Bold canvases cover Muhsin Bilge’s old notary office in central Istanbul; sculptures, abstract and realistic, crowd the desks, while a surfeit of paintings sits on the floor, stacked up against the walls
“I think my father was a natural-born collector, very fond of beautiful things all his life,” says Aslı Bilge. “After he acquired his first painting in the 1990s, he had a long period when he bought almost everything within his reach, everything that he found exciting, like he was filling his net with fish.”
Since Muhsin Bilge’s death in 2014, Aslı and her brother Ali have been managing their father’s collection, keeping alive his close links to artists, while taking a more focused approach to acquiring works and sharing them with the world.
“Some collectors really intentionally put space between themselves and the artist, only buying through consultants, but our approach has always been mingled with the artists,” says Ali Bilge.
While Muhsin Bilge regularly hosted artists at his office and visited their studios, Ali Bilge took four months away from his own business to work as an artist’s assistant in New York — cleaning up around the studio, helping hang shows — to better understand the nitty-gritty of making art.
Works by around 35 artists, both established and up-and-coming, form the backbone of the Bilge Collection, whose size is not public knowledge. Muhsin Bilge started off buying Turkish modern art from the post-1923 period, including works by such well-known figures as Fahrelnissa Zeid, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Mehmet Güleryüz and Şükriye Dikmen. The latter’s Flowers, an almost-abstract arrangement of brightly coloured blossoms on a black background, was Muhsin Bilge’s first-ever fine-arts acquisition.
But he wasn’t just seeking out famous works, as Ali Bilge explains. “His, and our, approach is more to collect pieces that represent an artist’s whole life — works in mediums or styles that you wouldn’t expect, such as a landscape painting by a leading pop artist, as well as artists’ sketchbooks, notebooks and letters that show how they look at life,” he says.
The majority of these works are still stored in Muhsin Bilge’s old office and in an adjacent depot. Its location in an unmarked and unremarkable building in a middle-class neighbourhood is so nondescript that Ali Bilge jokingly describes the anonymity as their security system. The collection is private, with no website or social-media presence, but well known among Turkish art lovers, whom the Bilges are happy to host for informal talks, and among curators, who regularly tap it for exhibition loans.
“We don’t have a space to show our collection, so it is important for us to collaborate with other art organisations,” says Aslı Bilge. “It’s also important for us to help make Turkish art known internationally.”
An exhibition of the Bilge Collection at the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow earlier this year drew nearly 10,000 visitors. “Russians were able to see that Turkey is not just the beach resort of Antalya and the pop star Tarkan, but a serious actor in the contemporary art world,” says Ali Bilge.
Supporting young artists within Turkey is another goal. “I feel like this is a responsibility we have to the arts community,” he continues. Ali Bilge is currently coordinating a December exhibition in Istanbul of the best works by senior-year students at fine-arts universities all around Turkey. “It’s also exciting for me as a collector to be able to review works by a thousand young artists at the start of their careers,” he notes. “It’s exciting to think about what they will produce in the coming decades.”
Featured image: Aslı Bilge and Ali Kerem Bilge in front of Children on scaffolding by Saim Erken 2000, oil on canvas.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43, pages 104-109.