We talked to Leyla Ünsal and Mert Ünsal founders of Versus Art Project; the most dynamic art gallery of Istanbul
Mert Ünsal and Leyla Ünsal Fotoğraf: Elif Kahveci
Versus Art Project is an Istanbul-based gallery that has been actively exhibiting since 2015, representing a wide range of artists working in a variety of mediums and leading the way in lens-based art. What were your goals when you founded this gallery and what are you currently doing? What have been the factors that have shaped you the most?
When starting the gallery, our main goals were to support innovative and experimental art practices that create space for original forms of expression, to bring the local artists we represent to international platforms, to develop their relations with museums and other cultural spaces around the world, to introduce their works to this international arena, and to contribute to collaborations and the development of the art network by organizing solid and reliable relationships with the art community and art professionals through both institutional and individual communications. Our goals were to support and encourage young artists and to create opportunities for new forms of expression to meet the art audience by giving space to alternative perspectives. For almost 10 years, we have been organizing exhibitions in our space in Hanif Han in Beyoğlu, one of Istanbul's most valuable historical districts, and we regularly participate in international fairs to bring the works of the artists we represent to as wide an audience as possible. Unlike many galleries, we have been organizing a panel/conversation in parallel with almost every exhibition since the day we were founded, bringing together our artists and art professionals. We care about structuring the gallery as a cultural platform rather than just a sales venue.
For the past 7 years, Enter Art Fair in Copenhagen, which we have attended uninterruptedly despite the various economic difficulties of the time, has been an exemplary milestone in laying the foundations of the gallery we will establish abroad today.
Can you share any examples where patience and perseverance worked to achieve a milestone or breakthrough for your gallery? I believe the answer to this question can be important and inspiring for everyone living in this society.
Since the first day of the gallery's establishment, patience and perseverance have become the leading principles of our working life. Founded in 2013 and actively managed since 2015, the establishment and growth of our gallery coincided with the most challenging socio-economic conditions we could ever face. In a time of crisis, when many well-established galleries closed their doors to visitors, we had to focus on our work with greater effort and motivation than our colleagues in other countries doing the same work in order to prove our existence and continue as a new organization. Trying to survive in spite of all these challenging conditions we faced required us to adopt different strategies that required patience and resistance, and to develop strong management policies. In a period when participation in international fairs and even the production of works is becoming increasingly difficult due to the rapidly changing exchange rates, we are trying to move towards the goals we have set without losing our motivation. For the past 7 years, Enter Art Fair in Copenhagen, which we have attended uninterruptedly despite the various economic difficulties of the time, has been an exemplary milestone in laying the foundations of the gallery we will establish abroad today.
What factors do you believe contribute to your stable position in the art world? How do you define and measure success in the context of your gallery?
What is important for us is to be a visionary gallery that can create new and developing opportunities for all its stakeholders and to represent our artists both locally and internationally in the most professional way by constantly renewing ourselves by protecting our moral values that constitute our principle. Our passion for art and our belief in the artists we work with are the main sources that motivate us in the face of all the challenges we face. I think this is the most important factor that contributes to our stability. The commitment and belief we have in the artists we work with and their representation, beyond making us a family, ensures that we do not doubt where this work will be in years to come and the success it will achieve despite all the difficulties. In your journey as a gallery, you have the opportunity to work with many artists, art professionals and collectors. I can also say that our intention to build our relationships in the sector based on trust is another value that contributes to us and our success.
As a young gallerist living in a country like Turkey, which has been in an artistic decline in recent years, what does it mean for you to participate in international art fairs? Do you encounter certain cultural barriers or misunderstandings when interacting with international audiences?
The fact that living in Turkey without compromising your freedom of expression and, as I mentioned, the economic difficulties making production processes more and more difficult has reached a level that prevents all stakeholders of the field from breathing. Artists and intellectual producers, who developed themselves both theoretically and practically through their travels and research abroad, now have to struggle with the problem of sustaining their living standards in Turkey, let alone traveling. In a country where procuring materials, security and even shelter have become a struggle, it is not possible for an artist to continue producing in the same way. For institutions and gallerists, the harshest conditions begin the moment we step out of the border in terms of both content and representation. It is very important for us to represent the works of our artists in fairs attended by the world's leading galleries despite all the financial and operational difficulties, from customs to transportation. We are happy and proud to communicate with art professionals around the world whom you never have the opportunity to meet while you are in the gallery, to strengthen the artists' relations with institutions, and to bring their works to private collectors and institutional collections abroad. In addition to the subjectivity of our artists, the fact that their works are international in both conceptual and technical terms arouses a serious curiosity and intense appreciation in the viewer who encounters the works, as opposed to a negative cultural barrier.
The fact that living in Turkey without compromising your freedom of expression and, as I mentioned, the economic difficulties making production processes more and more difficult has reached a level that prevents all stakeholders of the field from breathing. Artists and intellectual producers, who developed themselves both theoretically and practically through their travels and research abroad, now have to struggle with the problem of sustaining their living standards in Turkey, let alone traveling.
What are your future goals and expectations for your gallery in terms of promoting art in our country on a global scale?
We will continue to actively participate in international art fairs to make Turkish art more visible in the international arena. By increasing international collaborations, we aim to give our artists more access to international exhibitions and events. At this point, the participation of artists in different institutions and museums, especially in theoretical exhibitions, is very important and constitutes one of the cornerstones of our communication strategy. We believe that the development of state policies and the creation of support funds are essential for the sustainability of these efforts. With the founding of our gallery abroad, we are focused on maintaining a steady path. This requires engaging with a wider and more diverse audience of art lovers, supporting the careers of artists, and a reliable branding process in the art world in every sense.