Situated on a narrow street in Karaköy, a district in the European side of Istanbul, the building that used to house the headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank is an architectural jewel. It was designed by the Franco-Levantine architect Alexander Vallaury and completed in 1892, with a neoclassical facade facing west and an orientalist facade facing east.
Established in 1863, in the aftermath of the Crimean War and the height of the Tanzimat era, the Ottoman Bank was tasked with improving the empire's economy and managing its public debt. Among its many initiatives, the bank financed the expansion of Beirut's port and the construction of railway lines linking Beirut to Damascus, Baghdad to Berlin. As the curator Vasif Kortun is fond of saying, it was the International Monetary Fund of its day.
Given that the majority of its shareholders were British and French - and the majority of its middle management staff Armenian and Greek - the bank wobbled awkwardly through the First and Second World Wars. It remained the central bank of the young Turkish republic until the 1930s, before it became a private financial institution in the 1950s. At its peak, it operated 80 branches, from London and Paris to Sofia and Bucharest to Benghazi, Beirut, Bethlehem and Baghdad. The last branches to open were in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman in the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1996, the Dogus group, one of Turkey's largest private-sector conglomerates, bought the Ottoman Bank and wound down its international activities. Five years later, Dogus folded it into one of its main subsidiaries, the Garanti Bank, and turned the headquarters in Karaköy into a museum and a research centre.
On an unseasonably cold afternoon last month, the building was closed, its grand façades hidden behind panels of construction scaffolding and a skin of green netting. The insides were gutted as a small army of workers and craftsmen scaled the stripped-down stairwells, hopped from one elegant five-metre-high ceilinged room to another, and paused on wooden planks jutting from the floor to eviscerated windows overlooking the Golden Horn.
If all goes to plan, the building will reopen in September after a period of extensive renovation. The museum, archives and research centre will remain intact, as will the layers, sediments and striations of its history. Yet everything housed in the bank's headquarters will be part of a very different institution known as Salt.
Salt represents the consolidation of three previously separate initiatives supported by Garanti Bank: the Ottoman Bank Archive and Research Centre, which deals with social and economic history; Garanti Galeri, which specialises in architecture, design and urbanism; and the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre, which delves into contemporary art and visual culture. Over the past two years, the three entities have been pooling their libraries, resources and ideas into Salt, which, just to make things more confusing, will be split across two different venues.
On that same cold day in April when the old Ottoman Bank building, soon to be renamed Salt Galata, was cloaked in protective covering, another historic building - the six-storey structure that was Platform's home from 2001 through 2007, which is now called Salt Beyoglu - was opening its doors to the public for the first time. The two buildings, separated by a 15-minute walk, are now institutionally yoked. For the next five months Salt Beyoglu will be carrying the weight and preparing the ground for the inauguration of Salt Galata, which is timed to coincide with the opening of the next Istanbul Biennial.
In many ways, Salt represents the fourth generation of contemporary art spaces in Istanbul. Since the early days of the republic, the arts and culture sector has hinged on the private funding of wealthy industrial families who now run large corporations and major banks. In the 1980s, those banks opened galleries in Istanbul. In the 1990s, they created art centres. In the 2000s, they established museums and foundations. Salt, therefore, looks like the next frontier.
"In Istanbul now, there are a lot of institutions that stage exhibitions but few that produce intellectual content or content at all," says Kortun, Salt's director of research and programmes and curator of the UAE's 2011 pavilion at the Venice Biennale. As the founding director of Platform and the Proje-4L Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art, Kortun knows the institutional progression well. In addition to writing prodigiously on the relationship between art spaces and the city, he also devoted the 2005 Istanbul Biennial, which he co-curated with Charles Esche, to a probing and reflective study of Istanbul itself. With Salt, he says: "We are trying to create a new institution to get the city to where we want it to be. We are always starting from a point of institutional erasure.
"Every time new players come onto the field, they think they are the best and they reinvent the wheel. I was like this. But the idea now is to establish a particular kind of continuity."
Salt's mission statement is a mouthful, but the gist is to use the two buildings to explore the points where different disciplines cross one another with the potential to generate new concepts and ideas. Salt Beyoglu has three floors of exhibition space, currently hosting a showcase for the Ars Viva Prize (an annual award cycle for emerging artists in Germany) and a retrospective for the artist Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin (who died, age 50, in 2007), in addition to a forum or meeting space, a rooftop garden and a "walk-in" cinema, which effectively breaks down the notion of tightly scheduled film screenings (in theory, anyone with a hard drive can enter the cinema, plug in, and spontaneously produce a video programme).
Salt Galata, which is twice the size of Salt Beyoglu, will include a library of about 35,000 titles, a series of workshop spaces, rooms wholly dedicated to scanning and digitising archival materials and an "open archive" that will be used to tease out some of the more troublesome aspects of working with historical documents and making them public.
In keeping with Salt's spirit of openness, Mimarlar Tasarim, the architectural office of Han Tümertekin, who won an Aga Khan Award for architecture in 2004, is leading the renovation of both buildings, at a total cost of €45 million (Dh245m), according to Salt's marketing and communications director, Ceylan Tokcan Yüceoral. But six additional design firms in Turkey have been commissioned to work on different elements, activities and spaces within the institution. Even the font used in all of Salt's correspondence (from signage to way-finding systems and its website) is a customised, open-source typeface developed by the New York-based design studio Project Projects.
The first public event staged at Salt was a conversation between Kortun and Project Projects' Prem Krishnamurthy, who likened the institutional identity of the space to a community and a venue. Every four months, a new designer will be invited to update Salt's typeface, called Kraliçe. "If someone asks for Salt's logo, we'll send the typeface instead," says Krishnamurthy.
"The typeface will go out into the world and change, and so the way the institution looks will change over time." All of this, adds Kortun, was devised in response to the question: "How do you write the name of an institution that does not exist in and of itself?"
Salt is also acting as a kind of test case for other arts initiatives and institutions around the region. Its predecessor, Platform, had a loose relationship with the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo and the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, in Beirut. The three organisations were involved in a joint residency programme at a time when all of them were reformulating their roles in their respective cities.
Just as Platform has reconfigured itself as a research centre that moves beyond the mere production and display of contemporary art, Townhouse has transformed itself into a foundation. In addition to being an exhibition space and an incubator for curatorial thought, Townhouse functions as a de facto community centre with much of its activity devoted to community outreach. Ashkal Alwan, meanwhile, has turned its attention to creating a new, independent art school, not only in response to the so-called educational turn in contemporary art, but also to meet an acute need for more progressive artistic training in Lebanon. Taken together, these organisations illustrate the extent to which art spaces have extended far beyond art itself.
This raises the inevitable question of funding. How will these bigger and better institutions sustain their work?
"It's not only how much money you can raise," says Kortun, "but also how little you can spend. There's nothing wrong with modesty.
"We can use our money efficiently. There's no reason why a huge institution can't work like a small- or medium-sized art centre."
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review.