Interview with Beral Madra, Director of BM Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul

7 Dec, 2011

Tskheli Shokoladi (Hot Chocolate) November 16, 2011, By Nino Chimakadze

Original version of the article is available in Georgian at Tskheli Shokoladi (Hot Chockolate) web site.

Last week, Beral Madra, one of the most experienced and influential art critics in Istanbul, visited Tbilisi.  Ms. Madra ran a two-day workshop organized for Georgian curators by the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF).  Beral Madra visited Georgia’s capital together with Hakan Gürsoytrak, a Turkish painter.  They reviewed problems and challenges faced by contemporary art and shared their experience of organizing exhibitions with us.  They also introduced to us trends of contemporary Turkish art and artists of the country.

Beral Madra, a founding member of the Foundation for Future Culture and Art and an independent curator, is currently the director of BM Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul.  Among her cultural projects are Turkish Pavilion at Venice Biennale in 1990-2005, the first and second Istanbul Biennales, exhibitions in Istanbul and various European countries. 

Beral Madra is also the author of a number of publications on contemporary art.

Below is the interview with Beral Madra.  We interviewed her during the workshop.

You have almost 30-year experience of working in the field.  How would you evaluate the contemporary Turkish art? What has changed?  Has the interest grown in it?

Contemporary art has developed in parallel to country’s modernization and integration into the international community. Until 1980s we had rather introvertive art scene, where only traditional painters were important artists. We did not have effective art market and many museums.   There were only state museums showcasing standard, academic art pieces.

We moved to a more liberal phase by the end of the 80s.  A new capitalist system gained a foothold in Turkey, technical progress made communication easier, which contributed to socialization. The fast pace of development was reflected in art as well: People started investing in the field.   Initially, the EU Foundation helped us a lot.  It financed a number of important projects and artists. As a result, Istanbul has turned into one of the major centers of contemporary art.   However, there are still numerous problems and funding is never sufficient.

What role has the state played in the development of contemporary art?  Is there any state strategy in this direction?

The state is not actively involved in this business.  We have two ministries working on cultural issues:  The Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs Ministry.  However they focus on tourism, cultural heritage and traditional art.  The events they provide financing for are basically rather academic and even old-fashioned sometimes.  Contemporary art has a minimal support from the state.  Unfortunately this is not on their agenda. 

However, every year Turkey hosts a number of international local events that focus on contemporary art.  Who finances all these events?

Funding is basically provided by the private sector and civil society.  For the past several years, it has become prestigious in Turkey to invest in contemporary art.  Investment helps businessmen achieve success in other businesses and strengthen their status.  Therefore some of them agree to pay a large amount of money for the organization of various exhibitions or a specific art product. But still, the production in contemporary art exceeds the volume of investment a lot.

How can we trigger businessmen’s interest in investing in contemporary art?

This is the most difficult and rather unpredictable problem.  You never know who will do what and who will invest in the project. A universal method does not exist; this depends on the psychological interaction between a businessman and a curator as well as the curator’s influence and experience, his/her ability to convince this person of benefits of investing in this business.

How do artists support themselves? What is the source of their daily income except for exhibitions organized from time to time and sold pieces of work?

They work as teachers, graphic designers and have other jobs.  It is rather difficult to support yourself financially just by selling your works. Some of them may prove lucky enough to establish themselves in the local art market, or rather rarely get access to international buyers. Sometimes they get involved in different commercial art projects, which might not interest them very much but the remuneration received from the project allows them to implement their own original and less commercial projects. 

How popular and sellable is contemporary art in Turkey now?  Are there any collectors that have a deep understanding of the field? 

Contemporary art is becoming gradually popular.   For example, 5 years ago, collectors would buy only traditional paintings, but now they appreciate modern art as well.   I know that some of them even buy video works. Photos and installations also enjoy popularity.

You have been a curator of two Istanbul Biennales.  What is your experience?  How did you seek funding?

Biennale is also a privately financed event. Numerous foundations are involved in the process.  They collect sponsors and seek companies that will invest in the project.  You should find at least one long-term sponsor, which will invest in the business for several years. For example, this year, we have signed a contract due on 2016 with one company.  In case of biennale, international support is important either.  Countries that participate in the biennale also finance their own artists.  Everything depends mostly on a curator and his/her skillfulness. 

Would you tell us about the contemporary art in Turkey? Is social and political context felt in it? 

Of course the things are changing very fast and we face a number of challenges every day.  Art is not detached from current developments. However, young people are a bit apolitical, they have grown up in a different environment and have an experience which is different from that of their parents. Their parents were put in jail due to their political beliefs.  Young people have not suffered from any such traumas. Traumas they suffer from are more global than local: terrorism, ecological problems, wars… therefore global problems dominate over local ones in their works.  However, it is clear that Turkey is still facing a number of acute problems, including issues like discrimination of women and violence against them, sexual, religious or other minorities, which have yet to be settled.  Certainly, these topics are reflected more or less in artists’ works. For example, very often woman artists create works on gender issues and women’s right.  Violence against women and their second-rate role in society come in for criticism in their performance.

One of the most important problems Georgia faces is the lack of art galleries meeting modern standards.   How about Turkey? 

There are a number of galleries in Istanbul meeting most modern standards and requirements. These are basically private galleries.   Their infrastructure meets all contemporary art requirements.  As for state galleries, they do not meet these standards.  They host mainly traditional art exhibitions. 

What could you say about contemporary art schools in Istanbul?  Is it possible to get a good education in contemporary art? 

Many higher educational institutions have modern art schools.  I cannot say, however that there are many good specialists in the field.  Many academicians and professors fail to keep up with the pace of development, this depends on a person, his/her skills and knowledge. In some cases you may be lucky enough to get a good education, but this is not always so, therefore, many young people go abroad to study.  For example, many young people have gone to Europe by the Erasmus program. A large number of these people come back to Turkey and continue working in the country.

What advice would you give to Georgian artists and curators?

They should often attend various workshops and training sessions.  This is a very good opportunity to meet new people and build contacts.  Exchanging ideas, wishes and experience is rather important in the field.  I would advice Georgian artists and curators to have close contacts with the Istanbul art scene because it is the closest major art market for Georgia.  Having relationships with the Moscow art market is also important. Probably, Berlin is the best place from European cities.  They should actively send their PDF presentations to curators in different countries.  They should take all advantages offered by modern technologies to build contacts and promote their products. Networking is one of the most important processes in the business.  How should others know they create anything if they do not show and introduce their works to anyone?