Monday 13 January 2014

Guest post: "Artistic vision and economic patronage", by Filiz Ova-Karaoglu (Turkey)

When I first met Filiz and heard her presenting her work, I remember I smiled. Although quiet and rather reserved, she seemed to be bursting with ideas and looked like if she didn´t know how to deal with them all, what to do about them. In this post she writes about her work at the Is Sanat Concert Hall, funded by the Is Sanat Bank. Balances are not easy to maintain, especially at times like this, but Filiz is creating a path, constantly learning, constantly experimenting, clear about her goals. mv 

Buika Symphonic on 24 May 2013 (Photo: Ilgın Yanmaz)
Financial difficulties in cultural institutions are an ever-present topic in our business. Especially in countries where cultural philanthropy is still a matter of private institutions mostly, with scarcely any support from the government. Even the most successful pioneers of the art profession are not always economically eloquent. We often tend to forget we run a business, even though, as nonprofit organizations, we need to keep our institutions moving. Just recently we witnessed a forerunner in the culture and arts scene of Turkey almost losing their building due to a big hole of depths. Saved by their founders – a large family corporation – at the last minute before losing a wonderful building, the question being how much involvement economic institutions should have in the culture and arts: should they remain as the provider or directly interfere into our work?

The increasing involvement of corporations directly into the cultural institutions doesn’t seem so far-fetched. No longer acting as the sponsor, kept as a distant friend invited to join the party, but as an essential part of our strategic planning and decision-making.  In an environment of a booming cultural industry with huge investments in different art genres, from modern art galleries to museums, multi-stage concert and performance spaces to arenas, the question is if arts professionals have enough know-how in economic, sociological and marketing issues? Do we need to?

Yes, indeed. I see a model where the direct involvement into the economic and marketing strategies is a vital point and a great advantage. Being sponsored by a large corporation, and at the same time being part of their internal structure, does bring along a stable sustainable structure of marketing and communication strategies that strengthen and allow to adapt to the changing environment, sociologically, strategically and economically. Although this may include a dependency on certain corporation doctrines and expectations, I think we can make a compromise as long as our artistic wok can flow freely. These doctrines do not have to be restrictive necessarily. There are excellent examples, such as the successfully delivered International Istanbul Biennial which, no doubt, acts among the most courageous, most innovative and forerunning in its field at an international level. Already addressing a delicate socio-cultural topic, especially the last edition has faced a very difficult socio-political reality and Zeitgeist in Turkey.

Still I would separate a mere sponsoring relationship from an interacting business relationship. I would see the sponsoring kind as an external support into an existing artistic viewpoint, whereas within an interacting business relationship a coherent artistic vision is developed. By no means should this be based on any kind of commercial success related principals, although we have to oversee our feasibility. Since it takes time and patience, especially if the artistic institution is build up at a time and within an environment that has not yet proven itself as a proper ground for anything, but a profitable space for a business center. A new initiative, with no guarantee of success, needs patience but above all a vision based on a solid mission. Although we can not record very large numbers, luckily there are a few examples in different fields, such as art galleries, museums and performance spaces. 

L.A. Dance Project, 10 May 2013 (Photo: Ilgın Yanmaz)
Adopting a long-term vision based on principles of sustainability results in a stable institution that is rooted on a solid commercial and artistic ground. If this could be combined to go hand in hand with creativity and artistic freedom, we would be in a perfect world of artistic Utopia. But still, there are working models. Is Sanat was founded in 2000 as a concert space that would gather different culture and arts genres under one roof. Since then, it has hosted a large variety of artistic genres, from classical music to jazz, world music, children’s activities, poetry recitals, traditional Turkish music, pop, acoustic rock concerts, a series for young emerging artists and more. The space also includes an Art Gallery hosting four retrospective exhibitions each year. As a forerunner in an area, which has become one of the most popular business and shopping districts in the city, with emerging new arts institutions and a variety of cultural events, it remains the only institution of its kind in many ways until today.

Based on certain principals that were set out during the foundation of our institution, in coherence with our patron’s doctrines of sustainability and long livedness, being the artistic team, we develop a package, an artistic ‘cocoon’ around these principles, which we offer our patrons as a suggestion, which they are kind enough to accept. In return we develop the right strategies for our ‘artistic cocoon’ including marketing, communication. It is a mutual interacting, a model of giving and taking from each other. In this respect, openness to change is an important factor of our work. We re-invented ourselves in many ways during the years. Witnessing the changing demography of our audiences led us to include new genres into our program, such as children’s theatre, a Rising Stars series or acoustic Rock concerts, which proved successful after a certain period of time. But again, they needed time to evolve and set. Together we embrace a changing artistic, economic and social environment year after year. Staying true to our principals we evolve and grow. Next year Is Sanat is celebrating its 15th year within this model of collaboration. As we are constantly evolving, we never know if this will not change. But for us it has proven successful for the last 14 years and we can only hope that there are many years to come.

When reviewing this article, my dear colleague and friend Maria, who kindly asked me to write for her blog, rightfully asked: “If we as arts professionals need to gain interest and know-how in economics, do the corporations which participate into our work need to know about art?” I would argue that an understanding of the artistic content is required for sure. But if communicated thoroughly and correctly by the artistic team, this should not cause a problem. As mentioned above, as our artistic work has  flown freely and we have been working around the artistic concept, in our case we have witnessed that most of our strategies work well. It has not been flawless and within the years we have faced obstacles in understanding each other. After 14 years, however, we have grown into a unity.

Filiz Ova-Karaoglu is the artistic director of Is Sanat Concert Hall. Is Sanat is a 800 capacity concert and performance hall hosting a 7-month seasonal program providing a wide range of performances, from classical music to jazz, world music, Turkish music, modern dance, children activities and many more. Working as Is Sanat’s Assistant Director since 2008, Filiz Ova-Karaoglu was appointed Artistic Director in January 2013. She holds an M.A. in Art History and American Studies from Eberhard Karls University Tubingen, where she continues to pursue her Ph.D. studies. She is currently also a Summer Fellow at the DeVos institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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