x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Istanbul sees rocky start to year of culture

As Turkey's largest city prepares to be named a European Capital of Culture, officials are already dealing with complaints.

ISTANBUL // As Turkey's biggest and best-known metropolis prepares to take on the title of European Capital of Culture for 2010, the project that was supposed to present the city as a vibrant centre for the arts on the international stage has been dogged by accusations of corruption and incompetence.

"Istanbul is a great capital of culture and civilisation," Yilmaz Kurt, the secretary general of the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency, said in a statement. Turkey's biggest city shares the title of European Capital of Culture with Pecs, Hungary, and Essen, Germany. The Capital of Culture programme is a project by the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. The programme gives a city or region the chance to showcase its cultural life during a calendar year. In some cities, the title led to a sharp rise in the number of visitors and in income.

For Istanbul's tenure as European Capital of Culture, which will be officially kicked off on January 16, organisers have chosen 467 projects out of more than 2,000 proposals, according to the latest count posted on the agency's website. Projects and events range from restoration works on landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace to modern dance performances, films, exhibitions and a concert by U2. One of the highlights is the opening of a "Museum of Innocence" next July. The museum takes its name from a novel by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's only Nobel laureate, and will present everyday items from life in Istanbul in past decades, especially in the 1970s.

With a budget of roughly 375 million lira (Dh911m) and a city full of historical landmarks, cultural symbols of several world religions - assets that Pecs and Essen can hardly match - as well as a bustling modern art and music scene, organisers say they want to present Istanbul as the "most inspiring city of the world". The programme is structured around the four elements, earth, air, water and fire.

Ahmet Emre Bilgili, the director of Istanbul's culture and tourism department, said the city's historic centre around Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque would play a special role. The 1,500- year-old Hagia Sophia, built as a church, later turned into a mosque and used as a museum today, and the Topkapi Palace, the former seat of Ottoman sultans, attracted 90 per cent of museum visitors in the city, he said. But Mr Bilgili said that authorities were trying to steer people to other places in the old town as well in 2010. "We do not want people to only spend time in museums," he told Turkey's Anadolu news agency this week. "This is an open air museum. We want people to see everything."

Officials have talked about attracting up to 10 million tourists to Istanbul in 2010, after an estimated 7.5 million this year. With Istanbul, renowned for its beautiful setting on the Bosphorus straight that marks the border between Europe and Asia, already a magnet for visitors from all over the world, that expectation does not seem unrealistic. Despite all the cultural treasures of the city, Istanbul's road to 2010 has been a rocky one.

Last spring, several leading members of the organising agency for the European Capital of Culture programme resigned. Press reports, citing investigations by the government in Ankara, said there had been clear evidence of corruption. In one case, more than 100,000 lira were earmarked for a brochure on cultural tourism that had cost around 20,000 lira in previous years, the reports said. Cetin Soysal, an opposition deputy representing Istanbul in parliament in Ankara, said other decisions by the agency also looked odd. As an example, he cited the proposal to send primary school teachers to specialised courses aimed at waking the interest of schoolchildren for museums. The project called for a budget of about 626,000 lira, but the agency wanted to pay 2.1 million Lira for it. "For this project, even 626,000 is too much," Mr Soysal told reporters in October. "It is not clear which schools and which teachers" will benefit, he added. "There is no control mechanism."

Accusations that money for the Cultural Capital initiative, mostly raised by an extra fuel tax, has been wasted by mismanagement are not the only complaints voiced against the organising agency. Nuri Kaya, an artist whose proposal for an exhibition was turned down by the organising committee, accused the agency of first telling him that his project would go ahead but then breaking its word, leaving him saddled with costs of 100,000 Lira he had raised on his own to start organising the exhibition. Critics have also said that the programme put too much stress on preserving old cultural sites, instead of presenting contemporary art.

The agency has rejected the accusations. Sekib Avdagic, the agency's chairman, suggested that some of the complaints came from people whose projects had been rejected. "There are statements from some friends whose proposals were turned down that do not reflect the truth," he said. He also accused critics of vastly exaggerating the agency's budget. Email:tseibert@thenational.ae