City Walks | Verve Magazine
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July 14, 2013

City Walks

From Istanbul’s vibrant art scene to Hong Kong’s burgeoning one; from Florence’s blend of art and café culture to Singapore’s newly-minted art district, tread the colourful paths of art and culture in these cities that provide a genuine art high

Florence is nearly all walking and this makes it easier to appreciate the special spots in town, the trendy cafes that inspire artists and art spots that display their inspirations

Both the Festival office and my house are in the heart of the city, in the Oltrarno area, which is known to still have old artisan shops and a unique daily food and home cutlery market in Santo Spirito square, in front of the beautiful church by the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi, also creator of the city’s magnificent Cathedral Dome.

Despite Florence being touristy, it maintains some special spots such as art galleries and the popular libreria caffè, meaning bookshop café, where you can have a chai or a glass of wine and some food, read a book and listen to music.

In the Santo Spirito square lies one of the most buzzing places in town, Volume, an artisan’s atelier now transformed into a café. The old wooden pieces of the artisan are still there and the entire place is still in that mood, but with a touch of modernity here and there. There is a jukebox at the entrance and you can sit and have an ice cream or a crepe in this all-day spot, playing chess in the afternoons and watching live concerts on the small stage in the evenings. This vibrant place is a favourite with the Festival guests, for an aperitivo.

Opposite Volume, another hotspot in town is the Pop Cafè; in the evening different DJs play there. During the summer you can nurse a drink while looking at the Santo Spirito church.

Walking a little bit away, there is a small café just off the Santo Spirito square, called Caffè Notte (which means the Night Café), very simple but nice. If you hang out there, biting into one of their homemade cakes, you would bump into many writers and artists from the Florentine scene, busy discussing their ideas and views.

Just opposite Caffè Notte is the very well known and extremely cute Chicco di Caffè aka Lola, after the lady owner who cooks fantastic recipes. Lola is on the corner of two roads, Via delle Caldaie and Via della Chiesa. Many people who live and work from Oltrarno go there for lunch, eat at its big wooden tables and order from the handwritten menus. Once a dish is finished, it’s finished! Everyone sits together; it is like being at home. You may be sitting next to someone you don’t know or a friend, and you end up conversing with all the people around you…it is an extremely cosy and a special place to be.

Further on, a few roads from there, is another well known and extremely buzzing and trendy libreria cafè, La Citè. This one sprawls across two floors and has a big collection of books to read as well as a repertoire of live concerts.

If you walk towards Via Maggio (in the Oltrarno area) you will find quite a few new and quaint art galleries that showcase some particularly interesting pieces. It’s ideal to go for a vernissage in one of the art galleries in Via Maggio and then go for a drink at Volume.

Turning right from the amazing Santa Trinita bridge (with the four statues of the seasons on it, two per side) and walking into the little Borgo Ss. Apostoli, you find the Aria Art Gallery lying hidden on this small old road, with a banyan tree in the garden that welcomes you into the gallery.

By going a little further after the bridge and then turning left, you will find yourself in a little square called San Pancrazio. Here there is a museum of modern art called Museo Marino Marini, where art exhibitions and live performances of artists and DJs are hosted in quite a spectacular ambience.


When you think of Istanbul, do you think of belly-dancing, minarets, the Grand Bazaar, the Bosphorus and shish kebab only? Well, think again. In its umpteenth incarnation, the city of seven hills, the imperial capital that is a vibrant, chaotic, exhausting but brilliant mix of the East and the West is now a hot destination for art aficionados worldwide

Turkish contemporary art is on the rise. While production has always been there, it’s hard to say when in the past decade contemporary art became visible and inextricably linked to Istanbul in the minds of art professionals and lovers alike. The contemporary Turkish art sale in London’s Sotheby’s auction house in 2009 was surely among the harbingers of good news, and Istanbul Biennial, curated by Hou Hanru, Charles Esche, Rene Block, Jens Hoffman and the like in the past, has long been among the major art events on the international art agenda. Add the international art fair, Contemporary Istanbul, in November and the brand new ArtInternational in September to the mix, and you get a curious international crowd flocking to the flourishing local art scene.

Founded in 1994 by the Eczacibasi family, Istanbul Modern is among the first destinations on the Istanbul art map. Located in an old warehouse by the sea, right on the spot where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn meet, it holds several exhibitions by local and international artists.

A short walk towards the Golden Horn will take you to the hip neighbourhood, Karaköy. The business district of another century, Karaköy’s art nouveau buildings with high ceilings and breezy rooftops with magnificent views now house boutique hotels, art galleries, cool eateries, chic restaurants, design shops and offices for creative industries. Check out Galeri Mana, a spacious gallery converted from an old mill, focusing on both local and international artists with conceptual tendencies such as Pawel Althamer and Sarkis. For the photographically bent, Elipsis Gallery represents an array of artists from around the world as well as the local talent. Make sure you stop by artSümer to see works by younger artists and Egeran Galeri for more established ones.

If you need a break from gallery hopping, dive into Unter – a gastro pub with a fresh take on comfort food. Right across from Unter is Karabatak, the casual coffee place that was there before all the hype set in. On a side street Komodor makes delicious ‘Turkish pizzas’ with feta cheese, herbs and smoked tongue. Karaköy Lokantasi with its delectable meze menu, Maya with Aegean delicacies and this year’s new addition Gaspar adds the much needed glamour to the neighbourhood’s dining scene. Climbing up Bankalar Street right beneath the Genoese-built Galata Tower allows you to take in what Istanbul might have looked like in the 19th century. One of the buildings that was built as the first bank of the Ottoman Empire is now housing one of the most prestigious art spaces in Turkey: Salt Galata. With famed curator Vasif Kortun at its helm, Salt is an institution that produces research, helps preserve artists’ archives and also organises exhibitions. A must-see landmark with an incredible dining venue called Ca’d’Oro.

It’s a mesmerising walk up Bankalar Street to see the old banks turn into lighting and industrial lamp stores to cool little shops to cool galleries, luxury hotels and smart restaurants until Tepebasi. Passage de Petit Champs in Tepebasi has been a favourite hangout spot for Istanbulites since the early 2000s. On the ground floor, Auf (the sister establishment of Unter in Karaköy) is always busy at lunch or for meetings during the day. On the first floor, one of the city’s leading galleries Galerist has its handsome spaces where last season Gavin Turk, Kendell Geers, Nil Yalter and Haluk Akakce had solo shows. At the rooftop, the ever-popular Nuteras attracts a huge crowd on summer nights.

Make your way to Istiklal Street, the main pedestrian street of Beyoglu and also one of the main arteries of the city. With a clear nod to that blood vessel analogy, Arter is a four-storey building designed as an exhibition space that also supports art production by young, up-and-coming artists. Leading YBA (Young British Artist) Mat Collishaw is showing a wide selection of his recent works along the much expected solo show on ruminations on the days of the week by young artist Volkan Aslan.

Moving on the same street, Misir Apartmani is another beautifully-restored art nouveau building, where six galleries and art spaces (NON, Galeri Nev, CDA Projects, Galeri Zilberman, Pi Artworks, Kat:1) coordinate their openings to lure a large number of art lovers to sit and chat at its grandiose staircase after they’ve seen the artworks in spacious galleries. Later they move up to the laidback 360 on the rooftop for magnificent views and cocktails or head to the more stylish Münferit midway down Bogazkesen Hill for great music and hobnobbing with the artsy and famous.

A subway ride away is the Elgiz Museum – another must-see destination. It is more of a hidden gem among the skyscrapers in the ever-busy Maslak district. The private collection of the Elgiz family is known for bringing together noteworthy works by international stars such as Tracey Emin, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol with leading Turkish artists from Omer Uluç to Fahrelnissa Zeid and Abdurrahman Oztoprak.

Leave behind the hustle-bustle of the business district and head towards Bosphorus’ cool waters. Borusan Contemporary is an interesting exhibition space: the HQ of the conglomerate carries many companies from diverse sectors such as cars, steel, logistics and energy under its wing. It’s turned into a museum that showcases the company’s vast digital arts collection on weekends. Also, check out Sabanci Museum’s high-tech calligraphy show that can be viewed with an iPad.


Asian power metro, Hong Kong, is now the hotbed of art with international big names rubbing shoulders with local stalwarts. A run-down of the local scene and some reports on the news, replete with locations and specifics…

‘Money creates taste’, reads a cheeky line on T-shirts sold last May at ArtHK, Hong Kong’s homegrown art show. Jenny Holzer’s famous truism was audaciously printed on tote bags, T-shirts and other memorabilia being sold at the fair and was quite a talking point amongst the city’s swish set, probably because it was so telling of what is going on in the city.

When Shanghai-based ‘grand dame of Chinese art’, Pearl Lam opened her gallery, art connoisseurs scrambled to be a part of this exclusive wine and cheese event, and made bids for what might be very lucrative investments. Then in November last year when French-Chinese artist Chu Teh-Chun’s work sold at Christie’s for over US$7 million, it created headlines world over and got people questioning if it is more about the dollars than it is about the art. Hong Kong’s tax-free art regime has proven to be quite a haven for China’s nouveau culture vultures with surplus millions. This boom has shifted its art market into overdrive.

Everyone wants a piece of this multi-million dollar pancake. Over the last few years international ‘big boy’ galleries like the Gagosian, White Cubed, Ben Brown and Sundaram Tagore have anchored in Hong Kong and have dramatically altered its art-scape which was until then marked by an eclectic, homegrown mix of SoHo galleries.

Hong Kong’s art calendar is also evidently packed. The Fotanian exhibition is in January, the Affordable Art Fair in March, the refreshingly local HK Art Walk in April and the efficacious Art Basel’s first ever exhibit in Asia drew collectors to the city like a magnet in May. It’s ironic that in a bearish world economy, Hong Kong (known primarily for its financial prowess) has claimed the title of the world’s third largest art auction site and the ‘art-hub’ of Asia.

This monumental shift has some art purists complaining that the champagne crowd has invaded the cultural space. It is also perhaps why Hong Kong’s venerate Intelligence Squared discussion forum has recently debated topics like ‘You don’t need skill to be a great artist’, and ‘contemporary art excludes the 99 per cent’. But this shift has not only brought world-class art to the city but has also uplifted the local art scene that was otherwise overshadowed by the wealth of contemporary artwork from Shanghai and Beijing. Local Hong Kong artists are being recognised and represented, local museums are being applauded for expanding their trajectory by organising world-class exhibits of Warhol and Picasso, and the forthcoming completion of the US$3 billion Western Kowloon Cultural hub will add further accolade securing Hong Kong’s position on the global art map.

Gallery openings, parties for new exhibits and international art shows are no longer limited to just the art-set. They are trendy, chic and ‘must-be-seen-at’ events for the city’s financiers, fashionistas, taipans and tai tais too. The best way to get a pulse on Hong Kong’s art vibe is to explore galleries by district. Each area has organically grown to have a unique focus and is exciting to prospect individually.

Embracing some of the highest rents in the world (of course with the expectation of even higher revenues), international stalwarts have honed in on the neo-classical Pedder building in Central for their Asian out-posts. London gallery Ben Brown opened here in 2009 and regularly brings in top-end European artists. New York’s Gagosian, famous for representing the estates of Picasso, Monet and Warhol, occupies the entire seventh floor. Also joining them is Hanart TZ, a seasoned specialist in Chinese contemporary works of oil, print and photography. Pearl Lam Galleries on the sixth floor is credited for developing and representing some of the best Chinese talent. The most recent addition has been New York Gallery Lehman Maupin who opened earlier this year with an interesting installation work by Korean Artist Lee Bul.

Nearby on Connaught Road is famed Parisian Galerie Perrotin and leading British gallery White Cube known for its representation of ‘Young British Artists’ with shock factor. Up the road in Pacific Place is Sotheby’s ambitious 15,000-square-foot permanent gallery – a clear reflection of their expectations of the region’s art potential.

These big-name galleries are the newcomers to town. Hong Kong’s original art district had small beginnings in the old meat packing houses, soy factories and storage rooms of SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) that have since grown to include the nearby boroughs of NoHo (North of Hollywood Road) and Sheung Wan. Interlaced among the area’s bistros, boutiques, bars and historic antique shops is a small but powerful nexus of galleries that are the soul of Hong Kong’s art scene.

One of the most popular spots on Hollywood road is Cat Street Gallery, immensely respected for the diversity it offers from emerging to established artists both local and international. Similarly, Para/Site in Sheung Wan, a non-profit, has become one the most important art venues in the city. On Aberdeen Street is Blindspot one of the few photography-focused galleries and at 10 Chancery Lane is an eponymous gallery that represents new artists.

Finally, lending international glamour to the prime stretch of Wyndham & Hollywood Road with swanky window fronts and well-heeled traffic, is Chinese pop-art trailblazer Schoeni, Opera Gallery, famous for its European masters, and New York’s Sundaram Tagore that goes the extra mile by adding book launches and lectures to its art offerings.

Local Hong Kong artists have had it fairly difficult over the years with high rents, confined workspaces and limited exposure. So Fo Tan, a former industrial site just 40 minutes by train outside the city has proved to be a sanctuary to over 200 artists who were attracted there by its low rents and large spaces. Though not as well patronised as SoHo and Central, every January this creative cluster organises a popular Fotanian Open Studios event that welcomes visitors into studios to browse and exchange ideas.

Osage in Kwun Tong Kowloon is a non-profit foundation that works with some of the best Asian artists. Also, deep in Kowloon in a century-old redbrick cattle house is 1a Space, an influential non-profit gallery/organisation founded by a collective of artists promoting experimental visual art programmes and artist residencies.


A culmination of global art galleries, Gillman Barracks, a contemporary art destination, enhances Singapore’s standing as an Asian arts hub

Envisioned as an iconic international destination for contemporary art, Gillman Barracks, located on 9 Lock Road, is Singapore’s highly anticipated contemporary art destination housing over 10 top international and regional galleries all in one location. Dubbed as Asia’s emerging destination for new age art, the conserved colonial barracks named after General Sir Webb Gillman, a well-known officer of the British army, is as rich in history as it is in creative pursuits.

A visit, for any art enthusiast, will require a good half day or more, with its sprawling collections of art and creative galleries set in white colonial buildings amidst lush greenery and tree-lined paths, as well as three food and beverage options.

The various international galleries housed at Gillman Barracks feature diverse and ever-changing art exhibitions that further establish Singapore as a vibrant centre in Asia for the creation, exhibition and discussion of contemporary art. A visit here can take one through artistic moods that range from the aloof and conceptual to the gut-wrenchingly beautiful and overwhelming. Every gallery here has a dedicated and experienced team of guides, who can assist you with adequate information on the exhibits.

EQUATOR ART PROJECTS Intelligent, quirky and contemporary. These are only three words that can best describe one of Indonesia’s top art galleries that seeks to promote cultural exchange through the visual arts. Home to some of the most prominent names in art in Indonesia; the Equator Art Projects is a showcase of constantly evolving Southeast Asian art.

SILVERLENS It started out as a photography gallery only to embrace other visual arts media later on. Its vast collection of art in Manila, New York and Singapore has made it a favourite among contemporary art enthusiasts. The main goal is simple and that’s to put Filipinos at the centre stage of international art dialogue.

PARTNERS &MUCCIACCIA There is nothing like a healthy dose of contemporary and modern art from Europe and the United States than the collection in the gallery that was first established by Massimilliano Mucciaccia. Founded in a 16th century palace in Rome’s AraCoeli, the interesting collection of projects houses works from acclaimed artists like Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg and Marco Tirelli.

THE DRAWING ROOM Do not let the simplicity of The Drawing Room fool you. Behind the iconic paintings and installations lies a deeper social meaning that the artists behind The Drawing Room wish to examine. First established by Cesar Villalon Jr, in Manila, The Drawing Room is a collection of contemporary Philippine art that gives an interesting take on Philippine’s pop culture elements from an installation art of cardboard skyscrapers to a guitar made entirely out of spoons, forks and colanders.

SUNDARAM TAGORE GALLERY Dedicated to cross-cultural exchange and the unique marriage between East and West, the Sundaram Tagore Gallery has gone beyond the visual arts and into other art forms like music and poetry, to show the intermingling of these polar cultural divisions. Fit for an afternoon of art, Gillman Barracks is bent on becoming a busy beehive for contemporary artists and art enthusiasts.


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