Author: Alexandra De Cramer
Photo Credit: Carlotta Bailly Borg “Trouble”. Courtesy of the artist and Ballon Rouge Collective. Photo by GRAYSC.
Managing crises is a forte of the art world in Istanbul. In less than a decade; it endured a summer-long Gezi Park protests, various terror attacks including a bomb explosion in its international airport, and a coup attempt (to name few). So when a global pandemic hit, much to everyone’s surprise, many were prepared with the shortcomings the situation would demand.
“The pandemic was sort of besides the point for Istanbul’s art scene because it had been struggling for a while. It was having a difficult time getting peoples’ attention,” explains Nicole O’Rourke, curator and director of Ballon Rouge Collective. O’Rourke, who splits her time between Istanbul and Brussels, is reminded of the interview she conducted with the curators of the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset: “What they were dealing with was ‘how do we do this in this climate?’, which is what curators are faced with now, but today it is a climate the whole world is affected by rather than just Turkey.”
Being prepared in hardships did not mean that artists, gallerists and others in the art world did not suffer during the pandemic. Unlike its Western-counterparts, none of these individuals or institutes received any financial support from the government and were left to fend for themselves.
“The Turkish art community is used to relying on itself, a group left in the lurch. That is why it is modeled to be a very close-knit community. Whether there is a pandemic or not, it is a very lonely group with no resources. When you become part of it, you accept the idea that there is nobody to take care of us, but us,” artist Ekin Kano discloses. Her second solo exhibition Damp Earth, opened in October 2020 and two months later Turkey was in lockdown again.
A Shoulder in the Blur
When strict pandemic sanctions forbid those over 65 from leaving their homes, it portrayed again how deep solidarity ran within the clique. By forming neighborhood Whatsapp groups, artists provided a range of services for each other from buying groceries to daily emotional and psychological support. The launch of Omuz (which means “Shoulder” in Turkish) is another such example. The initiative founded by artists for artists in need of financial support during the pandemic has received over 1000 applicants since and provided at least 212 of those with funding.
The Unseen Subjects of the Precariat: Artists During the Pandemic (editor’s note : the link is in Turkish, unfortunately this piece was not translated yet) published in June by Eda Yiğit, co-editor of Orta Format and independent researcher, outlines how much artists have been subjected to neglect during the pandemic.
For the poll, Yiğit interviewed 150 participants, 97 percent of them declared that they had earned below the poverty line. The survey revealed that 80 percent maintained their artistic practice through a second job, which was made redundant during the pandemic. Hence why, 36 percent relied on their parents for financial support, whereas some 11 percent were supported by their spouses.
The pandemic was a blurry affair for artist Cem Öztürk, who witnessed several galleries he worked with close down. “The pandemic caused an economic panic all around the world and understandably, the demand for luxury items such as works of art decreased. People, of course, prioritized basic needs before art,” Öztürk analyzes, hinting that online sales weren’t up to par.
If Ulya Soley, curator at Pera Museum, had to define the collective narrative of the lives of artists in Istanbul during the pandemic in one word, it would be: insecurity. “It was an anxious time period, where there was no state support for those working in the arts. It is important to note that many artists do not have health insurance. To be left in such an unsafe position when there are people dying everyday from a disease puts one in a very debilitating and worrying state,” Soley notes. For Soley and many like her working in the field, the pandemic all in all has been and continues to be a worrisome period filled with future anxiety.
For a while now Turkey’s art scene has been on the shoulders of the private sector. Conglomerate families such as Koç, Sabancı and Eczacıbaşı have invested in the scene with their respective museums and art foundations. Even the Istanbul Biennial is supported by them.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture only contributes six percent to the event’s funding. This is quite a heavy monetary burden to place onto the market. Money otherwise spent to buy artist works is used to cover cultural basics of the city in the lack of state support. Hence why, the commercial side of things, especially the gallery network, has been lagging behind. This is reflected best in the number of artists represented. Yiğit’s research shows that 83 percent of artists do not have an institution such as a gallery, music label or publication house backing them up.
Then there were a lucky few, such as artist Tarık Töre, for whom little changed. Currently represented by Pilevneli Gallery, Töre kept to himself and to his work. “I do consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I love during such dire times. When one works with a gallery there is a supply and demand chain that occurs, which is very heartening for an artist. At the end of the day we do our best with our given circumstances and that’s what I try to do,” says Töre.
What the future will bring in terms of financial security is a question left unanswered for many artists. If actions speak louder than words, the unwillingness of the state and its cultural institutions to provide basic funding for its art world and artist community speaks volumes about Turkey’s art scene. With an economic crisis lurking over 2022, artists in Turkey remain well versed in the feeling of future anxiety.
Alexandra de Cramer is a writer and journalist based in Istanbul. She writes about culture and current affairs.