Soho House
Soho House Istanbul.
| Credit: Courtesy Soho House

A few weeks ago, artists of different generations and pursuits gathered in Istanbul for the Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival (IST.), a weekend of free conversations and art exhibits—the stuff that brings together luminaries from fields as diverse as architecture, literature, and millinery.

Once a small series of workshops, IST. is now an international affair; past guests include Zaha Hadid, Gore Vidal, and Courtney Love. And if this fifth annual event proved anything, it’s that the art scene in this timeless city is fresher than ever.

For that fact we have Demet Müftüoglu-Eseli and her husband Alphan Eseli to thank. Demet is an art director who climbed to the top of Istanbul’s fashion world; Alphan is a filmmaker whose bleak historical drama The Long Way Home won awards in film festivals from Montreal to Hong Kong. In 2009, the pair—who met at university in Ankara—founded the arts and culture organization Istanbul ’74, which spawned IST. the following year.

Along with the Istanbul Biennial (the 14th edition takes place Sept. 5 to Dec. 1), IST. propels the Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, not only bringing art to the city, but making it accessible to the public. “Each year the panels get fuller,” the founders say. “The blend [of audience backgrounds], growing interest, and excitement of the audience is amazing to watch.”

IST. 2015 kicked off at the Istanbul ’74 gallery with an exhibition of Alex Prager’s photographs inspired by classic Hollywood. Over the next two days, artist Daniel Arsham and actress Juliette Lewis discussed their new film, Harvey Keitel waxed nostalgic about working with a young Marty Scorsese, and artists like JR and Trevor Paglen showed how images can not only represent reality, but also change it.

International Arts and Culture Festival
Nadine Johnson, Daniel Arsham, Juliette Lewis, Waris Ahluwalia, and Mike Figgis on the first day of the festival.
| Credit: Will Ragozzino /

Like in years past, IST. spread across Istanbul. Saturday’s talks took place on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, at the VAKKO Fashion Center, home to one of Turkey’s top fashion brands. Everyone then reconvened at the historic Bomonti brewery across the river for a show of Francesco Carrozzini’s photographs and a multimedia-production by the performance duo Carnet De Voyage.

Sunday was spent at the Soho House, which just opened in a 19th-century palazzo that was once home to the U.S. Consulate. Mike Figgis, the director of Leaving Las Vegas, parsed today’s digital culture. Down the street at the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, Waris Ahluwalia (a fixture in Wes Anderson’s movies) hosted an afternoon tea to celebrate his new tea line. The weekend ended on a sailboat disembarking from the five-star Ciragan Palace’s pool deck, where Harvey Keitel had swum laps that morning.

Can’t make it to next year’s festival in May? The Istanbul ‘74 gallery exhibits contemporary art year-round. Alex Prager’s photographs are on view until June 20.