From art exhibitions to drama performances, opera to jazz, there seem to be a host of artistic and cultural events going on; but in this huge city of 16 million people it is easy to go about your daily business and not notice that there is anything different about this year.
I visited Glasgow, in Scotland, a few decades ago when it was the capital of culture. It seemed that everywhere I went there were free activities. Jugglers and stilt-walkers entertaining children in the park, poetry recitals in cafes by the waterside, art exhibitions on tram platforms; it was almost as if Glasgow, inspired by its rival's annual festival, had taken the Edinburgh Festival and multiplied it and stretched it to last a whole year.
Hearing that İstanbul was to be the European Capital of Culture in 2010 I became excited, expecting something similar. In fact, the reality has turned out to be very different, but still a worthwhile experience for those who have been able to participate.
On one level, the İstanbul 2010 activities have not had such a striking effect on the streets of the city. Music and arts have not spilled out on to the streets. But a large number of monuments around town are undergoing a face-lift. Much needed renovations and restorations to towers, mosques, fountains and walls and general tidying up of the squares surrounding them and their entrance ways have been going on all over the city.
İstanbul needs investment in its arts, but it also needed investment in its arts infrastructure to enable future performances and exhibitions to take place. Karaköy now has a new art gallery, sharing its car park with İstanbul Modern, for housing top exhibitions. The nearby Ottoman fountain stands redecorated, with its original patterns shining for all to see. Neighboring Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque is shrouded in black webbing, the facing of its dome in various stages of being resurfaced, and its stonework various shades of color from black with grim to freshly cleaned sandstone. The awning hanging o
utside has a few pictures of what the finished work will look like -- all funded with İstanbul 2010 money. Living on the Asian side, it is easy to feel unaffected by all of the activities. We have a few Ottoman palaces, some great parks and a couple of municipal concert halls and of course the newly refurbished Süreyya Opera House in Kadıköy, but for the main part all of the museums and art galleries and international concert venues are on the European side of the city.
But a quick investigation of the İstanbul 2010 website or the activity calendars printed in newspapers or Turkish Airlines' (THY) in-flight magazine shows that a lot is going on if you look in the right direction or happen to be in the right place at the right time. For example, just for today, 57 activities are listed in the calendar.
Amongst other things, you can:
•Attend an Ali Ufki concert at Sepetçiler Kasrı
•View an exhibition about the Greek Architecture of İstanbul at the Greek Consulate
•See statues in Balat
•Watch a film about Holy Days in İstanbul at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall
•Send your kids to a workshop at Sulukule
Oh, and, if you're on the Asian side, there is a "Record Construct" exhibition at Kartal and the FISA World Rowing Championship at Caddebostan. Maybe those going to the Boat Show at Pendik will swing by on their way?
To celebrate the city in its year of culture, Boyut have published a handy pocket-sized guide: "European Capital of Culture, İstanbul." Like all Boyut guides, one of its strengths is the striking number of color photographs that adorn every page, giving just the right flavor and catching the readers' interest.
As well as the classical information about İstanbul's history, its uniqueness as a city built on two continents and the usual list of restaurants, Boyut's authors have focused on issues of interest to the cultural tourist.
Sections are devoted to pavilions and palaces, museums, statues and monuments, fountains and cisterns, religions and cultures and parks, gardens and squares.
Wise advice is given to tourists who may underestimate the size of the city and the difficulty of getting around the parts of it where roads become clogged. "The city is so huge that the best practice is to determine two or three targets and having occasional breaks in between them to enjoy the city." In other words, Rome wasn't built in a day and don't expect to explore the whole of İstanbul in one day!
A section that focuses on İstanbul's strong history as a host of regular festivals gives an overview of an impressive list of art activities that form a foundation for the plethora of new activities that have sprung up for İstanbul 2010. The İstanbul Film Festival has been running since 1982, and the International İstanbul Jazz Festival and International İstanbul Biennial also started in the mid-1980s. The International İstanbul Theater Festival had its 17th outing in 2010. The International İstanbul Music Festival is older, dating from 1972.
A key section in the guide is a listing of all of the concert halls and galleries that are hosting İstanbul 2010 events, with maps of how to get to them. However, this guide has just two pages out of 146 describing what it calls the "Other Side of the Sea" -- yes, you guessed it, the Asian side gets a small look in at the end of the book, almost as an afterthought.
One of the points of the European Capital of Culture, like these international arts festival, is to make art and culture accessible and affordable for the masses. There are some surprising comments in the "Culture and Art" section that seem to come from a position of a young child trying to convince an older sibling they should be allowed to come and join in an outing with them: "It is hard to say that 'the education and culture level' is at the same level with Western cities, in the demography. But the 'intelligentsia' is strong enough to be dominant in the cultural life of the city. Or, 'the intellectuals of İstanbul' are not only in 'art/literature areas,' they are represented in many areas. For instance, most of 'the businessmen at the top' are the active elements of this 'intelligentsia.' İstanbul is organizing most of the festivals that has [sic] universal prestige owing to their efforts."
This is the type of attitude that views the arts as being for the rich and educated, rather than for the masses, and which thankfully we have seen broken down in Europe over the last few decades as, for example, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors brought opera out of the sheltered cloisters of Opera Houses and the Glyndebourne Festival to World Cup football theme tunes and concerts in stadia. The century-old Last Night of the Proms festival in the Royal Albert Hall, London is now attended by masses as it is beamed live to sites around the country: first of all in Hyde Park, but now in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too, showing that even classical events have a wide appeal.
Plus art and culture need to represent a whole culture, not just that of a few. Some great art is created by the establishment. Other great art is created as a reaction against the establishment, a grassroots movement with freedom of expression breaking out of strict moulds. Let's hope many İstanbulites getting a taste of art and culture this year will discover its relevance for them and that this will result in a lasting legacy for the city from 2010.
MARION JAMES İSTANBUL- CIHAN