Every day, an e-mail lands in my in-box labeled “Istanbul Secret,” with information about a little-known restaurant, a new design shop, a gallery of the beaten path of Beyoglu. And to my delight, a few days ago, the daily “secret” described the Elgiz Museum for Contemporary Art, a private initiative of the Elgiz family that opens their personal art collection to the public. The museum is one of the most important in Istanbul, and the first in Turkey to show modern and contemporary art. (Full disclosure: I have written often about the Elgizes and their collection, and we have, over the years, become personal friends.)
That delight, however quickly faded as I thought more about the idea: why, after all, is such a significant cultural institution a “secret”? Is it because of its location — somewhat distant from Istanbul’s tourist center? Because galleries, not museums, tend to be the bigger draw? Or do not many people, even after 13 years, know about the museum and its holdings? And if not, why not?
Clearly, as I’ve written elsewhere, private museums are the wave of the future. But most lack the funds — and often expertise — to bring the crowds that are their raison d’etre. How are they to become better known? Or is it enough just to exist, to be there for those curious enough to find them? At the same time, if public museums can no longer afford to acquire the kinds of major works that private collectors can, but private museums cannot bring in visitors, what does this mean for the future of art museums, overall?
A summit meeting of private museum owners held during ART14 London earlier this year attempted to address some of these issues. Some options, which may or may not have been discussed there (I did not attend, not being a museum owner myself), might involve the questions of whether it is appropriate for a corporation to sponsor such private endeavors; whether memberships and endowments constitute a conflict of interest; and the potential for partnerships between private and public museums worldwide. What is clear is that, when a museum as significant to its community as the Elgiz collection remains a “secret,” there’s a great deal more to be done.
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