In 2001, curator Vasif Kortun, former director of Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies and curator of the 3rd and 9th Istanbul Biennials, founded Istanbul's Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center. Over the next few years, Platform offered an international residency program, visiting lecturers series, and open artists archive, all of which drew artists, curators, and scholars to the city. Locally, Platform proved a social hub for a community historically devoid of a gathering place; it provided an alternate art education to that offered by Turkey's conservative fine arts universities; for some artists, it was a portal to the art world beyond Turkey's borders.
The Istanbul Biennial, founded in 1987, offered similar opportunities for exposure and dialogue on a two-year cycle. But as a permanent institution, Platform—and Kortun—has arguably influenced a local Turkish art scene more than any other.
In 2007 Platform closed its doors to the public to undergo a complete overhaul. By Autumn 2011— Biennial season around here—Platform will be reworked, renamed, and ready to transform the Istanbul art world for the second time around. By the Biennial clock, 2009 marks the halfway point of Platform's four-year revamp. Kortun is laying low during this week's Biennial, finishing up Platform's new mission statement, and continuing to work behind the scenes. I caught up with him at his office on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's busiest shopping street, to talk about the new "encyclopedic institution" he'll be part of, and how to deal with the growing demand for Turkish art and its history.
Kortun runs the Platform office as if there are no doors or walls: one intern is a semi-permanent resident at his desk today; countless staff come in and out through his open door. Turkey's preeminent hub for contemporary art will combine with the local Ottoman Bank Museum, a historical museum on Turkey's 19th and 20th century social and economic past which hosts exhibitions based in its extensive archive, and Garanti Gallery, an architecture-, and design-focused gallery also funded by the Turkish bank which supports Platform. (The bank is called Garanti—hence the catchy shared name.)
"At the end of the day it is going to be more or less an encyclopedic institution," says Kortun, discussing the Ottoman Bank Museum's research center for economic and social history, a 27,000 sq. ft. contemporary art gallery, a permanent space for "visible archives" including architectural models and plans, and a public library. Ambitious? Yes, but as Kortun points out, they are taking their time. Maybe this is a lesson learned through local observation, since SantralIstanbul, an arts and culture campus of even vaster scope, burned bright at its opening during the 2007 Istanbul Biennial and has proceeded to sputter - though not die - in the following couple years. "Here usually it is the other way around," notes Kortun. "People do a big exhibition, but we are going the other way, taking our time to build up. That doesn't mean we are going to be boring and slow."
Platform's archive alone now includes: individual files on local artists; Turkish curators' output; local galleries and artists initiatives; and exhibitions of Turkish art abroad—a trove of raw history which is only beginning to be collected, published, and made accessible. "Of course the archive gives us a lot of potential for exhibitions," says Kortun. "In terms of international curators using it. Also in terms of building out of the archive, building projects out of the archive." But he is at his most enthusiastic on the subject of the new library. "I love the public library. Open Library [a project where Platform's library was made open to public use on the busiest street in Istanbul] was really a marker for me, it worked out so well. We are creating the best arts and architecture library in the country, as a private institution. Two years ago in 2007 the library had maybe 8,000 or 10,000 books, now we have over 40,000. I mean a massive collection, with a capacity of 100,000, and it's all online."
Projected exhibitions projected include a retrospective of recently deceased local artist Huseyin Alptekin; a show on the fear of crime and the built environment in a post-9/11 context; and a project on preservation, an especially pressing question in a city whose rich architectural and material histories far outstrip its capacity to preserve and care for it. Platform's lack of earlier publishing activity is one of Kortun's biggest regrets: exhibition-related publications and those on independent projects are another planned trajectory. Only a few details remain to be worked out. There's the pesky question of a mission statement to resolve this month, and then, sighs Kortun, an issue that has been plaguing the Garanti group in charge of the new institution for the past two years: It still has no name.