The rise of arts and culture in Turkey in tough times

The rise of arts and culture in Turkey in tough times

Despite heavy political and diplomatic problems in Turkey, there are signs of a boost in cultural life in the country, showing the desire of at least some Turkish people to stick with universal values. Istanbul in particular is blooming, with marquee arts and culture events opening seemingly every day. 

On Sept. 11 a mind-blowing exhibition of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s porcelain works was opened at Sabancı Museum and it will remain open until the end of January 2018. 

On Sept. 12, the 15th Istanbul Biennial, titled “A Good Neighbor,” was launched and will be open to the public from Sept. 16 to Nov. 12. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and curated by the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, the biennial will take place free of charge at six venues within walking distance of each other. 

Meanwhile, a new four-story culture center with exhibition spaces, conference halls, a library and a bookstore (Yapı Kredi Bank Books) is expected to give a kiss of life to Istanbul’s famous İstiklal Avenue, which has been in regression for years. 

On Sept. 13, the soft opening of the international arts exhibition of Contemporary Istanbul was launched, to continue until Sept. 19.

Those are the most prominent examples, but there are dozens of similar activities of a national and international scale, going on not only in Istanbul but also in a number of other big cities like Ankara, İzmir and Antalya. Hasan Bülent Kahraman, the curator of Contemporary Istanbul, pointed out that on Sept. 12 alone some 12 important arts and culture events launched that he would like to have gone to himself if possible.

An important detail regarding the increasing activities of global arts and culture in Turkey is the fact that they are generally supported by big industrial groups, as state support tends to go to more traditional cultural activities.

IKSV head Bülent Eczacıbaşı, of the Eczacıbaşı Group, said in the biennial opening ceremony that they “firmly believe that culture, which is so important for social life, is also a key determinant of development, which is why we are strengthening our international collaboration and continuing our efforts to make an even greater contribution to the cultural and artistic life of our country.”

Ömer Koç of the Koç Group, which is among the sponsors of the biennial, thus guaranteeing free public access, said at the same ceremony that they were “aware that tough times lie ahead.” “War and tensions are escalating. What we need above all at this time is to lend an ear to the language of art, which draws its power from culture and universal values,” he said.

The main sponsor of Contemporary Istanbul is Akbank, which is owned by another large industrial group, Sabancı Holding. Contemporary Istanbul chairman Ali Güreli said they had experienced difficulties in attracting artists and galleries, especially from Europe, due to the negative perception of the political atmosphere in Turkey after the foiled July 2016 military coup attempt. But nevertheless he said the turnout had been very satisfactory. “Out of 73 galleries in the exhibition, 42 are from abroad. We expect more than 100,000 visitors to the exhibitions overall, including around 250 major international collectors,” Güreli added.

As part of the Contemporary Istanbul program, an open air sculpture exhibition, the biggest ever in Turkey, has been opened in the city’s central Maçka Park. That opening came on the same day as President Tayyip Erdoğan said he did not want any statue or sculpture of him to be erected, saying the practice is “not in our culture.” 

This contrast perhaps demonstrates Turkey’s continued diversity in lifestyles and cultural perceptions, despite all current political difficulties.