In 2008, businessman, collector, and philanthropist Moiz Zilberman established Zilberman with the aim of promoting contemporary artists from Turkey on the international stage, introducing international artists to the local art scene, and supporting young artists. Zilberman is celebrating its 15th year, representing 29 international artists from Turkey to Mexico, Hong Kong to Colombia, and Germany. With the addition of the new Miami location, it now has a total of six places in three cities: Istanbul, Berlin, and Miami, making it an international hub for contemporary art. We made an interview with Zilberman's founder, Moiz Zilberman, on its 15th anniversary
Interview: Merve Akar Akgün
Your father was a painter and you grew up in an environment full of works of art. This familiarity from your childhood led you to start your art collection in 1991, at the age of 35, and since then you have maintained an uninterrupted and ever-expanding relationship with art. In the last 15 years, your focus has mostly been on contemporary art. Can you share your route and turning points in this journey?
I started a journey with classical works and antiques at the age of 35. I was also trying to learn contemporary art, but my interest and excitement was in classical works. I don’t remember the first work I bought, but I can guess that it was a painting with figures. I still like figures, not in the sense that I prefer them... I look for everything about the human being in a work of art. Maybe I used to look only for the human being, the direct human being... The idea of opening a gallery 15 years ago when I was on vacation with my beloved Ahu and Yunus Büyükkuşoğlu at Casa dell’Arte in Bodrum. This idea, which started as a joke, started to get serious and we embarked on a path together. After looking for a place for a while, we decided on Mısır Building. We started as a typical collector’s gallery at that time. We were partners with Ms. Ahu and Mr. Yunus for three or four years. Then they said, “Let’s not get in your way, you’re taking this business too seriously,” and they quit. I was left on my own. I changed the name of the gallery from Casa dell’Arte to Zilberman. I have been a producer and exporter all my life. When I stayed alone and gave my last name to the gallery, things got serious. Considering the increasingly critical, political and conceptual line of the gallery, I thought that the art scene in Berlin, which I had been visiting for a long time, would suit us very well. We started looking for a space in Berlin with Burçak Bingöl, who was the director of the gallery at the time. In order to gain a better understanding of the city and to further develop our image of it, we initially agreed to establish a residency. After visiting 12 places in a single day, we unexpectedly fell in love with the last place we visited. While searching for a suitable location, we came across the space on Goethestraße and were captivated by both the building and the apartment. Our admiration for the space, combined with the political conjuncture in Turkey at that time changed and accelerated our decision. We immediately abandoned our initial plan to wait, and moved on to open Berlin gallery simultaneously with the residency. Through our Berlin gallery, we were able to establish very good relations with institutions in Berlin and Germany. We realized the difference in the art scene there and this motivated us a lot. To be honest, I don’t know how long the gallery in Istanbul would have continued if we hadn’t opened the gallery in Berlin and achieved so much success, because there would have been no point in repeating ourselves. It was necessary to be different and move forward. Berlin gave us this opportunity. Our space in Berlin has served the goal of having an international profile, I can even say that it has become our business card.
The responsibility you feel to fill the gap that exists in our country and to create more space for art and artists makes you the owner of a gallery. This organization, which is commercial by definition, turns into a multi-layered structure with your vision. You are not only a mechanism that promotes artists and supports their career advancement through sales, but also a structure that creates space for the diversity of the world, brings urgent social, political and cultural issues to the agenda, promotes advanced techniques and materials by exhibiting them, provides a space for intellectual exchange, raises funds, hosts, organizes competitions, archives, and operates on both local and global scales. Who and what were your companions in creating this vision? What is in the big picture you envision?
Dear Merve, you described what we do, what we try to do, what we envision, our point of view so beautifully that I was touched, yes, we do all these things. Everyone who comes to the gallery says that this is not just a gallery. We are a gallery that works like an institution. We are constantly trying to improve this feature. I cannot go without mentioning the contribution of Burçak Bingöl, with whom we worked as both artist and director shortly after we founded the gallery and parted ways last year. Burçak was the artistic director and acting director of the gallery, and she helped us a lot. After a while, when her identity as an artist took over, we agreed that she should leave the gallery and we did good work as artists until the beginning of this year. The big picture I envision is to never stop; to jump over obstacles, or if not, to go around them; to continue our presence in Istanbul, Berlin, international platforms, fairs, corporate and commercial exhibitions in which our artists participate, as we are doing now. As another pillar of our globalization project, we are preparing to open a gallery in Miami Design District in October. We will have our grand opening in December during Art Basel Miami week. As a gallery, we have become well known in Europe and Asia, but the same is not the case in America. After I realized that Miami is North Cuba, I loved it very much. I met great people. I realized that Miami is developing fast in terms of art. We have Latin American artists too. I realized how much the artists I met in Colombia and Mexico fit our style. Apart from that, we think we have been contributing to young artists by doing Young, Fresh, Different for years. Now we will also hold these exhibitions in Germany. We will even do them in Miami this summer with the first year of our new gallery. I went to the exhibitions of Latin American graduates in Miami this year and I loved it. There is a huge potential there, we need to support the community. In this context, I think Young, Fresh, Different is a very good model and I believe that it will be one of the important tools to convey our own identity there. The reason we haven’t done it in Berlin until now is that we haven’t been able to identify this environment. We moved our gallery space in Berlin to a much bigger space in a beautiful building, we kept our old gallery, and the aim of our pilot program is to keep it as a non-profit space, where we will bring local and international institutions together for a discussion around certain topics. In this way, our non-profit work will gradually start to unfurl its own flags within the gallery work.
You founded Zilberman in 2008 with the aim of introducing artists from Turkey to the world, integrating artists from around the world into the Turkish art scene and supporting young artists. The 29 artists you represent cover an extremely wide spectrum. What were the criteria you considered before deciding to work with the artists?
We receive applications from many artists from completely different geographies, but it doesn’t usually happen by application. After we opened the new space in Berlin, we started to receive applications from very important artists. Parenthetically, let me show off a bit. (Laughs.) We first check whether the artist’s work is in line with the critical line of the gallery. We care that the artist has a certain career. Recently, we have been trying to work with artists in a curated group exhibition first. Sometimes the chemistry is incompatible. We find it appropriate to get to know them for a while and then move on to a representation relationship. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. For example, we saw the work of Lucia Tallová, our new Slovakian artist, at the Lyon Biennale, and then we met, we hit it off. We hit it off so well that we decided on direct representation. We also care that artists have the discipline to work with the gallery. Even though some artists’ works are very good, we cannot continue with them because they are not in the habit of working with a gallery. We want to have a trial period when we are no longer sure, as in the case of once burnt twice shy. It is useful to make this trial mutually. Another important issue is that we need to maintain the balance in the gallery’s artist list. We try to maintain gender equality and internationalism. We cannot increase the number of artists who only work in certain mediums even if we want to.
I would like to ask a similar question to the previous one in terms of the spaces in which Zilberman is located. Your spaces in Mısır Building in Istanbul and Goethestraße in Berlin have architecturally similar historical textures. Today, Piyalepaşa, Berlin Schlüterstraße and Miami have been added to the gallery. What were the criteria you considered before deciding to occupy these spaces?
The venue is important, but we primarily choose cities and art environments. The buildings where the Egyptian Apartment and our Goethestraße and now Schlüterstraße spaces are located were built in similar periods and have similar histories. The spaces find us and we find the spaces, our chemistry is strong. These spaces contribute a lot to what we do. I think we also contribute to the spaces. Such a great collaboration! Our new space on Schlüterstraße has a very important place in Berlin’s art history. The current owner of the building is also a collector. It’s not hard to find a collector in Berlin. He thanked me for bringing art back to this renovated building, usually occupied by offices.
You always say that Zilberman has always served as a school not only for employees but also for yourself. You describe it as a platform for learning, growing and sharing. How would you define Zilberman as a school, what do you think are the features that make this structure a school?
Yes, the gallery became a school. I learned a lot before anyone else. When I opened the gallery I realized how little I knew. I’m still learning. Contemporary art is like that, it can’t be contemporary in other ways. All the friends who worked with us for a certain period of time and left have gone on to good places and done good things. I hear that having worked at Zilberman is considered a very positive point in their careers. This place is a school for all of us. Even those who have experience in galleries say that we have created a different model. I call it a “strange gallery”. Only I dare to use this word. I am very pleased, this school has produced many graduates.
As a publisher and editor, one of the aspects I find most valuable about Zilberman is the value you place on publishing. All the exhibitions you have organized so far have been accompanied by a publication. While these printed publications are usually the first item to be discarded, you have always paid attention to them. I have always noticed that publications have an important place in your life from the books in your living spaces and the references you give during our conversations. I would like to know your thoughts on two issues: What is the importance of printed publications for you in a digitalized world? Can contemporary art be conceived without written material?
As you said, I am proud. We have printed catalogs for every exhibition since day one. This tradition of ours has turned into a book in recent years. We make books of eighty or a hundred pages. We also produce, store and share all our publications digitally. We will continue to publish them in print. We think this is very important. We send about 200 of our catalogs to important collections, museums, institutions, curators, institutionalized collectors, and collectors of the relevant artist in Turkey and the world. We receive thank you messages from important museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are also all available at institutions like Salt. People benefit from them. Now we can also send links, but we all receive hundreds of e-mails a day (at least I do). Which of these links should I keep? Which one should I look at? Let’s be honest, unless it is a gallery, institution or artist we are very interested in, we just glance at them and pass them by. But when a printed publication lands on our desk, there is a very, very, very high chance that we will look at it again one day. We have been sending catalogs to Linda Kamaroff, who works at LACMA and whom I have known for years, for more than 10 years, but we were not getting much feedback. Some time after we sent the catalog for Azade Köker’s exhibition last year, they referred to the page number of the catalog and said that they had selected a work and wanted to buy and exhibit it. This would not have happened if we sent only digital catalogs, let’s be realistic. I am in favor of printed publications, but I think we need to go hand in hand with digital.
Speaking of 15 years, I also realize that we are moving towards the 20th year. Do you have any dreams and hopes for your 20th year?
Five years from now, it will be our 20th anniversary. First of all, I hope to realize and celebrate our 20th Anniversary in a freer environment. I want to work completely internationally, with galleries on three continents, with a presence in the art scenes of all continents. As the hint in what I just said suggests, we want this strange gallery to evolve towards being next to the gallery rather than inside it, with more emphasis on its institutional and non-profit sides. We have thoughts about this, but it is still in the planning stage. If we reach our 20th anniversary as an institution that continues the existence of the gallery and does work as important as the gallery without making a profit, I think we will have done something very right. For me personally, I will feel like someone who has done what he or she wanted in life.