ISTANBUL, May 15 (Reuters) - Turkey's contemporary art scene is buzzing. Collectors pay millions for the hottest works at exclusive auctions, high-end galleries are springing up by the dozen, and more and more Turkish artists are holding exhibitions abroad.
The clients are the usual family magnates and super-rich - Istanbul ranks fifth in the world on the Forbes list of billionaires. But they also include an expanding class of young professionals looking for investment opportunities and a touch of prestige.
The boom in Turkey's modern art market has coincided with a decade of steady economic growth. Since a financial meltdown brought the Turkish banking sector to its knees in 2001, the economy has more than doubled in size and per capita income has tripled in nominal terms.
"There are many young professionals who make good money and really want to have a piece of art in their home," said painter Yigit Yazici as he sipped an espresso at his studio in Istanbul's upmarket Nisantasi district.
Traditionally, patronage of the arts in Turkey was left to wealthy industrialist families.
The Sakip Sabanci Museum, owned by the Sabanci family, opened in Istanbul in 2002. Two years later, the Eczacibasi family launched the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, followed by Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation's Pera Museum in 2005.
The launch of Istanbul's International Contemporary Art Exhibition, known as the Istanbul Biennial, in 1987 introduced many once-sceptical Turks to contemporary forms of painting and sculpture.
But it was the opening of the Istanbul Modern - Turkey's first modern art museum - nine years ago that really changed the scene by creating a space for contemporary artists that combined permanent and temporary exhibitions, a photography gallery and educational and social programs.
"A museum is an orderly home for art and this is what we have achieved here," said Levent Calikoglu, chief curator at the Istanbul Modern.
"For the artists it's prestigious to be included in the museum, and for investors it creates a benchmark and a guarantee for their investments."
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has come under frequent criticism for curbing freedom of expression in Turkey and there are growing fears that the arts - and artists - could be affected.
Critics cite examples such as the recent trial of world-renowned concert pianist Fazil Say on a charge of insulting religious values with a posting on Twitter. He received a 10-month suspended jail sentence.
In 2011, a work by sculptor Mehmet Aksoy in the eastern province of Kars was torn down after Erdogan described it as a "freak".
But the availability of patronage and influx of money have emboldened Turkish artists, integrating them increasingly into the global art world and giving them a sense of greater independence in Turkey's often conservative environment.
"Political power and art have never been at peace in Turkey. The only difference now is that the conflict is now more visible and we discuss it openly," Calikoglu said.
In the absence of significant government support, private-sector sponsorship has become the mainstay of art through the purchases and commissions of major banks like Ziraat Bankasi, Garanti, Akbank, and Yapi Kredi, and art-savvy corporations.
Recently, independent collectors have also started making inroads as prominent buyers of sculpture. Central Istanbul has seen dozens of new art galleries in just the past few years.
"Ample global liquidity and negative real interest rates have had a great impact on increasing investment in art," said Saltik Galatali, Akbank Deputy General Manager in charge of Private Banking.
"Art investments have become a tool for protecting the value of assets," said Galatali, whose team manages a 17 billion lira ($9.5 billion) portfolio for 4,500 clients.
Pelin Sandalli has seen her business boom since she set up her Linart Gallery in Nisantasi in March 2011, exhibiting a full range of contemporary art forms, including video art, installations, photography, paintings and sculpture.
More and more of her clients are young professionals who are first-time buyers.
"The number of more conscious collectors who are highly educated, make extensive research and devote their time and energy to art are increasing day by day," Sandalli said.
Sotheby's was the first major international auction house to hold an exclusively Turkish contemporary art sale in 2009. British auctioneer Bonhams has since joined the competition with its own dedicated Turkish sales.
Such events have seen record prices for modern Turkish art.
At a Sotheby's sale in 2010, highlights included Fahrelnissa Zeid's "Untitled", the first modern Turkish work to exceed $1 million at auction. Rising star Taner Ceylan's painting "1881" was sold for over 100,000 pounds ($154,900).
"We started off collecting art as a hobby, but now we see it as a good investment and something to leave to our son," said ex-banker and marketing manager Burcu Egene as she flashed her card at an auction in one of Istanbul's smartest hotels.
The Koc, Sabanci and Eczacibasi families, leading Turkish industrial dynasties, are pumping millions of lira into building art collections.
Two years ago, Murat Ulker, chairman of Yildiz Holding, a leading Turkish food and beverages group, paid 2.2 million lira for Burhan Dogancay's "Blue Symphony".
He also recently bought a controversial work by contemporary artist Bedri Baykam.
The eclectic tastes of the Ulker family, a pillar of the conservative business establishment, as well as the price tag, caught attention: "Empty Frame", a suspended empty frame, sold for $125,000. ($1 = 1.7975 lira) ($1 = 0.6454 pounds) (Editing by Jonathon Burch, Nick Tattersall and Sonya Hepinstall)