The opening of the Casa Botter cultural center in Istanbul (photo via the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality)

ISTANBUL — More than three decades after the last tenants moved out of Istanbul’s first Art Nouveau building, the doors of the long-neglected Botter Apartment were flung wide open again last month after a lengthy restoration. Crowds lined up outside its newly gleaming façade to enter what was once the atelier of Jean Botter, official tailor to the court of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, and to see the contemporary art exhibition Reveries, Truths that had been installed there for the grand reopening.

The revival of Casa Botter is part of a larger initiative by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to convert pieces of Istanbul’s history — ranging from a former fez hat factory to a late-19th-century gasworks — into new cultural hubs for the city of 16 million people. It is also symbolic of a broader struggle over political influence in the world of art and culture as Turkey heads toward critical national elections on May 14.

“It is a clear fact that today, the most powerful weapons of those who manage the global system are the tools of culture,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared in a speech in late 2021. Better known for banning, pressuring, and even arresting artists and other cultural figures, his government has also sought to supplant what the autocratic leader has lamented as the “monopoly” over culture long held by his political opponents. 

In recent years, Erdoğan has presided over the rebuilding of the landmark Atatürk Cultural Center, personally commissioning the first opera performed there; the conversion of an Ottoman army barracks into the massive Rami Library; and the inauguration of the Yeditepe Biennial, a would-be competitor to the Istanbul Biennial that aimed to highlight classical Turkish arts.

The president’s political adversaries have decried such projects as attempts “not to support culture, but to direct it and dominate it,” as Mahir Polat, the deputy secretary general of the opposition-run Istanbul Municipality, put it at a press briefing in November. A former museum director, Polat said the municipality has “a duty to create new cultural spaces that serve free expression.” In the last six months alone, he has spearheaded the opening of contemporary art venues in an old pumping station, a trio of historic houses, a water cistern, and an office building, in addition to Casa Botter.

The municipality’s projects have generally drawn a warmer response from Istanbul’s arts community than those promoted by the central government. “But at heart, I feel their understanding of the role of culture is not very different from one another,” artist Zeyno Pekünlü told Hyperallergic. “They are all seeing culture largely as part of the touristification and promotion of the city.”

The new Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul just before its official reopening in October 2021 (photo Jennifer Hattam/Hyperallergic)

Since taking power in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has accelerated neoliberal policies that have led to increased privatization across all sectors, including the arts. One result has been the “exclusion of politically engaged women and queer artists,” as well as Kurdish artists, from both private and state institutions, said Esra Yıldız, an associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of Arts and Cultural Management.

Funding for major art institutions and events in Turkey is dominated by large holding companies, and Istanbul art venues are increasingly migrating to quasi-public spaces these corporations control, including the Bomontiada entertainment complex, the Piyalepaşa İstanbul luxury housing development, and the Galataport shopping complex, where the flagship Istanbul Modern museum reopened this week.

Private funders of the arts often do not share the government’s ideological leanings, but rely on its approval for their business interests in other spheres. “They have been playing the waiting game, hoping it will change,” artist and urban activist Nazım Dikbaş told Hyperallergic. He criticized institutions backed by these companies for not speaking out on issues like the jailing of arts philanthropist Osman Kavala.

Institutional silence also led many artists to unwittingly become part of government-led “artwashing” of controversial urban transformation projects in the central Beyoğlu district, Dikbaş said. After a largely unsuccessful attempt to put its own stamp on the cultural scene with the Yeditepe Biennial, the government changed tack, declaring existing arts venues part of its Beyoğlu Cultural Route Festival in 2021 and 2022.

“They just turned up and said, OK, you’re part of the Beyoğlu Cultural Route now; as far as I know, only one gallery said no,” Dikbaş said. “This kind of approach is a way of neutralizing and pacifying institutions by making them complicit.” Many of the other venues on the route were sites whose construction or redevelopment had been fiercely contested and opposed, including by art world figures and entities such as Galataport, the Taksim Mosque, Narmanlı Han, and the former Emek Cinema.

A similar cultural-rebranding initiative in the majority-Kurdish city of Diyarbakır drew protests, “but here in Istanbul we were frozen like rabbits in a flashlight beam,” said Pekünlü, who had a piece in a show that was retroactively declared part of the Beyoğlu Cultural Route. Government antagonism has “pushed artists into the same corner as institutions that don’t always show them the same solidarity,” she said.

Municipal initiatives hold out the hope of creating a middle ground between the heavy-handed cultural politics of the state and the conflict-averse private institutions. But the Istanbul Municipality’s approach, including the rapid-fire openings of new exhibition venues and what some perceive as the lack of a transparent vision and strategy for the spaces, gives some pause.

“So far, the Istanbul municipality’s programming has mirrored the mainstream art world, it hasn’t really given space to anyone who wasn’t already an actor on the scene,” artist Marina Papazyan told Hyperallergic. They and others also questioned whether more exhibition spaces are really what Istanbul’s arts community needs most amid skyrocketing rents and general economic turmoil.

“The forums showed the main problems of artists are about poverty and representation,” Papazyan said, referring to a series of discussions they recently helped coordinate in their role as a project coordinator at Depo, an Istanbul arts and culture center founded by Osman Kavala. What forum participants identified as top needs, they said, were things like studio spaces, support for independent initiatives, and policies on social security and rent control that could help working artists make a more secure living.

“All of these recently opened exhibition venues are prestige spaces you go to as a consumer: You may not have to spend money, but you are still there as a passive recipient of culture,” Begüm Özden Fırat, a professor of sociology at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, told Hyperallergic. “But culture is something that is produced daily; it requires spaces of encounter, places where people can create something together.”

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she writes about arts and culture, environmental issues, food and drink, politics and society, travel, and urbanism.