Şakir Eczacıbaşı

One of Istanbul’s ‘monuments’ to art and culture, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

A city is more than its history and natural setting. A city is also its art and culture, which constitute its spirit. And the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) has been a prominent part of the spirit of Istanbul for 35 years. Because it has consistently raised its standards as it developed both itself and us, never compromising the quality of the festivals and other activities to which it contributes. Because it has brought us the cultural traditions and achievements of other countries. Because it is one of the things that make Istanbul a better place... Recently we listened to the story of its founding and its goals and projects straight from Şakir Eczacıbaşı himself, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

This year’s International Istanbul Biennale had a catchy slogan, “Not only possible, but also necessary”. That slogan took me back to the establishment of the Foundation. Thirty-five years ago it was just a dream. How, with what purpose, was the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts founded?
Istanbul is a cultural capital. Capital city of three empires and a bridge between two continents. Yet, in the 60s and 70s, apart from some government-backed initiatives, there were precious few cultural activities in this city so rich in culture. Indeed there were none at all of an international nature. So, the country’s prominent figures in art and culture came together under the leadership of Nejat Eczacıbaşı and arrived at the following conclusion: “We give very little to this city, which has given us so much with its culture, history and natural setting. We will never make headway in any branch of the arts until we open up Istanbul, and therefore Turkey, to the outside world and make the artists and art-lovers of Turkey aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world. International festivals could be the shortest path to this goal. In this way Turkey will gradually open up, developing communications in art and culture with other countries, and orienting itself towards integration with the world.” And that is how the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts came into being and staged its first concert in 1973 on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Republic. It was called the Istanbul Festival then and was oriented primarily towards classical music.

But then the number of festivals gradually began to increase…
Yes. Due to the great interest that was shown, the Foundation’s founders and directors thought it appropriate to hold different festivals in the different branches of the arts. Cinema Days, for example, became the Istanbul Film Festival in 1989. The Istanbul Biennale was introduced in 1987 and the Istanbul Theater Festival in 1989. These were followed by the Istanbul Jazz Festival in 1994. A few years ago we thought it was important to organize a children’s festival in order to get children interested in the arts, and the Minifest emerged. Of course there were other initiatives as well, such as FilmOctober and the new year’s concerts. Some of the most important among them are the Turkey festivals that we have organized together with the Foreign Ministry for the purpose of promoting Turkey in Europe. In 2004 we added ‘Şimdi Now’ to our already existing activities in Berlin, and again in 2004 the Turkey Festival in Brussels. These were followed by ‘The Turks’ exhibition in London in 2005 and continued in Stuttgart. This year activities we have dubbed ‘Turkey Now’ are taking place in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, to be repeated in Vienna in 2008 and Paris in 2009. Paris’s leading museums are setting aside their largest venues for the purpose.

In your view, has the IKSV succeeded in realizing its founding purpose?
I think it has, but there is no end to doing and developing even better things. Today we put on an average of 350 shows a year. Close to 450 thousand people attend these shows, in which some 2000 foreign artists participate. As a result, each one of our festivals is among the foremost in the world in its own field. According to a study published recently on biennales, Istanbul is second among around 150 biennales in the world in terms of creativity and Venice fifth. Just think! The Venice biennale is 113 years old while we are only holding our tenth this year. In other words, we’re in our twentieth year. Yet the shows and festivals we offer Turkey’s artists and art lovers are at this level. The cost of bringing quality productions to Turkey is extremely high, and we subsidize each ticket four times over in order not to pass that cost along to the audience. We also get the requisite backing from our sponsors. In 1992 we won UNESCO’s highest award. And four years ago the European Culture Award was given to the İKSV, the first time it was awarded to an institution outside the EU. I believe this is a good indication of what we do. After all, it was as a result of all those efforts that Istanbul, as you know, has been declared the European Culture Capital in 2010. That was one of our biggest goals.

Recently you put your signature on an important social responsibility project with the Association in Support of Contemporary Life: ‘BitamBiöğrenci’. Could you tell us briefly about that project?
We would like not just people of a certain income level but all people who love the arts to take part in our activities. Particularly children and young people from less well-off families. A donation of 15 or 50 TL made when purchasing a ticket for a Foundation event will ensure that groups of three or ten students can take part as well. We would like for all groups that give importance to culture and the arts to further enhance the culture of those children and contribute to their education. People’s interests manifest themselves early in life, turning into curiosity, even passion. For this reason we are trying to make sure that children are exposed to the highest quality works of art and to great artists.

What can you tell us about the special activities planned for the 35th anniversary celebrations?
Each one of our festivals is going to celebrate the 35th anniversary with special shows. The Music Festival for example will include 23 concerts featuring over 1000 artists both Turkish and foreign. In connection with UNESCO’s declaring 2007, the 800th anniversary of his birth, the Year of Mevlânâ, a ‘Bach Divân’ concert will be given together with the Béjart Ballet Lausanne’s ‘Rumî’ dance show. We are also remembering the Turkish composer Adnan Saygun in an interesting concert on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And we will be staging other brilliant programs as well right up to the end of the year.