When Sandy Angus first dreamed up the idea of setting up a new art fair, ArtIntenational Istanbul, little did he imagine just what a combination of obstacles – from bad timing to bad luck to a bitter commercial rival – would almost sink the project before it even got off the ground.
It seemed a good idea, two years ago, when he started planning it. “Turkey,” he says, “has a vibrant and growing art market, its collectors are becoming more and more international, private art museums are being built. And its position at the heart of the region, close to Russia, the Middle East as well as Europe, makes it a hub.” He felt it was time Istanbul had a truly international fair, bringing foreign buyers into Turkey and facilitating the opening up of the country to foreign galleries, to promote – and sell – their international artists. And he timed it to coincide with the well-respected Istanbul Biennial. “Everyone was enthusiastic,” he says.
Turkey is one of the newest emerging markets for art. It has a small group of extremely wealthy collectors, who are buying international as well as domestic contemporary art and creating museums. The Koç family, for example, has its own foundation and plans to open a museum in 2016: it will show 800 works of art. The Eczacibasi family already has its own museum, Istanbul Modern, as does the Sabanci family, currently devoting its art centre to a show by Anish Kapoor. At auction, the first half of this year already saw $25.5m (£16m) spent on Turkish and Middle Eastern artists, according to the art data site Artprice.com – already close to the total of $35.5m (£22.1m) spent in 2012.
Ripples of protest
However this rosy scenario darkened dramatically this summer, when a series of protests rippled through the country after a brutal police crackdown on demonstrations in Taksim Square. “Many of my exhibitors wanted to pull out then and there,” says Angus. While the wave of protests died down, they have not gone away – a 35-year-old sound technician died this month from, his family say, the effects of tear-gas, with his death triggering silent sit-ins in the capital.
With a threatened bombing in Syria, the US State Department issued a warning to its citizens not to travel to Turkey – just before the fair opened, while the Turkish lira had already plunged in value. “Just everything seemed to be going wrong,” said the US dealer Wendy Norris.
Trying to prise open a new market was tough in other ways, as Angus learnt to his cost. The Biennial organisers demanded that the fair should start on a Sunday, four days after their opening, because they wanted to distance it from their own non-commercial event. The effect was to discourage some international visitors from staying on. Fierce competition came from Istanbul’s existing art fair, Contemporary Istanbul (CI), held in November: it grabbed most of the available public advertising space for its own fair, despite it being two months away – to catch the international visitors to the Biennial, the organisers said. They also took the new fair to court at the last minute, claiming it had breached their copyright by using the name ArtInternational Istanbul, and obtained that the ‘Istanbul’ should be dropped from the title. This meant all the material, from tickets to the catalogues, had to be reprinted at the last minute.
And it must have been bad luck that the whole fair entrance had to be taken down and then rebuilt the day before the opening, because of a visit to the site by the Turkish prime minister.
All right on the night?
Despite all of this, the fair went ahead with 62 dealers, including some major names such as Pace, Lisson and Yvon Lambert, and the first day attracted pretty well all the major collectors in the country. The fair director, Dyala Nusseibeh, has close links with the United Arab Emirates, where her father is a trusted advisor to the president, and a number of collectors from the Gulf were also in attendance, including Sheikha Hoor of Sharjah and Prince Fahad Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. “There are bilateral trade agreements with Gulf states and a lot of Gulf investment here, so it’s a natural draw,” said Nusseibeh. While there were fewer Europeans, Caroline Bourgeois, curator for the luxury-goods mogul and collector François Pinault – who also owns Christie’s – was trawling the aisles.
And despite all the fears that the economic slowdown and political unrest would kibosh business, sales were made, albeit at a low level. “Istanbul is a great place to visit, and the city could be the hub for the whole region,” said Norris: “Anyway, I like risk taking.” By the second day she had sold enough to cover her costs, so was happy.
The ten Turkish galleries, inevitably, did well, with Moiz Zilberman celebrating making a slew of sales at the opening. And Tankut Aykut of the local Dirimart Gallery was optimistic: “We had a horrible couple of months, but things are pretty well back to normal now. I don’t think the troubles had a huge economic impact on the art trade here,” he said: “Anyway, Turkey is always a bit chaotic and hectic – that’s what it’s like!”
Angus is going ahead with next year’s event: “The instinct to set up an international fair of this calibre was emphatically justified,” he said. Next year, though, he will change the opening dates and “Put in much more concentrated effort on the north and east to achieve our ambitions of a comprehensive global art fair.”
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.