Cultural policy Turkey

Istanbul’s culture blues

The ancient Turkish city’s tenure as a European Capital of Culture has been underwhelming to say the least. What went wrong?

City of treasures: the domed roof of the Süleymaniye mosque

Declaring a millennia-old city that had been a capital of both Christian and Islamic empires as a European Capital of Culture (Ecoc) is akin to calling Venice a place with good water features or commending Paris for its decent museums. Istanbul (population upwards of 13 million) has, nonetheless, shared this Euro-accolade for the last 12 months with Essen, Germany (population 600,000) and Pécs in Hungary. Not only is Istanbul close to a hundred times more populous than Pécs, it has a larger population than all of Hungary, and even a larger GDP. So why, as its tenure draws to a close, has the city’s year seemed so much less than it might have been.

There was no cynicism back in 2005 when Istanbul—a city which was part of Europe but not part of the European Union—submitted its application to Brussels. It was competing for the last Ecoc slot to be allocated. These were heady days when Turkey had just successfully bargained its way to becoming a candidate for EU accession, more than four decades after it had signed a treaty of association. Istanbul impressed with a submission organised around the metaphor of the four ancient elements—earth, air, water and fire—each one corresponding to a different season of the year and a different artistic emphasis. “Earth” stood for history and “fire” for urban renewal. (Somehow a U2 concert, initially scheduled for June, came under the rubric of “air”.) In 2006, Istanbul was declared the winning candidate—easily seeing off its principal rival, Kiev.

One of the strong suits of the Istanbul bid was the involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). A new Istanbul 2010 agency was an exercise in inclusion, corralling people from all parts of the creative community. The initial list of committee heads was a dream-team from the performing and visual arts, architecture and cultural heritage. The whole exercise was to provide a model of co-operation between the local government, national government and civil society. And for once there was going to be ample public money, based on a special levy on petrol, to evaluate and fund the myriad project applications which began pouring in.

Initial optimism for Istanbul 2010 was fed not just by the euphoria of Turkey’s new footing with the EU. The country had plunged into a serious economic crisis in 2001 but by mid-decade was well on the way to a spectacular recovery. Istanbul’s claim to being an international hub was fast becoming reality. Politicians, planners and business people spoke earnestly about “rebranding” the city. Istanbul had always sold itself as the “bridge” between Asia and Europe. Now it was a destination in its own right, the centre of a region defined by a three-hour flight radius that included 55 different countries. By becoming a European Capital of Culture, Istanbul (and, by extension, Turkey) could establish itself both as an “insider” of the EU club and impress the rest of the region as a world city.

These aspirations were very different from Turku in Finland and Tallinn in Estonia, which take over as capitals of culture in 2011, or future candidates Guimarães in Portugal, or Umeå in Sweden. The whole concept of Ecoc has changed since the days when Berlin, Athens or Paris wore the crown, says Rebecca Walker, specialist in urban cultural geography at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University. “Nowadays it is an opportunity for a provincial city to spruce up, show off, and get itself on the tourist map.” But that was clearly not the case for Istanbul, which attracted 7.5 million tourists in 2009 and which, if anything, saw a drop in the number of visitors in the first half of 2010. If culture is seen as the hand maiden of post-industrial regeneration elsewhere in Europe, the aims of Istanbul 2010 were political, ideological and far more ambitious.

All of which made the embarrassment greater when things started to go wrong. Part of the problem was that Turkey’s EU application had largely stalled and the notion that Istanbul’s Ecoc status might accelerate the process seemed increasingly far-fetched. And as a global city, Istanbul was affected by global events. In 2008, as the sub-prime financial crisis began to impact the Istanbul economy, lavish expenditure on the arts in the name of the EU became a luxury. The Istanbul municipality already had an uneasy relation with “high culture”, or at least with the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the prototype for the 2010 agency, which had for many years organised music, dance, jazz, theatre and film festivals, as well as the art biennials, and was very much responsible for getting Istanbul onto the cultural map. The foundation receives very little public funding and relies almost entirely on private sponsorship.

However, much of the problem lay in the heart of the 2010 agency which turned out to be a coalition of good intentions rather than arts management skills. The minarets of Istanbul’s famous skyline were suddenly decked in scaffolding, as much of the funding seemed to be going towards cultural heritage and public works under conditions that were less than transparent. The preparations were overshadowed by the fate of the city’s modernist opera house, badly in need of restoration. The government wanted to tear it down and start again. Conservationists wanted it restored. The result was stalemate and 2010 went ahead without a major concert hall.

Many of the big names began to resign from committees and, finally, the executive board itself stepped down. The “earth, wind, water and fire” concept was ditched, and with months to go, 2010 had to invent itself afresh. Those who stayed on in their jobs, like curator Beral Madra, a formidable figure in the Turkish art world, lowered their sights but ploughed on with a programme of bringing exhibitions to the periphery of the city and to maintaining an exchange programme between Turkish and other European artists to explore each other’s terrain.

Thus expectations were already low when the event finally launched on a wet January night. There were concerts and a display of fireworks which went ahead despite the rain and the cultural damp squibs.

“The dominant perception is one of poor planning, disastrous financial control, corruption and broken dreams,” says Joost Lagendijk, a former Euro MP, who as joint head of the Turkey-EU parliamentary committee had lobbied hard for the 2010 Ecoc to come Istanbul’s way.

However Rebecca Walker cautions: “Expecting a cultural event to change the fortunes of a city is a lot to ask and there is almost always a sense of disappointment.”

Emblematic of the dilemmas facing Istanbul was the excavation of a metro station in the Yenikapi neighbourhood of the old city which, in 2004, uncovered the old Byzantine harbour, including 34 medieval ships buried deep under ground. Emergency archaeology work meant the transport needs of the city were put on hold. But there are innumerable cases where the developers do not stop. One of Istanbul’s Ecoc 2010 undertakings was to produce an inventory for Unesco of historical properties as a World Heritage site, and a master plan for managing the historical peninsula. This it failed to do.

A plan to create an archaeological park around the remains of the ninth-century Satyros monastic complex on the Asian side of the city was in many ways the perfect Ecoc project. The ethos of the team was very much in the spirit of 2010—engaging local people through summer film nights, concerts and guided tours, and making them the watchdogs of a site threatened by the developers. They managed to get an illegal road removed and halt plans for nearby multi-storey blocks developments. Istanbul 2010 proudly featured the project in its earliest promotional literature, but dragged its feet about signing a contract. In the end it cut its promised subsidy by over half.

There were successes. The Sabanci Museum staged “Byzantium to Istanbul: 8,000 Years of a Capital” which drew favourable comparisons to similar blockbusters at the Met and the Royal Academy, and which saw the reappearance in the city of treasures looted by the Venetians in the 13th century. It was moving to lie on the lawn in front of the second gate of the Topkapi Palace listening to 80-year-old Ahmad Jamal and his quartet giving a summer evening concert improvised around the theme of “Jazz in Ramadan”. And Istanbul’s equivalent to Tate Modern, the converted power station called Santralistanbul, delved deep into the fabric of the city with an exhibition called “Istanbul 1910-2010: the City, Built Environment and Architectural Culture”.

However Istanbul 2010 has not changed the destiny of the city; there is no notable, lasting edifice and scant legacy. Its year in the spotlight has seemed little more than the sum of its parts. Though at least, in September, eventually, Bono turned up with U2.

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