca
- Architect Kengo Kuma & Associates
- Exhibition design OMM
- Logo design 1E1
- Print design Studio PUL
- Interpretation OMM
- App Poilabs
- Film Pomus Creative
- Lighting Tepta
- Admission 20TL (£2.60)