Eyeing the benefits, Istanbul rises to the cultural occasion

ISTANBUL – Posters promoting a concert by the popular British act Massive Attack could be seen all over the streets of Istanbul, and pictures of Jane Birkin were splashed all over the pages of Time Out magazine’s Turkish edition. Confusion struck quickly. «Where am I?» I was forced to ask myself. «In Athens, the city I’ve left behind, or in this captivating metropolis of 14 million?» The coincidence is just a small indication, or warning, of what lies ahead. The heavily populated yet politically exhausted city is competing – informally, at street level – against the prospective Olympic host, Athens, for foreign attention. The battle’s prize: the largest possible slice of the cultural industry’s pie, and, ultimately, greater investment in the long term. The eastern Mediterranean is developing into a powerful regional hub that is seeking Western Europe’s attention and whatever this could lead to in terms of investment, tourism, or even political symbolism. At this stage, Athens and Istanbul seem to have begun their endeavors from the same starting line. That’s what the visits of both Massive Attack and Jane Birkin to both cities indicates. The current 10th International Jazz Festival of Istanbul, one of many events organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, contributes significantly to the city’s cultural activity. Every spring the foundation, a versatile and dynamic, privately run, non-profit organization, also stages the internationally renowned Istanbul Biennale, Istanbul’s respected film festival, and numerous other events. The city’s latest jazz festival, which opened on July 4 with a concert by Simply Red, ends tomorrow. It was launched 19 years ago, initially as a jazz-only event, but began embracing various other styles and has since evolved into a major musical event for the summer. Its impact on Istanbul’s cultural life has been significant. Entertainment trends have subsequently been changed. For instance, the Istanbul Jazz Festival ushered in Turkey’s first ever open-air stadium performance, by a not-so-jazzy performer, the Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. Other big outdoor shows by top-selling acts such as Sting and the Scorpions followed. This summer, the festival’s spotlights have focused on celebrated acts such as Birkin – renowned mostly for her vocal contributions to songs by French cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg – who packed Istanbul’s open-air Cemil Topuzlu Theater, Argentinean legend Mercedes Sosa, and Cuban artist Eliades Ochoa, a member of the immensely popular Buena Vista Social Club veterans’ collective. The festival’s loaded agenda, occasionally featuring two or three concerts a day at different venues, has also featured lots of jazz by Turkish and foreign acts. One of the festival’s more ambitious initiatives, Jazz Sunday, developed into something more than just a big, all-day event of bands, dancing and food. The festival’s organizers deliberately opted to stage the occasion at a facility still under construction, Istanbul’s impressive Conference and Culture Center, to convey a political message. State funds for the unfinished – and currently stagnant – project, which is destined to become the home base for both the festival and its organizer, have run dry. With all the media’s attention focused on the festival, the initiative generated plenty of publicity on the issue and pressure on the government. Ties between the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and the country’s various governments over the years have not been optimal. One of the foundation’s chief officials, Ustungel Inanz, noted that state subsidies, should they be provided at all, do not exceed 5 percent of its budget. Inanz said that, as a result, the festival survives by relying on generous sponsorship deals. They provide about 75 percent of its financing, he said. Backed by its sponsors, the foundation is now preparing for its next major challenge: lodging its bid for Istanbul as European Cultural Capital in 2007.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.