Eseli, a diplomat’s son who looks like John McEnroe’s cute Turkish cousin, is also an inveterate globe-hopper, with previous stints working in Germany and the U.S. Together, he and Muftuoglu operate Istanbul ’74, a gallery space that serves as a cultural platform for exhibitions and projects involving contemporary art, film, music, what have you. “For me, even surfing is art,” Eseli says.
Prominent locals say the couple’s efforts have injected a big dose of international pizzazz into the Istanbul scene. “Society in this city is very segmented,” says Serdar Gulgun, an art historian and interior designer who is a friend of the couple’s. “The intellectuals and the society crowd usually do not mingle, which makes for a very boring social life—you keep seeing the same people and hearing the same things for 30 years.” Muftuoglu, Gulgun says, is changing that with her knack for throwing together bohemians and bankers and, even, Gore Vidal. “Demet can accomplish Herculean tasks in a very smooth and easygoing way, without making a big deal of it,” he says. “And then she’ll invite everyone for dinner and dress up as if she’s been sleeping all day.”
At one of those dinners this past April, for the opening of an Istanbul ’74 show by the young French painter Nicolas Pol, Muftuoglu glided through the crowd with her BlackBerry in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, maintaining her smile as the guest list swelled from 60 to 90. Although she’s warm and chatty at parties and around friends, Muftuoglu is a somewhat shy and self-conscious interviewee; she says it’s difficult to explain what drives her to pursue an artist or a designer, because she operates mainly on instinct. “When you first see the work or meet the artist, you just feel it,” she says. On the contemporary art front, she has formed a partnership with New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery and exhibited several of its artists, including Emin, Angel Otero, and Robin Rhode.
If there’s a trait shared by most of the festival’s participants—Tilda Swinton, Daphne Guinness, and Nate Lowman are past headliners—it’s a significant fashion-fabulousness quotient, or at least a close connection to a Roitfeld: This year, the young art dealer Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld came to Istanbul to mount the Pol show. His mother, Carine, a former French Vogue editor, arrived during the festival for a book signing and to attend the gala dinner, where she mixed with a range of Turkish artists including the rising photographer Pinar Yolacan.
Some attendees were a bit underwhelmed by this year’s panel lineup, which unfortunately suffered last-minute cancellations by fashion VIPs Karl Lagerfeld and Riccardo Tisci. (It was also Muftuoglu and Eseli’s first year running the event without Hack and Ganguli; though Hack is still a supporter and panel participant, there was an abrupt falling-out with Ganguli, about which Muftuoglu will say only: “My relationship with Pablo evolved and eventually dissolved as the needs of the growing festival changed.”) Still, all the dinners and parties—including a one-night-only Boom Boom Room event imported by the New York nightclub’s team—were as lavish and laid-back as ever, thanks to wads of sponsorship cash and an informal vibe befitting a rather democratic festival whose daytime events are free and open to the public. “There’s always a mellow atmosphere,” Eseli says. “It’s not like Cannes, where everyone’s waiting to hear who the winner is, or Art Basel, where everyone’s buying or selling.”