Earlier this winter, the giant 120-year-old Ottoman bank building in Istanbul reopened as a multimillion-dollar contemporary art space called SALT . This was surprising. Turks were never big on contemporary art, and for years rich people didn’t visit that part of town. When I moved to the neighborhood five years ago, it was all electrical-supply stores and abandoned buildings and men smoking. My building didn’t have heat; girlfriends wouldn’t visit after dark; a neighbor once attacked another neighbor with a small sword. I don’t see swords in Istanbul anymore. I do see a lot more art.
One evening in November, Turks and foreigners traipsed up the cobbled sidewalks to SALT’s huge, heavy doors for the opening-night party. The headline exhibit featured thousands of old black-and-white photographs taken by a dead Armenian studio photographer and carefully assembled by the young artist Tayfun Serttas . Another exhibit was an installation by Gulsun Karamustafa, Turkey’s doyenne of contemporary art. Another was about archaeology and Europeans looting the Ottoman Empire.
But the space overwhelmed the art. It was too magnificent. Nothing like SALT existed in Istanbul. Inside, the building was five floors and 100,000 square feet of carved white marble. Curators, bankers, interior designers, writers, musicians, academics, artists and wealthy wives craned their necks to take in the soaring ceiling as they climbed the grand staircases. They gaped at the stylish library, and the plush movie theater, and the smoking terrace that was also a restaurant. The great imperial bulk of SALT loomed over the Golden Horn and the forlorn rooftops below.
Foreigners and expats gushed with approval. Even the fatalistic Turks, skeptical of Westerners’ enthusiasm, couldn’t help admitting that this strange art institution was awesome.
It appears that Istanbul, which went from a cosmopolitan wonderland in the 19th century to, in the Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s words, a “pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city” for much of the 20th, is having its moment of rebirth. These newly wealthy corners of the East seem full of possibilities, but what kind of culture will the Turks create?
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