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Can Artistic Practices Negotiate the Demands of Cultural Institutions, Public Space, and Civil Society?

Beral Madra, Director, BM Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul
2 May 2012

Cultural institutions in Turkey are divided into those run by the state, local governments and private sectors; each have different culture policies and no significant collaborative policies. Contemporary art productions and practices are based in Istanbul and are dependent on private sector investments, rather than official funds. Compared to the EU culture system, the current relations between the producers (artists, art experts) and consumers (public, collectors) are still sporadic and unsustainable. 


Political environments in most of the countries in the MENA are still authoritative and semi-democratic, in which art practices serve as activism or protest against human rights violations and restrictions of freedom of expression, among other things, albeit with limited influence in changing the convictions and attitudes of the public. Visual arts are almost the only channel through which creative people can convey their free and critical thinking to their societies and to the world. If the artists are represented in international exhibitions they have more prestige, confidence and power of persuasion in their local communities.


Wthin the neo-capitalist system, the monopoly of corporate culture is not to be avoided! Commercialisation of culture is growing rapidly and the market system norms and requirements force art practices to act accordingly. The distribution of visual production is manipulated by corporate institutions, foundations and art fair companies to their benefits. Yet, there is no other possibility of funding visual arts in the MENA region and even in Turkey, a country with a strong official modernist culture infrastructure and local government public culture institutions. In these regions, contemporary art infrastructures are still to be developed; the existing individual initiatives that practice and produce contemporary art are fragile and unsustainable. Art market prospects are still developing; galleries have financial difficulties to lift up the artists to international platforms.


Has the relationship between cultural institutions and their potential audiences/public changed in the last decade?

For two reasons institutions must reach wider audiences: their commitment and financial resources dictate them to reach the public as much as they can. And, according to the contents and relational aesthetics of the artworks, the cultural institutions tend to reach wider audiences. Most of the official institutions adjust their programmes to the appreciation and demands of local publics, which becomes popularised at the end. The target public of private institutions is the elites and intellectuals. What makes the content of the programmes interesting for the public depends on the artists; therefore a comprehensive collaboration between the institution and the artist is essential. The change is very slow and needs long-term planning and commitment.


Do cultural institutions contribute to urban development or are they a product of private development ambitions and the privatisation of space?

In İstanbul, private cultural institutions have contributed to tourism rather than to urban development, except that they have renovated the buildings they are using as museums and art centres. Companies and business people benefit from contemporary art and culture institutions according to their goals, mostly in terms of prestige and image building.


In the region, the governments and local governments acknowledge the importance of the culture industry and make plans accordingly; however most of the planning pursues event and entertainment culture rather than contemporary arts.


What role, if any, do cultural institutions play in developing civil society and public space in the MENA region?

To give a comprehensive answer to this question we should examine the civil and official culture policies of MENA region countries. Are there correlations between civil and official policies? What is the main goal: to support the democratic system through art and culture or to support neo-capitalist economy? In most cases there are no correlations between civil society, individuals and the official system. The policies support political interests and the economy rather than democratic processes. Only the content of what is being supported can provide democratic enlightenment, and this was the case with the Arab Spring.


And finally, is there a 'common ground' to be had when we consider the relationship of art practices to urban environments, public space and the development of civil society in the MENA region?


This is the major issue in the MENA region, that of a sustainable networking between the institutions, civil society and individuals, which are currently irregular and dependent on individual efforts and self-devotion. Current local wars and economic shortfalls in the MENA remain obstacles to the continuation of cultural and artistic exchange. Unfortunately, artists and experts in the region are focused on the art market rather than on their political agenda and public. This attraction to the market is being manipulated by private sector culture policies, by art market speculators, by collectors and art experts who collaborate with them; and not forgetting the auction companies that have placed their agents in local art scenes to canalise the flow of financial sources to their interest.

Beral Madra

Beral Madra is a critic and curator born and based in Istanbul, where she is Director of BM Contemporary Art Center, a non-profit institution since 1991. She coordinated the 1st (1987) and the 2nd (1989) Istanbul Biennales, curated exhibitions of Turkish artists in the 43rd, 45th, 49th, 50th and 51st Venice Biennales, and co-curated the exhibition Modernities and Memories - Recent Works from the Islamic World in 47th Venice Biennale. Since 1984 she has hosted more than 250 local and international artists in her art centre and in other official art spaces in Istanbul. She is widely published and is a founder and partner of Kuad Gallery, a new space for contemporary art and culture in Istanbul.

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