ISTANBUL, DOHA, SÃO PAULO, BEIJING AND SEOULThe Grand Tour, a long journey to the great European capitals and beyond, was once a customary rite of passage among the cultured classes – one had not lived, it was said, until one had seen Rome. These days, finds Ted Loos, while the crucial cities are far-flung, they are no less essential for those in pursuit of art.

From the 17th into the early 20th century, the Grand Tour was a leisurely trip indeed. Travelling by boat, the peripatetic Englishman or American would embark for the Continent and spend months looking at art and ancient monuments and taking in all manner of beauty. The idea was to get a cultural education, but in the most enjoyable way possible. 

From the true aristocracy to such fictional characters as Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, many made the transformative trip. Italy was the focus of the Grand Tour – the palazzi of Florence, the watery charm of Venice – but a good version also took in the sights of Paris, the salubrious air of an Alpine retreat and even a German castle or two. 

These days, the Grand Tour is no less essential, even as it has expanded to cover most of the globe.

These days, the Grand Tour is no less essential, even as it has expanded to cover most of the globe. There is more to know now, but technology has expanded, making it possible to cover a lot of ground. With the ability to sleep in a Business Class seat, no continent is too distant. The contemporary Grand Tourist might begin a journey in Asia for two days at an art fair, then move to South America for a biennial before hitting the Middle East and Europe.

The following five cities are now among the top cultural stops along the New Grand Tour.


ISTANBUL

Turkey’s capital has always been a pivot point, and a gateway, between East and West. So it cannot come as a surprise that it is part of the New Grand Tour – though its former exotic reputation has to be reconsidered in light of its recent contemporary art boom.

“In the last six years, there has been an explosion here,” says Taner Ceylan, the boundary-pushing painter and Istanbul resident who is one of Turkey’s better-known artists and shows with New York dealer Paul Kasmin. “The effect was astonishing.”

grand-tour-istanbul-arterArter, a contemporary gallery in the city, with a work by Marc Quinn on display from the exhibition The Sleep of Reason. Courtesy of the artist and ARTER. Photograph by Murat Gemen.

The 2012 opening of SALT, a contemporary non-profit institute devoted to art, design and urban issues, was breathlessly chronicled in a New York Times story. Galleries are popping up on blocks that previously had not seen such businesses before. Private museums, often a harbinger of a certain level of interest in art, have started to grow in number. 

Already established is the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the city’s first institution with that focus, which opened in 2004. This February, business moguls Cengiz and Demet Sabancı Çetindoğan announced that they had chosen architect Zaha Hadid to build a dazzling new home for a 2000-work Demsa Collection, named for the retail company they run.

No less a name than former Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens is advising them, and the institution will feature traditional calligraphy, painting and Korans as well as contemporary artworks by international artists. As Ceylan puts it, “It’s the private investor here in Istanbul, and particularly three or four of the ruling families, that make the art scene move forward.”

The biennial and fair scene is also strong, and autumn is the season when most of the events take place – probably also the best season for visiting. The 14th Istanbul Biennial will take place in September 2015, and this autumn two art fairs anchor the increasingly lively scene: the ArtInternational fair (25–28 September) and Contemporary Istanbul (13–16 November). 

Ceylan cautions that the boom has slowed a bit – and adds that it is a good thing, since overheated speculation won’t help the city develop a mature art infrastructure. He singles out Arter, a contemporary space founded in 2010, as a non-hyped, serious art institution with excellent shows that reflect the depth and the diversity of local talent. From 28 May to 17 August, Arter will feature a show of veteran Istanbul-based multi-media artist Füsun Onur.

istanbul-modern_photo-credit_murat-germenIstanbul’s Museum of Modern Art, featuring an installation view. Photograph by Murat Gemen.

DOHA

In some stops on the New Grand Tour, it is dealers and others in the private marketplace who have made their city a vital art centre. In the case of the Persian Gulf metropolis of Doha, the largest city in Qatar, it is the government that has devoted its huge oil-rich resources to creating a cultural destination. In the process, Doha has become a major player in the art world.

Founded in 2005, the Qatar Museums Authority, led by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is the country’s prime art mover. “Qatar has become a pioneer in showcasing contemporary art,” says Hala Al Khalifa, the head of the authority’s robust Artist in Residence programme. “It’s an incredible opportunity for art lovers.” 

grand-tour-doha-damien-hirstDamien Hirst’s Relics exhibition in autumn 2013 at the Al Riwaq, Doha. Photograph by Niccolo Guasti/Getty Images.

The proof is in exhibitions like the Damien Hirst show that the authority helped organise, which drew huge crowds last autumn at the QMA Gallery, and the current Richard Serra show that is split between this space and one at its Al Riwaq Doha gallery. Recently, Mona Hatoum and Etel had showcases at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. The QMA’s flagship is the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei and devoted to historical work. Jean Nouvel, yet another Pritzker Prize-winning architect, has designed the National Museum of Qatar, a desert rose-themed structure of 430,000 square feet due to open at the end of this year. 

For their part, artists are relishing the chance to show works in the Middle East.

For their part, artists are relishing the chance to show works in the Middle East. “There is nothing more refreshing and exciting for an artist than showing his work in a place where all the preconceived rules and politics do not exist, and the audience is fresh, curious and challenging,” says the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, whose Museum of Crying Women show was up last year at the QMA Gallery.

A vigorous public art programme aims to saturate the landscape with art in order to enrich citizens and visitors alike. One of Louise Bourgeois’s large and menacing Maman spider sculptures anchors the Qatar National Convention Centre, and Sarah Lucas and Subodh Gupta also have prominent Doha installations. 

“There’s an important strand of education in everything here,” says Al Khalifa. “For every exhibition, we have a lecture supporting it. There’s a strong outreach programme all around.”

grand-tour-doha-jean-nouvelThe Jean Nouvel-designed National Museum of Qatar in Doha is scheduled to open in December 2014. Courtesy of Ateliers Jean Nouvel & ArteFactory.

Unlike, say, Seoul or Beijing, Doha’s appeal also stems from its close proximity to other appealing destinations. The small countries of the Persian Gulf are tightly packed together, making travel among them easy. “Here in the Gulf we are very connected, and there are people who will just come for the day,” says Al Khalifa. 

Often that happens during the region’s biggest fair, Art Dubai, which had its 8th edition in the spring, drawing powerhouse galleries like Marian Goodman of New York as well as strong regional players like Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal. Doha’s big draw in the autumn is Sotheby’s annual sale of contemporary art (13 October). The flight between the cities is just over an hour. “Art Dubai always creates a buzz,” says Al Khalifa. “People who are heading there stop in Doha to see what’s going on.” 


SÃO PAULO

The 31st São Paulo Biennial commences on 6 September this year (through 7 December), held as usual in its historic Oscar Niemeyer-designed building. It is the second-oldest show of its kind after Venice, having started in 1951. This year’s edition is centred on the idea of “journeys,” including a trip into its own history, and it is an entirely appropriate theme for the art-focused traveller.

With the Biennial as one of the high points, the city of São Paulo itself (Brazil’s largest, with over 11 million residents) has emerged as the Latin American art capital, in part because of the growing economy. “The art scene is vivid,” says Michel Serebrinsky, a São Paulo native who launched the successful Brazil ArtFair as part of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair circuit last December.

One closely watched local development was dealer Jay Jopling’s planting a branch of his acclaimed White Cube gallery in the city in 2012, opening with a show of British art star Tracey Emin. Rumours have also swirled that Gagosian Gallery and other big names may follow suit. But even if they do not establish permanent digs, many big-name international dealers are happy to visit. “More galleries are coming here to be a part of our fair,” says Serebrinsky of SP Arte, which was held in April and attracted Gagosian, David Zwirner, Thaddaeus Ropac and Michael Werner. Next year’s dates are 9–12 April.

Nao-tenha-medo-do-seu-corpo_DDHBrazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s Não tenha medo do seu corpo (2012) at Galerie Fortes Vilaça, São Paolo. Photograph by Eduardo Ortega / Courtesy of Galeria Fortes Vilaça, 2012.

The country’s own vibrant art scene will tempt collectors as well. “There are a lot of new galleries showing Brazilian contemporary art,” says Serebrinsky. Vila Maddelena is one area that collectors will want to check out, as is Jardins, the city’s poshest district and home to its top two hotels, the Emiliano and the Fasano, as well as a concentration of galleries. Galeria Fortes Vilaça, which shows Brazilians Ernesto Neto, Adriana Verejão and Beatriz Milhazes among its international roster, opened in 2001 near the Vila Maddelena area and in 2008 launched a second space in a former warehouse in an industrial part of town. Overall, the best dealers are scattered across São Paulo, meaning that a little advance planning is necessary. 

If your taste runs to older art, the São Paulo Art Museum has a serious Old Master, 19th century and modern collection, stuffed with works by the likes of Rubens, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Rivera and Siqueiros.


grand-tour-beijing-uccaA view of the recent exhibition Xu Zhen: A MadeIn Company Production at
the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. Photograph by
Eric Gregory Powell. Courtesy of UCCA. 

BEIJING

Few cities anywhere have gone from a quiet and traditional craft capital to a contemporary art hub as quickly as Beijing. The importance of the China Central Academy of Fine Art meant that there was always a serious artistic tradition in the capital city, but as the country loosened its cultural restrictions, a thousand art venues blossomed. Auction firms are a significant commercial force, with China Guardian, Beijing Poly and Sotheby’s doing business. On 1 June, Sotheby’s holds its sale of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art that coincides with a selling exhibition, Masters on Paper: From Picasso to Sanyu. The next round of sales are scheduled for December.

The auctions are not the only thriving sector. “The real attraction of Beijing right now compared to other cities in China is the gallery scene,” says Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. The Ullens, perhaps Beijing’s most influential art institution, is located in the 798 district, one of the two gallery hubs.

“Aside from international stalwarts like Continua and Pace, you have homegrown players like White Space, Beijing Commune, Boers-Li, Tang, Pékin Fine Arts and Long March,” says Tinari of 798. The newer Caochangdi gallery area is coming on strong, partly because of its association with art star and dissident Ai Weiwei, its most famous resident. 

“It reminds me of New York in the 1960s, as there’s a group of artists and a dialogue going on,” says Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher. He saw Beijing’s potential back in 2008, when he was one of the first Western dealers to open a branch there, hoping to tap into the free flow of ideas. “You invite an artist to dinner, and he invites three others.” He contrasts it to Shanghai, China’s financial hub and a city filled with private museums. “The cultural centre is still Beijing,” says Glimcher. “Living is cheap for artists. In that way, it’s the new Berlin.”

Museums may not be the capital’s strong suit, but the city has a big contemporary art fair, Art Beijing, that just completed its 9th edition, with mostly Chinese galleries showing their wares. And with the Ullens anchoring a district of serious dealers, there is plenty to do. Says Tinari, “All of this makes for a nice afternoon of gallery hopping, particularly during key seasons like the spring and fall.” 

And even if you don’t stay there, the super-chic Opposite House boutique hotel has excellent art exhibitions in its ground-floor gallery, like a recent show of sculptures by Liu Ruowang.


SEOUL

The capital of South Korea is, quite simply, mad for art. The surge of interest has come with a commen-surate build-up of institutions to support an educated marketplace. The thoughtful and steady national culture comes through in the way Seoul’s art world has developed – quickly, but relatively smoothly. 

The latest and most important entry is the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, located in the Samcheong-dong area. The $230 million museum, which opened in November 2013, is right next to the royal palace in a highly touristed area. The centrepiece in the entrance hall is Do Ho Suh’s Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home, a huge installation of sheer fabric representing houses the artist has lived in. A show of Shirin Neshat’s work is up now until 13 July.

187631347Do Ho Suh’s Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home installed in the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. Photography by Jung Yeon-Je / © AFP/Getty Images.

The heart of the city is also home to an array of private museums, foremost among them the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, founded in 2004 by the Samsung electronics dynasty and housed in a multi-part campus by architects Jean Nouvel, Mario Botta and Rem Koolhaas. Also contributing to the critical mass are the Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, specialising in photography, and the Ilmin Museum of Art.

The museums are complemented by a strong gallery scene, led by such stalwarts as Hyundai, Kukje and PKM. In the past few years, art buyers have become much more international, says Si Young Hur, a director of PKM. “We have new collectors visiting from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. The gallery also receives more requests from places such as Dubai, Turkey and Latin America, whereas it used to be mostly America or Europe.”

grand-tour-seoul-pmk-galleryInstallation view of PKM Gallery temporary exhibition space. Courtesy of P K M Gallery.

Early autumn is prime time for visitors and dovetails with the Korea International Art Fair (25–29 September); last year, it drew more than 180 exhibitors and some 85,000 visitors. For the brainy biennial set, there is Mediacity Seoul, a conference/exhibition that starts right after the fair (30 September). Attendance at events like these has gotten a lot more diverse. “It used to be that the only way for Korean artists to show their work internationally was by participating in art fairs abroad,” says Hur. “Today collectors and art professionals are coming to Korea.” 

Ted Loos writes on art, architecture and wine for Vogue, Vanity Fair and other publications.