The seeds for the Istanbul Modern project were sown in 1987, during the 1st International Istanbul Contemporary Art Exhibitions, known today as the Istanbul Biennial. Motivated by the interest shown in the event and the dynamism it contributed to the Istanbul art scene, Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı embarked on the project to endow Istanbul with a permanent Museum of Contemporary Art.
After a long quest, the Feshane, a former 19th century textile manufacturing plant on the Golden Horn, was converted into a Museum of Contemporary Art. Although the building housed the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial in 1991, the project never reached its long-term goal. From then on, various institutions and individuals sought to establish a museum of modern art in Istanbul. Unfortunately, these initiatives failed for lack of a suitable space and difficulties in obtaining artworks to form the core of the permanent collection.
The fate of the project changed once again in 2003, when the fourth customs warehouse on the Galata pier, near the Mimar Sinan Academy of Fine Arts, served as the main venue for the 8th Istanbul Biennial. After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister, gave his approval for the permanent use of the site, the project’s main obstacle was overcome. The 8,000 square meter dry cargo warehouse, owned by the Turkish Maritime Organization, was transformed into a modern museum building with all corresponding functions.
After spending 14 years in this building as Turkey’s first modern and contemporary art museum, Istanbul Modern moved to a temporary space in Beyoğlu in May 2018, where it will remain for three years while a new museum building is constructed at its original location. The historical Union Française building on Meşrutiyet Avenue has been renovated so as to accommodate all of Istanbul Modern’s exhibitions and activities. The new building, located within the ongoing “Galataport” development project, is to be constructed with the joint contributions of the Eczacıbaşı Group, the museum’s founding sponsor, and Doğuş Holding – Bilgili Holding, its main sponsor.
For thousands of years, the Golden Horn area served as an inlet port of the Bosphorus, and this natural port united Istanbul with other centers of commerce and culture around the world.
In the 13th century, various Italian trading colonies located in Istanbul began to build harbors in the area. One of these was the Genoese port in the Tophane district, which would later be known as Galata. By the 17th century, the Karaköy-Tophane waterfront had become the main arrival point for ships coming from Europe.
At first, each shipping company had its own floating dock/specific anchorage location where it positioned its vessels, and provided a separate rowing team to bring goods and passengers ashore. With the increase in maritime traffic and corresponding rise in the number of passengers, this system became inadequate. In 1879, the construction of piers all along the shore began.
In 1910, warehouses and hangars were built on the piers. With the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the piers were turned over to the Maritime Lines and Docks Administration, which would become the Turkish Maritime Administration in 1984.
The building which housed Istanbul Modern for 14 years was one of several warehouses constructed during the late 1950s and designed by the eminent architect Sedad Hakkı Eldem. Until 1990, the pier served as Istanbul’s main port.
Istanbul Modern’s temporary space, which will accommodate all exhibitions and events through to 2021, is located in Beyoğlu, the city’s cultural and artistic district. The Union Française building on Meşrutiyet Avenue was built by Alexandre Vallaury as a local club for the French community in 19th century Istanbul.