Translated into German by Therese Kaufmann. Will be discussed in Marina Griznic's class in the Academy of Fine Arts after their Biennale trip.
Never That Contemporary and Private Before
Recently, Forbes magazine sent me an email request for filling up a poll to name the people shaping contemporary art today in Turkey. The interest of such a magazine for finance sector and investors signifies private sector’s involvement with contemporary art. Private sector has always been a main financer of arts since the state doesn’t invest in art in Turkey. However, lately, here and there in Istanbul pops an arts museum with big family names; Istanbul Modern run by Eczacibasis, Pera Museum run by Koc’s, Sabanci Museum run by Sabanci’s, Project 4L run by Can Elgiz and lately Santralistanbul initiated by Oguz Ozerden who is also the founding director of Bilgi University. Koc family announced that they will finance Istanbul Biennial for the next ten years. Rumours say that the amount contracted is not enough for the production of such a huge event but that’s the way it is. Big families want to use art as a PR and branding tool to make their names more associated with culture. With its Biennial attracting over 3000 foreign art professional visitors for its opening, Istanbul has become one of the main attraction points for international culture tourism. Furthermore, it has been chosen for European Capital of Culture 2010. And all these rich families want to create the image that they are on the side of “modernisation” of Turkey by investing in arts and culture.
10th International Istanbul Biennial started with a boom of openings and events last week. There has never been such a high number of allying projects, and even more the quality has never been that satisfactory – which also means there are no off events, everything taking place in Istanbul in terms of contemporary art are under allying projects. Biennial itself has made its statement by leaking into the city with many different projects at different places. The chosen main sites, mainly AKM -Ataturk Cultural Center- and IMC – Istanbul Manifaturacılar Çarşısı (Istanbul Textile Traders Market) a modernist complex of textile wholesalers and retailers built with the progressive mentality of the fifties- have always been loaded places of modernity and ideology. Both places are the architectural symbolisation of Kemalism based on the very idea of enlightenment. To add, both buildings are under the serious threat of gentrification. This threat can be interpreted in terms of the clash between kemalist elites and new ruling muslim neo-liberal bourgeoisie – who are very keen on privatising state enterprises.
All museums opened their exhibitions in the opening week for international guests. There was an obvious race among them to attract more people. It looked like everybody made their best to benefit from the attention Istanbul gets during the Biennial. In the opening reception, a man was carrying a sign to take people to the shuttle boat for the opening at Sabanci Museum but “invitation only”. The brochures of Istanbul 2010 organisation was even more remarkable “This September is sort of a sneak preview of what is to come in 2010 in a micro scale”
While Istanbul 2010 makes popular claims of accomplishments in many fields, we are suffering for the lack of cultural policies and public funding. And private sector’s taking over in arts has become threatening. Just before chosen as a biennial site, AKM has been defined as useless by the previous ministry of culture and tourism. Built in the late sixties, AKM is a huge complex with a concert hall, holding the offices of State Opera as well. The building in the center of Taksim Square is obviously a target for private sector for building a more “profiting” hotel or shopping mall. Taksim area itself has been experiencing a major gentrification process lately. In this framework, the statement of cultural ministry can only be explained as a call to private hands. A huge number of artists and intellectuals got together in front of AKM to protest the coming decision of being torn down claiming that AKM as a site of culture should protect its place at Taksim Square. A deep irony. The advertising poster in the standing vitrine in front of AKM was for Sabanci Museum’s “Blind Date” show in cooperation with Deutsche Bank whose first major activity was sponsoring a contemporary art fair “Contemporary” in Istanbul. This juxtaposition signifies the situation of culture policies in Istanbul at the moment.
In the meantime, the government has changed. The ministries of culture and tourism are again separated. The ministry of culture is given to the only person coming from a social democrat background among the muslim democrats of AKP. Our newly elected president chose a burocrat previously operating in an important position at ministry of culture and tourism. The new minister of culture gave an opening speech at the public opening reception of the Biennial. These may be read as the signs of a closer involvement of state with arts on the eve of 2010. But not to forget, Istanbul Modern was opened early with the pressure of the government. It was just before the declaration of future possible membership negotiations by EU. Santralistanbul had to make a pre-opening as well, it was just before the elections. There is no effort from government’s side for sustainable culture and arts policies, however they obviously push privately run art institutions. A good make up in place of sustainable policies?
Optimism in the time of European Capital of Culture
The local discussions during the opening week of Biennial were dominated by the opening of Santralistanbul and the history of Biennials exhibition in Istanbul Modern. Santralistanbul were lanced as Centre Pompidou of Istanbul. Now with its second director David Elliott leaving its position, Istanbul Modern from the beginning reminds everybody of Tate Modern as a project. Rather than creating their own identities, both instiutions look after some big and cliche Western examples. Santralistanbul started with an exhibition titled “Modern and Beyond”, a chronological exhibition of modern art in Turkey starting with twenties ending up by the end of nineties. Istanbul Modern brought together selections from the previous biennials by their curators. At Santralistanbul, some international guests walking among the crowded art pieces asked whether it was a permanent collection or temporary exhibition. In an interview, the curatorial crew of the exhibition stated that the exhibition wouldn’t be possible without the pieces taken from Istanbul State Painting and Sculpture Museum. It was impossible to bring pieces from the state collection of arts in Ankara. And they tried not to ask help from Izmir.
The story is heard strange from afar. There has been a state collection of arts started in the thirties. The museum of that collection runs under very difficult conditions and is mostly unattended. There are no acquisitions at all from contemporary art production. There were attempts and discussions about a museum of modern and contemporary arts. With 2000s, private sector decides to take it over. In Istanbul Modern, we haven’t yet been able to see exhibitions creating a discursive space of discussion on the experience of modernity in Turkey. Now there comes another privately run space starting with a modern art exhibition that cannot take place without the collection of state in Istanbul. The question that comes to mind immediately is why they didn’t try to rehabilitate and update the collection there but preferred taking the pieces to another private place. Knowing that the government pushed up for the earliest opening as possible for Santralistanbul, things get even more complicated.
The danger in the close future is art’s total taken over by private sector, made part of the show business. It looks like the state doesn’t want to get itself involved in cultural matters itself, changing itsown profile, rehabilitating state owned museums etc. It seems pushing private sector is easier. However, we need more neutral, independent, alternative agents in cultural sector, like the artists initiatives Apartman Projesi, pist, BAS, MASA, nomad in Istanbul and K2 in Izmir. All of these initiatives are operating in their own independent production spaces. We urgently need a public funding system to support the young production and to create that critical space between the financing bodies and arts and culture. That’s why we are trying to be optimists about 2010 process. Because it appears to be the only open funding body apart from the private funding. Why we need EU money for sustainable policy making in arts and culture is a critical question to be discussed since a deficiency in the system cannot be alleviated through some other support. ECoC project is designed for progression of culture and arts in the European cities –recently become a tourist attraction tool for smaller cities of Europe like Pec (Hungary) and has been hardly satisfactory in terms of the progression of independent, alternative organisations. It is the first time ECoC project will operate in such a big city like Istanbul, a megapolis. Being chosen for this project is shown differently in Turkey namely as a part of becoming European. What we can be sure of is that 2010 show will be good for tourism.
Istanbul Biennial has nurtured the contemporary arts in Turkey with new ideas and new questions in 20 years. Now it claims for its place among the most established biennials around the world. Istanbul has become a vital point in the international art network and contemporary art has become a more interesting investment for private business. Before things get too private in art, we should start to write, think and analyse this process we are experiencing in a constructive way. We need to work collaboratively for creating and sustaining alternative and fresh production and discussion. The construction of critical spaces where we can breathe needs to be realised urgently. As the so called cultural producers in Turkey, we should be more active in the decision making processes of public policies about art, in pushing forward for public funding bodies rather than accepting the status quo. This may only be realized through a collective effort on our side as artists, curators, exhibition producers and critiques.