Rosa Martínez, curator, artistic director of the fifth Istanbul Biennial (1997) and chief curator of the Istanbul Modern (2004-07)
Optimism is not what is emanating from artists, curators and other art world professionals in Turkey today. They have not yet recovered from the shock of the coup attempt, and see the devastating impact of the post-coup repression as deep and still unfolding. Many have friends and acquaintances among the arrested journalists and university professors and are deeply disturbed by the climate of intolerance and ongoing witch hunts, fearing a further authoritarian and conservative swing.
“I have seen Turkey suffer from four coups, but none compares to the attempt of 15 July; the devastation, had it not failed, would have been far worse,” says Melih Fereli, the founding director of Arter art space and director-general of Istanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfi (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, IKSV) from 1993 to 2001. Under the auspices of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, Arter is a leading private space founded in 2010. A museum specifically devoted to contemporary art is due to open in 2018.
The field of contemporary art receives almost no support from the state in Turkey and a global policy to develop cultural and educational strategies is lacking. The major art institutions have been established and supported by financial groups, private enterprise, individual philanthropists or big family holdings, each of them creating different organisations (sometimes sporadic or even capricious) to support the arts.
This has resulted in the opening of numerous private museums in Istanbul: the Sakip Sabanci Museum in 2002, the Istanbul Modern in 2004 and the Pera Museum in 2005. The interdisciplinary arts centre SALT, supported by Garanti Bank since 2011, has the internationally known curator Vasif Kortun leading a very active programme.
Even the national participation of Turkey in the Venice Biennale is not organised by the Ministry of External Affairs but by the IKSV, which is also responsible for the well-known Istanbul Biennale, one of the events that have put Istanbul on the map and provided international prestige. The freedom granted to its curators is remarkable and I experienced it myself when I was the artistic director of its fifth edition in 1997. Bige Örer, the director of the biennale since 2008, emphasises the desire to keep on developing “creative expression as one of the most powerful tools for fostering a culture of peace and dialogue. Art and culture generate physical and intellectual spaces where people get together and grow stronger”.
“The political climate will obviously make cultural life harder, but I believe that oppression will increase the creativity of the artists and art production will shape new forms of solidarity,” says Haldun Dostoglu, the founder and director of Galeri Nev, a historic commercial space in Istanbul. “The artists I’ve talked to and I myself are all happy that the coup was not successful; we believe that Turkey escaped falling over a very high cliff.”
Fulya Erdemci, one of Turkey’s most perceptive independent curators, says: “The art and cultural sector are quite isolated from society at large and it has become urgent for the art institutions to reconsider their roles, and therefore their programmes and audiences as well. Are they able to give voice to the non-commercial, underground artists, the “dark matter”? How many socially engaged, long-term projects do they get involved with in relation to the different communities in the city? Do we need another private museum or radically new structures?”
To quote Melih Fereli again: “The onus is on our political leaders to stop demagoguery and inflammatory narratives. They must provide stability and support the rule of the law while strengthening secularism and freedom of expression. Failure to do so can only mean trouble, and not just for Turkey”.
Contemporary Turkish creation will certainly reflect the contradictions and complexities of the country’s social, economic and political reality, but the commitment of its protagonists to encouraging the understanding of art as a tool of critical and aesthetic consciousness stands firm in spite of all difficulties.