Turkey ‘needs design boost’

Turkey ‘needs design boost’

Hürriyet Daily News
Turkey ‘needs design boost’

The Design Biennial that will start on October 13 will help reveal the potential of ıstanbul in the area of design says Bülent Eczacıbaşı spaking at the headquarters of Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

If Turkey hopes to join the world’s top 10 economies by 2023 it will need to consider the potential contribution the culture industry can make to economic growth and aim to shift from “made in Turkey” to “designed in Turkey,” according to prominent businessman Bülent Eczacıbaşı, who is chairman of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts’ (İKSV) Board of Directors.

As the İKSV celebrates its 40th anniversary and prepares to launch the first ever Istanbul Design Biennial this year, the organization is confident the Biennial will help reveal Istanbul’s potential and contribute to the city’s development of creative industries.

Do you believe İKSV has succeeded in transforming İstanbul into a major international center for culture and the arts?

When the Foundation was established to organize the first Istanbul Festival 40 years ago, there was very little in Istanbul’s culture and arts environment comparable to what exists today. İKSV set out with the mission of organizing one Istanbul Festival that would take place over a period of five weeks. In time, the diverse disciplines represented in the Festival developed their own audiences and then evolved in tandem with them, leading to their restructuring as separate event programs. With the launch of the Istanbul Design Biennial this year, İKSV is now organizing four annual festivals and two biennials on an international scale!

Turkey’s economic and political transformation over the last decade has drawn considerable notice around the world. Can we say the same for our culture and arts scene?

We’re still not at the point where world recognition of our cultural accomplishments matches our prestige in the economic or political sphere. Culture and the arts just don’t have the priority that economics or politics do, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s critical that we advance in all three areas simultaneously. We need to consider the potential contribution of the culture industry to growth if we aim to join the world’s top 10 economies by 2023.

What are the main difficulties IKSV is facing currently?

I would say that the relatively low priority given to culture, hence the shortfall in public infrastructure and funds for cultural events and production are the primary obstacles we face. Additionally, we need to strengthen our educational system and opportunities in this area.

Turkey is a member of the G20, yet its budget for culture and the arts remains below the standards of the developed world. What does this tell us?

According to the OECD, Turkey is positioned 16th worldwide and 6th in Europe in terms of the size of its economy. In terms of its human development index, however, we’re way back in 85th place. This is what happens if your budget for culture and the arts is way below the world average. You don’t become one of the world’s leading countries through economic development alone: cultural and economic progress must occur in tandem. A society that embraces culture and the arts is much better prepared to achieve all kinds of ambitious targets.

Do you think the relationship in Turkey between the public sector and culture and the arts is where it should be?

I believe that the public sector’s main responsibility with regard to culture and the arts is ensuring that these creative industries have the infrastructure they need to flourish and the incentives and legislation that encourage private sector support. I’m confident that if culture and the arts were to become a priority in Turkey, our economy would leap forward even faster and more powerfully.

Can you elaborate on how culture and arts can contribute to economic growth?

Turkey’s economy has performed impressively in recent years but our industrial model is still based on low labor costs and price competitiveness. We focus on sectors that produce with standard technologies available worldwide to anyone who can afford them; we’re not in sectors that require advanced technology. Hence, any country that can produce at lower costs puts pressure on us. We suffer from the fact that our economy is not yet driven by high technology and innovation.

In this sense, we believe the Design Biennial is critical. Our primary goals for the Design Biennial are to introduce audiences to the concept of design as a cultural element and encourage them to look at it from different angles and re-think their understanding of design. Istanbul has huge potential in the area of design. We are confident that the Biennial will help us to reveal this potential and contribute to the development of creative industries in our city. One of our first priorities is to focus public attention on the various aspects of design. In the longer run, we hope the Biennial will contribute to the development of design-related policies in Turkey.

Hu Jintao, China’s top statesman, once declared that he wanted to see the country move from “made in China” to “designed in China”. In Turkey, on the other hand, it’s still debatable whether we’ve succeeded in branding “made in Turkey”, despite some progress in recent years. Howevr, even if we were to succeed, it’s not sufficient. Our goal should be “designed in Turkey”, which means high technology, design-intensive, and high value-added products that cannot be imitated and undercut by products with cheaper labor costs. This is about the investment climate of the advanced stage of industry we desire. You cannot create an investment climate, for instance, with just a couple of investment incentives. You need to have low inflation and political stability, and industrialists need to be treated with respect and not as thieves by civil servants. Another aspect is promoting creativity in all areas of life, from design to industry, from architecture to fashion. Culture and the arts are part of that climate.

This means that Turkey needs to treat its artists better.

It has to clear their path, remove boundaries. Of course, this is a bit difficult. Refusing to accept any limits is in the nature of art. We might resent, from time to time, that the culture and arts world confronts us with views we don’t like, which we object to, or which we reject and hate. It’s difficult to accept, sometimes, that art doesn’t recognize any taboos. Yet, we need to accept it and tolerate it if we are to open the way for culture and the arts. However, there are situations, of course, where activities in the name of culture and the arts jeopardize society’s balances, such as hate rhetoric. Of course we need to prevent these. But societies should manage these challenges and search for the right balances. When we say art does not know any boundaries, to what degree can we tolerate projects that can provoke mass insurrections? These are not questions that have easy answers.

But in Turkey don’t we have to be more tolerant?

Despite some setbacks, from time to time, we are moving in the right direction. This is an issue about which IKSV is trying encourage discussion because we believe it’s important to formulate well-thought out views. Our research last year on art in the public domain is one example of our efforts in this area.

Turkey is embarked on a huge urban transformation project. Are you concerned that some of our cultural assets might be at risk?

I do have some concerns but not based on concrete evidence. The urban transformation project is very big in scale and ambitious. I don’t think we can object to the principle. But certainly it should be implemented with sensitivity to our cultural assets.
But don't you feel uneasy when you see some buildings that can hardly be called aesthetic?

I do; I feel extremely uneasy. But tell me what the solution is. Personally, I don't have the answer. Let me add that the design quality of the environment and spaces we live in is for me one of the most important manifestations of a society’s level of development. You can have very advanced technology, plentiful petro dollars, countless graduates from universities – sometimes of dubious standard – yet those are not as vital as the values expressed by the design of your cities and sophistication of your urban planning– these are the values you wish your civilization to be celebrated for. How we build our cities and develop our urban environment reflect the respect of individuals for society, for each other, for history, for ecology and nature. It also demonstrates a society’s foresight, efficiency in planning for the future and use of technology. Hence, the issue is of vital importance, but there is no simple solution.


Bülent Eczacıbaşı is the Chairman of Eczacıbaşı Holding, a prominent Turkish industrial group with investments in pharmaceuticals, personal care products, consumer products, building products and financial services.

Born in 1949 in Istanbul, Eczacıbaşı graduated from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and obtained his master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After initiating his professional career in 1974 with Eczacıbaşı Holding, he held a variety of management positions in Eczacibasi Group companies.

Over the years, he has been involved in a large number of civic associations, including the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), where he was Chairman of the Board (1991-1993) and Chairman of the High Advisory Council (1997-2001). He was also founding Chairman of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) (1993-1997) and Chairman of the Board of the Turkish Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers’ Association (2000-2008).
Presently, Eczacıbaşı continues to serve TÜSİAD as Honorary Chairman, TESEV as a member of the High Advisory Board, and the Turkish Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers’ Association as Honorary President. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Istanbul Modern Art Foundation, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), and also a member of the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT).

Historical buildings as venues sets Istanbul apart from other festivals

What do you think differentiates the Istanbul Festivals from those in the rest of the world?

The most distinctive feature of the Istanbul Festivals and Biennials is probably the city itself. Partly because of the lack of suitable venues, we use historical buildings and structures for culture and arts events. Although this sometimes means that our seating capacity and stage infrastructure are limited, it also sets us apart from other festivals around the world. This difference adds value to the experience of both festival performers and the audience: for both, a concert in Hagia Irene is a one-of-a-kind event. We’re also trying to differentiate ourselves in terms of content, by creating programs, for example, that feature unique, Istanbul-only performances developed specially for our festivals. Additionally, we’re creating platforms that encourage artists from abroad to collaborate with artists from Turkey on new projects and generating opportunities for them to demonstrate their work. In the years ahead, we also plan to increase the amount of content in our festivals that focuses on cultural elements specific to Turkey.

Do you see a change in the international artists’ views regarding Istanbul festivals over the course of the years?

We certainly do. At the beginning, very few performers knew anything about Turkey. Promoting Turkey and our festivals to potential performers was particularly difficult in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, both the Istanbul Festivals and Turkey have raised their international profiles and proven themselves worthy of notice. Today, Istanbul is considered to be one of the most dynamic and exciting cities worldwide in terms of culture and the arts, and I believe that the international network created by our festivals has made an important contribution in this regard. Now, performers not only don’t think twice before coming to Istanbul, they want to come back again and again!

We do know that İKSV has an acute venue problem, can you explain this difficulty to our readers with some concrete examples?

Let me give you the example of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. After reaching an initial agreement with this outstanding orchestra on their performance in Istanbul, they sent a representative to decide on a venue. We were able to show them three congress centers as venues, one of which they selected. Imagine: this was a successful example because the orchestra agreed to perform in one of the venues we showed them. Unfortunately, many choose not to come to Istanbul just because we’re unable to provide them the stage or acoustics they need. Sometimes the problem is insufficient seating capacity, so our events can’t reach as many people as we would have desired. Look at the Film Festival, for example. This is an international festival and according to international festival regulations, films can only be shown two or three times at most. It doesn’t matter how many people see each screening, the rule refers to the number of shows. In a venue like the historic Emek Cinema, which is unfortunately slated for demolition, three screenings can reach more than 2,500 people. The largest cinema at our disposal now is the Atlas Cinema, which only seats half that number. In fact, there are so many aspects to the venue problem that it’s possible to focus the rest of our discussion just on this issue!