‘I am drawn to works that are outside of my comfort zone’


In a scrubby corner of Gezi park in central Istanbul, the art collector Haro Cumbusyan is hunting for a pair of bronze panthers he used to clamber over as a child. He spots them half-buried in the soil, and their abandonment reminds him of how art can get “lost” in private collections too. “Artworks are created to be seen. If they’re hidden away, we miss out on the influence they might have,” he says.

Over two decades, Cumbusyan, a 55-year-old social entrepreneur, and his wife Bilge Ogut have built a collection of more than 100 video installations, in addition to films, animations, websites and even holograms, such as “Karla” by Israeli artist Omer Fast. Other artists include Hito Steyerl, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Istanbul-based Banu Cennetoğlu, whose studies of data gathered on refugees requires a “level of engagement [that] doesn’t make it easy” to appreciate her work. “I’d ideally support her type of artistic production, which is absolutely not market-oriented,” he adds.

Seeing Picasso as a teenager made Cumbusyan wonder whether new art was even needed. When he was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1980s, his father Arto — a poet who wrote in the endangered Western Armenian language — took him to Paris for chemotherapy, and they toured art museums between treatments. “After we visited the Picasso Museum, I told my dad if I were an artist I would quit, because this guy finished everything. I’m glad I was wrong,” he says.

In a scarcely lit room, the light from a projection showing a bodyless white head turns the bedsheets in the foreground in a warm swathe of orange and purple
Installation view of ‘Karla’ (2020) by Omer Fast © Courtesy the artist/gb agency. Photo: Laura Léglise/The Gate

A few years later, Cumbusyan, who sports a beard, glasses and a quick smile, moved to the US to study engineering and economics. It was there that he met Ogut, who had graduated from the same Istanbul high school. Art was part of the glue. “Our first real date was at an Ellsworth Kelly show at the Guggenheim, and I proposed to her at the Whitney at a digital art exhibition.” He worked in management consulting, while she was a venture capital investor before moving to private equity. They now live in Zurich after more than two decades in New York and London.

The Cumbusyans made “a strategic decision” to buy digital art, which they saw museums investing in even as the market continued to undervalue it. “I’m interested in contemporary art, not necessarily a specific medium,” Cumbusyan says. “We wanted to collect ideas and content, and we weren’t afraid of plugging things in.” In hindsight, custodianship of the art has proven challenging in the face of tech obsolescence, and their New York home is littered with old screens. “Keeping a file alive and functioning requires much more effort than keeping a painting on the wall,” he says.

Moving images are particularly vulnerable to rising production costs usually borne upfront by artists and galleries; Cumbusyan wants collectors to shoulder more of the burden. “A main role of the collector is to fund new production,” he says. “For the art ecosystem to work, for artists to produce what they want, [rather than] colourful, shiny things that collectors want to hang on their walls, we have to raise our game.”

A middle-aged man dressed in a stripy dark jumper, blue trousers and glasses sits on a leather chair before a busy bookshelf. On the left of the scene, a wide TV screen shows a beach inhabited by floating ears
Haro Cumbusyan photographed in his home in Horgen, near Zurich, by Mischa Christen. On his TV is a still from Cécile B Evans’ ‘What the Heart Wants’ (2016) © Courtesy the artist/Galerie Emanuel Layr/Mor Charpantier. Photo: Mischa Christen

That also means opening up private collections to the public, Cumbusyan argues. He and Ogut loan works to exhibitions, host collection visits and hold screenings of single works at their Zürich home.

Their collection of 21st-century digital art began with artists from the couple’s generation or younger. (Among older artists are Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, 64, and the late filmmaker Harun Farocki.) While they eschew focusing on geography or themes, patterns have emerged, such as Middle Eastern artists tackling social issues or pieces that refer to regional subjects, such as American artist Tony Cokes’ work on Abu Ghraib prisoners tortured with western pop music.

“I don’t agree with the art advice of acquiring what you like. I am drawn to works that are outside of my comfort zone,” Cumbusyan says. “Whether you want to live with it in your living room isn’t the question.”

Some of the work resonates with Cumbusyan’s own experiences. “Memory of a Square” by the politically-minded Gülsün Karamustafa — who is representing Turkey at this edition of the Venice Biennale — slyly depicts, among other events, the violence of May Day in 1977 at Taksim Square, where dozens of leftists were killed by unidentified gunmen. Arto Cumbusyan witnessed the mayhem from the rooftop of their home next to the square.

In a large public plaza, a wide screen on top of a building reads ‘I CN’T BRTH’ in bright pink against a yellow background while a young man dressed in black poses in front of it
‘HS LST WRDZ’ (2021) by Tony Cokes © Courtesy the artist/Greene Naftali Gallery

Taksim and the adjacent Gezi park have always been contested space: they were the site of mass anti-government protests in 2013 and are still guarded by police today. During the demonstrations, police swabbed the windows of Cumbusyan’s nearby gallery with grey paint to cover up protest art, he tells me before we wend our way past the park’s security perimeters.

The gallery was in a shop that once housed his father’s antiques in an apartment block the family built in the 1940s. Called collectorspace, it showed a single work from private collections to open them up to the public. Cumbusyan ended the non-profit experiment soon after the Gezi protests. “We had no choice but to wrap up collectorspace, because we didn’t want to feel obliged to censor ourselves,” he says.

The conversation turns to Osman Kavala, the arts benefactor serving a life sentence for supporting Gezi protesters. Cumbusyan calls this “a chilling warning to everyone doing philanthropy”.

He still runs the urban farming enterprise Plant’n Harvest, Eat’n Drink, which emerged as a response to Gezi protesters’ demands for a greener city. It is hosting London-based artist duo Cooking Sections’ “Wallowland,” a three-year, site-specific installation that serves traditional buffalo-milk products to help herders whose pastureland is threatened by Istanbul’s ceaseless expansion. “I’ll just be a farmer, that is hopefully less risky,” he says.



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