The Exception on the Upper Floor: Atatürk Cultural Center Art Gallery*

Vasıf Kortun

April 7, 2023

1 Thtpakmh016001 Atatürk Kültür Merkezi Sanat Galerisi, İstanbul
Salt Araştırma, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Arşivi
Atatürk Cultural Center Art Gallery, Istanbul
Salt Research, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Archive
For most, there were two Atatürk Cultural Centers (AKM) in the 1980s. One group used the main entrance overlooking Taksim Square to enter the building for concerts, ballet, theater, and sometimes film screenings. The other crowd used the side access across the Gezi Patisserie to reach the center’s top-floor art gallery. With its 1980s aluminum joinery, the side door gave the impression that it may have been an afterthought, an add-on. Posters for exhibitions, concerts, and other events were taped on the glass. When you entered, on your left was a modest residential-style elevator, sometimes out of order. Determined to walk up the five floors to reach the gallery, you had to use the wide staircase and catch your breath on the landings. All the walls up to the exhibition floor were bare, and you could not access any other AKM functions from the gallery. It felt like an exception, a world set apart from the rest of the classical cultural offers of the center. The center’s administration used this space overlooking Taksim Square as storage before it was utilized as an exhibition area, although the original plans called for a restaurant.

From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, until the architecture and building process was completed, AKM’s design program nurtured local technological development with tremendous creativity beyond post-war-nation-state construction that could be seen in similar buildings in cities from Lisbon to Cairo. The import restrictions on goods and materials, and administrative and legal constraints forced the architect and the contractors to model custom solutions. Everything in AKM’s elaborate design program, from carpeting and ceramic walls in various parts of the building to paintings, sculptures, and busts, were essential, immovable elements of a well-thought-out comprehensive cultural institution. The center’s modernist art program could not have been more at odds with its art gallery. A statue of three cylindrical stainless steel columns of different heights adorned the forecourt. The sculpture was installed under the guidance of the building’s architect Hayati Tabanlıoğlu after the fire of 1970, representing ballet, opera, and theater. Earlier mock-up images reveal that the spot was reserved for different work. That no grandiose statue was imagined for is noteworthy. Similar to public artworks at the beginning of the 1970s that began to inhabit spaces in front of corporate and cultural buildings made from materials that echoed modern building vocabulary, the center’s sculpture was to follow an original design by Johannes Dinnebier, the lighting advisor of the building. When they could not realize this plan due to budget shortages, the architect Tabanlıoğlu, with Dinnebier’s permission, arranged to adopt a smaller version of a similar sculpture he made for Alvar Aalto Kulturhaus in Wolfsburg.

The fire during the staging of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible destroyed the “Istanbul Palace of Culture” as it was initially conceived in the post-war European tradition. The building was renovated and reopened in 1978 as the Atatürk Cultural Center. The invaluable advisors that Samih Rıfat had put together as deputy director were let go after the coup d’état of September 12, 1980. In 1989, with the opening of the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall under the leading musicologist Filiz Ali’s directorship, AKM surrendered its position as Istanbul’s exclusive venue.

It would be remiss to evaluate the history of AKM without recognizing the ruptures between the establishment of the building and the government’s management of culture. Beral Madra writes,

“The most positive aspect of AKM is the full adaptation of the building and its content. AKM is a black cube (see Malevich), and it is simultaneously a utopian temple of the nation-state ideology. Art and culture that the state controls and condones were presented as ‘high art’ to the public. Within this utopia-building, AKM fulfilled its function in the 1970s without incident. Still, in the 1980s and 1990s, in those restaurant-like exhibition halls, dissident exhibitions of postmodern art were organized one after another and disrupted the order.” 1

2 Cekw009001
Cengiz Çekil, Düzenleme No. 4 [Arrangement No. 4], 3. Öncü Türk Sanatından Bir Kesit [A Cross Section of Turkish Avant-Garde Art No. 3], Atatürk Cultural Center (Istanbul), 1986
Salt Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive

Hence, the isolation of the art gallery reinforced the separation of visual arts from other cultural practices in the building. In effect, the only cultural program in the last years of AKM’s short history with a non-traditional horizon had taken place in a space unrelated to the building’s other functions, ideologically and physically.

Not all people understand the “white cube” in the same way. Some claim it’s a space with white walls detached from the polished concrete light gray floors to appear suspended in the air. It is an autonomous area devised to erase history and memory, a space where nothing other than art can enter or become art by its inclusion. Such perception did not exist in Turkey until the late 1980s, and the galleries that did not hang pictures from rods or fishing lines were considered “pioneers.” The “white cube” was also a mighty commercial force. Extensive collections, requiring spaces stripped of their former work-space functions, transformed into art sanctuaries, sought works that spoke to those spaces. The most voluminous exhibitions of that time, the extraordinary dealer Yahşi Baraz’s AKM shows, had the paintings lined with little distance between them, sometimes with one side sticking out from the end of narrow temporary panels.2 The power of quantity was in line with the late 1980s collectors buying paintings by the truckload. Baraz furiously provided artists with large canvases to paint on, fully conscious that business plazas and spacious new homes demanded post-bourgeois scale art. For many art producers longing for a white cube, AKM may still have been the most agreeable of the existing spaces, but it was not what they yearned for. Ayşe Erkmen, in one of her works exhibited there, repeated the gallery’s ubiquitous ventilation grilles lining the walls and underscored one of the most disagreeable dispositions of the space.

3 Serh072001
Ayşe Erkmen, Bu Sergi için Bir Kompozisyon [A Composition for this Exhibition], 10 Sanatçı 10 İş: A [10 Artists 10 Works: A], Atatürk Cultural Center (Istanbul), 1989
Salt Research, Serhat Kiraz Archive

Aside from the vents on the walls, the floor was marble; daylight was a huge issue. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the main gallery washed the space with the afternoon sun. Throughout the building, the ceiling layout and lighting were extraordinary. A desk for the gallery’s handyman, in wood veneer, was a staple, located in front of the restrooms on the wide corridor between the galleries. Many exhibition makers or artists brought their people or tended to their shows daily.

The art gallery was the only full-fledged art space in Istanbul when it opened in 1978.3 The State Fine Arts Gallery in Galatasaray had a haphazard program. Bank galleries were rare and, like the Yapı Kredi Bank Art Gallery, physically inadequate; the gardens of the Archaeological Museums were used from time to time in the summers; the Painting and Sculpture Museum was closed until 1982, but its’ garden was in use as well. The spaces that opened at the end of the 1980s, such as Derimod Art Gallery or the Municipality’s Taksim Art Gallery, were not as prominent as AKM, most importantly not headed by a contemporary art historian like Nilgün Özayten. 4 Public venues were usually rented out; one had to apply long in advance and pull a few strings. AKM was the largest of them. When you exited the elevator and went to the far end of the smaller rectangular gallery, you could access Özayten’s office just behind the wall, always in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Often, different exhibitions were realized concurrently. The large hall could be rented out in full or divided into a lower and upper set separated by stairs. The small gallery had narrow, vertical windows behind the columns. The spacious lower large gallery was not preferable because of the sunlight from the square. Özayten struggled for years to get panel walls to cover the windows.5

4 Serh040014
Serhat Kiraz, Standart, Xample 2, Atatürk Cultural Center (Istanbul), 1995
Salt Research, Serhat Kiraz Archive

5 Bir Yuzun Diger Yuzu 1993 Akm Ahmet Oktem Ergul Ozkutan 049
Exhibition view from Bir Yüzün Diğer Yüzü [The Other Face of a Face], Atatürk Cultural Center (Istanbul), 1993 (Photo: Ahmet Öktem)
Salt Research, Ahmet Öktem Archive

AKM managed diverse exhibition programs from significant retrospectives of artists such as Mehmet Güleryüz and Sabri Berkel to the Interdisciplinary Young Artists Association’s projects.6 Nilgün Özayten maintained a delicate balance by not charging rent from public-minded exhibitions. While she oversaw the shows, she completed her Ph.D. thesis on the history of practices of conceptual affinity between 1965 and 1992.7 Her thesis would become the primary reference for art historians. She also wrote art criticism for the prominent Cumhuriyet daily and other publications.

The gallery became a historical marker with Özayten and all but remembered after her departure in 1998, and eventually closed down in 2001. Canan Beykal expresses the period in one of her texts:

“[Özayten’s] appointment to the AKM’s art gallery was when artists engaged in a different art production outside the market conditions, and private galleries were looking for places to meet their needs. If it had not been Nilgün Özayten who managed it, it would have been a little difficult for 80s installations, new and distinct practices that private galleries chose not to show, that formed the basis of contemporary art, to find a home. Nilgün Özayten’s struggle against the administration in the AKM Art Gallery converted from a restaurant Beral Madra called ‘Black Cube’ after the ‘White Cube’ is essential for art in Turkey. By creating the conditions for experiencing work from within rather than the outside […], she enabled the exhibition of works defending the unity of art and life. Ironically, this subversion with other art activities and departments within the same building has turned concepts such as high-low, official-unofficial, and consensual-oppositional upside down in the true sense of the word and the context. Another ironic situation was Özayten’s oppositional status as the official director of a state institution. Wasn’t it dissident enough that she endorsed the dissident artists of the 80s and provided backing for a group of artists, including myself, who opposed many things on an artistic level and with their political discourse? We should evaluate the fact that she dared to use her powers effectively in favor of these dissident artists with her usual calm, cautious but decisive stance not only on a personal level but also in the context of the public-private sphere in Turkey.”8

6 Serh070001
Cengiz Çekil, Düzenleme [Arrangement], 10 Sanatçı 10 İş: A [10 Artists 10 Works: A], Atatürk Cultural Center (Istanbul), 1989
Salt Research, Serhat Kiraz Archive

AKM was last used as a venue for the 10th International Istanbul Biennial in 2007. The conditions were different, and the art scene had gained visibility ahead of other cultural expressions and became a part of the global complex. In a network of privately endowed institutions, new commercial galleries, and initiatives, places like AKM were no longer in demand. New galleries opened, and museums were established. Few believed that public projects could be supported systematically. Compromised by government intervention and bureaucratic interference, they would never be managed by people from the cultural sector. The Biennial’s curator Hou Hanru’s exhibition Burn It or Not? proposed a reading of AKM’s state of limbo. Against the backdrop of the global erosion of the welfare state, the artists in the exhibition engaged with aspects of modernity, the built environment, and their shortcomings. Hou chose to use the space as is. Not only did he not conceal modern cognition, but he also allowed it to reverberate with other democratic, civic, and social projects in similar contexts. Used with great precision, Burn It or Not? was the first of its kind on a building on the verge of closure.9 The exhibition occurred when the bureaucratic and administrative pressure was at its lightest. It reminded me of the days when a row of bushy greens did not sever the building’s relationship with the square, when the ticket office was inside the building, allowing people to peruse even when there were no programs. AKM became public for the final time. Hou repurposed the concept of making exhibitions in historical sites like Hagia Irene from touristic settings to spaces of social history. The Biennial’s second main venue was the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (İMÇ). In addition to being two of the rarest architectural specimens of the second half of 20th century Istanbul, these buildings helped introduce conversations about their forged economic, cultural, and social relationships.10 This time, the art gallery was not part of the story.

*The original version of this text was published in Turkish on Salt Blog.
  • 1.
    Beral Madra, "Balkanlar Kendini Yeniliyor", Radikal, November 27, 2007. Accessed April 30, 2017,
  • 2.
    Yahşi Baraz's exhibitions of the time included major surveys such as Türk Resminde Modernleşme Süreci, 1987; Güncel Boyutlarıyla Resim Sanatımız, 1987; Etkinlikler Sürecinde 15. Yıl, and Çağdaş Türk ve Amerikan Sanatı, 1992.
  • 3.
    The first exhibition opened in the gallery was Vanmour and his Atelier, organized in the context of a cultural agreement signed between the Netherlands and Turkey in the summer of 1978. The gallery was used until 1985, but there was no regular program other than the summer exhibitions organized during the Istanbul Festival. See Vasıf Kortun, "Uzun Gölgesinin Altında: İstanbul Festivalinde Günümüz Sanatçıları İstanbul ve Diğer Sergiler." Accessed September 2, 2022,
  • 4.
    Özayten graduated from the Department of Art History at Hacettepe University in Ankara in 1979, and completed her MA degree at the same institution in 1984 while working in the exhibition department and the International Relations department of the General Directorate of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Culture. In 1985, she helped establish the Ankara Museum of Painting and Sculpture and was appointed as director of the Atatürk Cultural Center Art Gallery the same year.
  • 5.
    "(...) I organized many international exhibitions during Nilgün Özayten's directorship in the 80s and 90s. We couldn't have done it without her. We often witnessed how she struggled with the Ministry of Culture's strange dispositions over the building and the nescience of the management. We, too had to make great struggles and compromises to hold our exhibitions in this exhibition hall! When the show was over, we would say, let's never exhibit here again! In the end, the management of the building became increasingly corrupt, and after the mid-90s, we abandoned this exhibition space to low-quality events and the commercial interests of amateurs. The Ministry of Culture can compare the exhibition lists before and after 1995 to see the use of the galleries." [footnote Beral Madra, "Post değil 'köhne modernizm'," Radikal, August 13, 2010. Accessed April 30, 2017,
  • 6.
    AKM's gallery hosted over 250 individual and group exhibitions, including presentations of collections of banks, companies, chambers, foundations, associations and exhibitions of foreign cultural institutions. There were also projects of the Istanbul Biennial; Öncü Türk Sanatından Bir Kesit (A Cross Section of Turkish Avant-Garde Art) and A, B, C exhibitions; Beral Madra's and the Interdisciplinary Young Artists shows.
  • 7.
    Özayten's 1992 doctoral dissertation was published as Mütevazı Bir Miras — Batı'da Obje Sanatı / Kavramsal Sanat / Post-Kavramsal Sanat ve Türkiye'de 1965-1992 Yılları Arasındaki Benzer Eğilimler (A Modest Legacy: Object Art / Conceptual Art / Post-Conceptual Art in the West, and Similar Trends in Turkey between 1965-1992), Istanbul: Salt, 2013. Accessed April 30, 2017,
  • 8.
    Canan Beykal, "Nilgün Özayten," Mütevazı Bir Miras – Nilgün Özayten Kitabı (ed. Sezin Romi), Istanbul: Salt, 2013. Access April 30, 2017,
  • 9.
    Vahram Aghasyan, Nancy Davenport, Daniel Faust, Didier Fiuza Faustino, Nina Fischer-Maroan el Sani, Erdem Helvacıoğlu, Emre Hüner, Aleksander Komarov, Markus Krottendorfer, Lee Bul, Els Opsomer, Katleen Vermeir-Ronny Heiremans, Xu Zhen and Tomoko Yoneda were part of the exhibition Burn It or Not?.
  • 10.
    The 10th Istanbul Biennial was distributed among three venues. The third venue, Antrepo No 3, the cavernous customs warehouse, explored "global trading, migration, and border crossing." Meanwhile, the Istanbul Textile Traders' Market was about "models of production, consumption, and economic development."