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Art and instability in Istanbul

24 June 2016

Anyone who witnessed Istanbul’s rise as a cosmopolitan hub over the past decade will notice the stark change that has come over it this year. Three suicide bomb attacks in the past six months have cast a pall over the city, as well as striking a blow to its already struggling contemporary art scene.

Official statistics showed a 28 per cent year-on-year decline in foreign arrivals to Turkey in April – a figure only likely to worsen as the country moves into what would normally be peak tourist season. Art International, which launched its Istanbul incarnation three years ago, recently announced it was calling off its 2016 fair, citing security fears among other reasons. Its decision was followed days later by the cancellation of Moving Image, a video art festival closely linked to it. Meanwhile, the crowds that would normally throng Istiklal Avenue – the pedestrian thoroughfare that is home to many of the city’s top galleries – have thinned dramatically.

The once-burgeoning contemporary art market had been an emblem of Istanbul’s rise as a global metropolis, and its fate might now be seen as symptomatic of the city’s decline. In 2012, Istanbul was home to an estimated 200 galleries, up from only a dozen a decade earlier. The following year, it hosted at least seven contemporary art festivals. Today, a good number of those galleries have either closed or been priced out of the city centre by rising rents.

But Turkey’s contemporary art scene was in trouble even before the country’s worsening security situation started driving away foreign visitors. Many insiders acknowledge that a ‘bubble’ was created by a host of new collectors who made their money in the boom years between 2002 and 2013. Many of these collectors bought Turkish contemporary art as an investment, only to find later that much of the work struggled to hold its value outside of Turkey.

‘They were acting like a flock of sheep,’ one long-time collector says. ‘They bought without knowing anything, they bought without having a comprehension of Turkish art and Occidental art.’ As they matured and began to cast their eyes around, he added, ‘they became aware that very little in Turkey was original.’

Around two years ago, a political crisis and slowing economic growth meant that buying began to dry up. At Contemporary Istanbul’s 2015 fair, the value of artworks sold declined by around $20 million, a drop of about a third on the previous year.

At a summit in April in which leading figures of the Turkish art scene discussed the issues facing the market, many commentators painted a grim prospect for the future.

‘Today we are in a situation in which Turkish art is being devalued,’ said the well-known artist Bedri Baykam. ‘Suddenly we’re in an environment in which artists of every generation are being auctioned off and therefore the decline is accelerating…This means that in this situation the careers of young artists are over before they begin. If you’re a Turkish artist you’re beginning 3-0 down, with the wrong passport.’

Part of the problem is that Turkey has comparatively few non-profit institutions supporting artists, meaning that collectors have more leverage to determine prices. More importantly, there is no state support whatsoever, which is ‘a major setback’, according to Haldun Dostoglu, founder of Istanbul’s Galeri Nev. ‘Unlike the Venice Biennale, the Istanbul Biennial is sponsored by art patrons. Such non-inclusive policies hold the contemporary art market back from growth.’

Government pressure on free speech is another challenge facing the city’s art scene. Turkey has been experiencing a dramatic crackdown on free speech across the public sphere, particularly since the state and the Kurdish rebel PKK resumed their long-running conflict after the breakdown of a peace process last June.

In February an exhibition at the prominent Akbank Sanat gallery was cancelled days before it was due to open. Artists involved accused the organisers of self-censorship, since the exhibition was to include a work by a Turkish artist, belit sağ, relating to the country’s Kurdish conflict. Any perceived criticism of the government’s handling of the ongoing insurgency has become virtually taboo.

Dostoglu, however, remains optimistic in the face of this challenge. ‘What I find ironic about oppression is that it is what artists feed on. It empowers them to create more as it provides them with a platform and more material to rebel against. At least that is what I hope and am excited to witness in the upcoming years.’