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The Intergenerational and Diasporic Collection of Huma Kabakcı

Photograph by Ben Peter Catchpole.

At Collecteurs, one of our central missions is to demystify collecting and to highlight the cultural and creative agency of contemporary art patrons. Our interviews with collectors offer a deep-dive into the visions and themes that shape private collections. Often imagined as opaque and inaccessible, we turn this around to highlight the individuals behind this essential pillar of the art world.

Huma Kabakcı is a second-generation collector, independent curator, and founder of Open Space, based between London and Istanbul. With a background in art curation and management, she manages the Huma Kabakcı Collection, curates exhibitions, and fosters collaborative dialogue with multidisciplinary practitioners. Kabakcı's work explores immersive experiences and themes of diaspora, collective memory, and hospitality, while her projects have engaged with institutions like Delfina Foundation, IKSV, and SALT.

Navigating through Open Space’s projects on their website.

Manuel López Ramírez: How does your work as a curator inform your role as a collector, and vice versa? How do these positions influence each other?

Huma Kabakcı: Growing up with a father who was first a gallerist, then later a collector, some of my earliest memories are of spending time in his gallery or at artists’ studios, so from an early age, he nurtured my love for art.

In 2009, during the second year of my undergrad studies, my father passed away, leaving me with the responsibility of taking care of his collection. As an only child, I had to think strategically about how best to carry on his legacy, and that meant developing an intuition for collection management, and learning what it means to be a responsible custodian of art.

Pursuing an MA, and later MPhil, in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, I discovered a love for curatorial practice, and experimenting and working with multidisciplinary artists - in fact, that’s how Open Space was born. For those who don’t know, Open Space was an itinerant organisation that supported emerging creative practice, promoting dialogue in the arts through an annually recurring programme of dynamic projects in unexpected spaces. Through exciting partnerships and collaboration Open Space championed and worked with international, emerging, and mid-career artists from all backgrounds to provide a diverse, collaborative, accessible programme. I suppose both roles influence each other organically; I try not to be as binary about it as I was in my 20s.

Private collections are now often the backbone of major institutions and pivotal for art’s ecosystem.

MLR: What is the ultimate role of the private collector and how does it interact with the role of the government and public art?

HK: In the 21st century context, where public museums are struggling with funding and where emerging and mid-career artists need more support, private collections are now often the backbone of major institutions and pivotal for art’s ecosystem. You look at the origin of the Whitney, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and the names of galleries within museums and institutions; they have had major philanthropic backing and financial support from individuals.

MLR: You firmly believe that collectors have a social responsibility to show art to the public and to support the arts wherever possible when the government isn’t doing so. This suggests that having access to art matters. But beyond the idea that art belongs to us all, why do you consider that important? What makes art essential for the public to see and appreciate? What power does art hold that makes it worth a collector’s effort to make it available for everyone?

HK: Yes, definitely. Especially with living artists involved, I think collectors have social responsibility as they are not just acquiring commodities (although, unfortunately, there are obvious speculators in the market). They are part of a system that includes philanthropy and accessibility. Where private collectors don’t have the means to open a private museum, they can do other things like loaning individual artworks when needed, spreading the word to their friends about an artist's discovery, or following the artists they have supported in what they are doing next. In the end, collectors hold an immense amount of power at times, which should also be used for the greater good. Of course, the VIP preview parties, private dinner invitations and the artists’ studio visits can be a reason, but then what next?

Huma Kabakcı sitting in front of beige wall with green painting, wearing floral shirt.

Huma Kabakcı with Rosangela Renno’s artwork. Photography by Alina Zum Hebel.

MLR: How can collectors intervene in building a more sustainable art world?

HK: By thinking of new, ethical and moral ways of building a more sustainable art world as a start. For example, I recently got invited to a Domus Artist Residency in Galatina, Italy for the “Take Care” project by performance artist Romina De Nouvellis with fellow thinkers, curators, artists and patrons. I met the two wonderful founders (Isabelle and Eric) of the Carta Bianca Prize there. Carta Bianca is a prize that finds its source at the crossroads of art and health sciences and wishes to build a bridge between the world of artists and the world of patients. It is founded on the strong key values inherent to health professions (sharing, self-giving, commitment, solidarity, and humanity). I loved this approach and found it a great example for the next generation of collectors.

MLR: With a “for the public” and “for the artists” approach to collecting, what is the place of subjectivity in an art collection? How does personal experience and subjectivity in collecting interact with a selfless mission to uphold the arts?

HK: That’s a great question. As a private collector with an individual identity, there is always room for personal experience and subjectivity. In the end, if you are building a private collection, your own experience and interests influences it. This, of course, can shape and change over time, especially with other expert advice, adding new skills and knowledge. As a collector, if you are living with the art you have bought (and that they are not all in the storage unit just for investment purposes), one would like to think that you are also living with art that you enjoy aesthetically on a daily basis - or at least, get intellectually stimulated by.

HK: For me, for example, I am currently residing in a tiny apartment flat in Hampstead in London, so the only works I have here are either small paintings, photographic prints or ceramic objects that I want to immerse myself in as I spend most of my time here rather than in Turkey. A few examples are Holly Stevenson’s glazed ceramic ashtray sculpture, Bridgid Berlin’s polaroids, small Magda Skupinska pigment paintings, Kader Attia’s collage work, Paloma Proudfoot’s wall hung ceramic and Radhika Khimji’s painting on plywood. You have to balance the two approaches that work for you. There is no right or wrong when it comes to collecting privately. Publicly of course there are other responsibilities and bureaucracies the institution needs to follow.

MLR: Your particular approach to collecting includes a close bond to the process of art-making itself. Can you speak a bit more about what kinds of relationships you build with the artists you collect? How does the artist’s creative process and research make a difference for building a private collection?

HK: I think with a living, breathing, changing art collection, the process of art-making and time is pivotal. Or at least for me personally to have a connection with it. I love learning more about the artist's practice and the inside stories of their interest in a particular topic or media. It is also quite nice to keep in contact with or at least follow the artist on their social media/newsletter so I can be updated with what’s going on with their career and practice. For instance, I first came across Shahpour Pouyan’s projectile installation and bought his work during Art Basel back in 2010 and then met him in person in 2012 in New York. We always kept in touch, he then came to London for a prominent international residency and we just spent time together. He has been a great friend and person to bounce off ideas with. I never expected to form a friendship out of it, but it grew organically.

I tried to stay true to my father’s vision and acknowledge why he started the collection, but later on added pieces that represent my views on diaspora, gender politics, representation and materiality as a conversation.

HK: People change and evolve, so of course, a collection does too. That’s why it is interesting to keep track of the creative process and research of the artists in the collection. Having said this, with certain artists from Central Asia, for instance, where there is no prior digital connection, I struggle with keeping connected. I have some really special bonds and friendships with artists, but this can also be difficult at times.

MLR: If there is a dialogue between artworks within your collection, then there must be some sort of thread running through it. What do you think that is? And do you keep it in mind when expanding your collection?

HK: There must be, right?! Well, when there are two separate collectors involved from different generations, genders, interests and experiences it gets more complicated than that. I tried to stay true to my father’s vision and acknowledge why he started the collection, but later on added pieces that represent my views on diaspora, gender politics, representation and materiality as a conversation. I am still trying to work on that thread or have groups of themes that build that thread. It is an ongoing process.

MLR: Can we go more into this topic of intergenerationality? How is it an integral part of the collection? Did you question your father’s decisions, and was there ever an impulse to amend them, in any way? Does the collection reflect a changing perspective over time?

Installation View of “Memory and Continuity” at Pera Museum, Istanbul. (24 February - 8 May 2016).

HK: I first took hold of the collection at 19, following my father’s untimely death. So, of course, on the way, I did make some poor judgments and mistakes despite the great moral and professional support around me. I believe that by first realising the three European Capital project exhibitions in Germany and later in Hungary, I managed to continue my father’s vision and goals. During that time, I worked closely with the museum director who had advised my father. After my MA degree; I invited an art historian to co-curate a show with me at Pera Museum in 2017, emphasising the intergenerationally by giving the exhibition “Memory and Continuity”. I think it took me a while to question my father’s decisions years after his death because it is difficult, coming from my cultural and social upbringing without any siblings, to question otherwise. Now, I am taking steps to re-evaluate the collection's future with possibilities of gifting or having an international prize attached to it to have it live on and be publicly accessible. It is not easy, so I have been working with an advisory supporting collectors and organisations with the care of collections based in LA & London alongside additional legal advice for the past few months. So yes, the collection reflects a changing perspective over time. Without change, a collection becomes stagnant, and is not a collection, in my opinion.

MLR: Your collection seems to focus on works from Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Is it important for you to highlight this region within a heavily Eurocentric global context? What is the value of centering the places your collection focuses on?

HK: My father spent much time in Central Asia, especially in Azerbaijan, for work in the late 80s and 90s. Therefore, of course, there was an influence regionally. I am currently trying to reevaluate it from a global context by combining themes and highlighting these regions. I must admit, whilst I added some female artists from countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia such as Almagul Menlibayeva, Thea Gvedtadze, Maia Naveriani I also added some Lebanese, and Iranian artists, such as Etel Adnan, more Ramin Haerizadeh collages and a Farhad Ahrarnia painting (mostly artists living in the diaspora). In the end, I can relate to diasporic stories and nostalgia from a personal level.

MLR: What about the collection you have in your home in Istanbul? How is this different to the London flat and what sort of preservation work needs to be done?

HK: Well, it is a home converted into a storage space, so I wouldn't really call it home. There is a security system, alongside the right climate control and shelving units in place. There is also a small office space to access the collection digitally. The living space is only limited to one floor of the four-floor residential house in Istanbul. I consulted enough museum and storage professionals to implement the system in place. For example, with the rooms that are converted into storage for the artworks, the windows are completely closed off to let any light in, and there are humidity control machines.

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