Taming of the Theater

The new regulation of Istanbul’s City Theater portrays a deepening political and ideological approach to administration of art via public funds.

After 40 years of dedicated work, Ayse Nil Samlioglu decided to hand in her resignation. Having worked at top posts of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s City Theater and being its art director since 3 years, Samlioglu was compled to resign; accomponied by the rest of the six administrative board members of the institution and the art advisor of the mayor.

The resignations were based upon justified reaction. Curators, artists, playwrights, directors, and actors gave way to reaction too. It was a decision by the Assembly Commission of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) just before the end of the theater season, that stirred up the reaction among the metropolis’ art community. Subsequent to the polemics conducted around the “obscenity in theater” issue, Municipality decided to amendment the regulatory framework of City Theater of Istanbul. It is clear that the amendments aim to restructure both the understanding of art, and the administration of the institution itself. Restructuring will give theater, as a form of art, the task of conserving traditional values, thus restrict the freedom of art.

Governed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) IBB added to the legal framework of City Theater a controversial sentence. Under the new legislation the the extended mission of City Theater was “…to ensure that the general ethic values of the society shall be attended to”. Such an abstract definition is very precarious as ethics is a very ambiguous, thus controversial concept. More over, when one looks to the history of Istanbul’s City Theater, it can be clearly observed that all the works introduced to the public persistently abided to the principles of enriching the society mentally and spiritually by taking the artistic approach and aesthetic values as a basis. It should not be ignored that along with the foregoing mission, the City Theater also assumes the functions of endearing art for the young generations, introducing the best examples of the West and the East, and setting an example of critical thinking.

The City Theater has involved both the traditional and the contemporary in its repertory in a very balanced manner. Is it possible that an artistic institution funded by public means and which is to celebrate soon its 100th year spanning from Ottoman to contemporary times is not aware of its responsibilities towards the society it serves? Why is the Mayor concerned?

The composition of City Theater’s board is the most critical move by the mayor. In the previous regulation before the new amendments, the Board of Directors was composed of six seats: the General Art Director who is also the chairperson, Theater Manager who is an artist elected by the Mayor, two members from the Municipality or City Theater staff, and two members elected by the artists. However according to the new regulation the board will be mainly composed of municipal bureaucrats and political figures. The Assistant General Secretary of IBB will chair the board. The board will be composed of the Head of Art Department of IBB, General Art Director, City Theater Manager, three members as elected by the Mayor.

A clear bureaucratic and political dominance is created regarding the administration and execution of art.

According to the previous regulation, the Literary Board could only make suggestions to the Board of Directors during the election of the plays to be staged during a season. However, according to the new regulation, the plays to be staged will be determined by the Literary Board which is composed of the head of theater department of IBB, as the chair person, General Art Director, Theater Manager, an officer representing the Administration, and three members as appointed by the Mayor. The General Art Director will create the repertory from this collection.

Reading these amendments one can easily understand why the artists are furious. A clear bureaucratic and political dominance is created regarding the administration and execution of art.

Further more the amendments were made without informing stakeholders. Art Consultant of the Mayor, General Art Director and the Board of Directors, not tom mention other stakeholders, were informed after the regulation was amended, making it a fait accompli.

It is true that Istanbul’s City Theater administration can be updated and revised to make it more productive. Financial and administrative affairs can be conducted better by professional. Yet this does not mean that bureaucrats and political connections should never be allowed to have a predominant say in the artistic affairs. However it should be noted that in the current organization, the Theater Manager is already a bureaucrat, and that the perception that the institution is totally ‘unattended’, as stated by the mayor, is wrong.

Here, a clear distinction should be made. The protests do not mean that the institution should have an autonomous structure or that an autonomous structure, which is not the current case, should be advocated. Naturally this cannot be anticipated for an institution that is established and administered entirely by public funds. However, the motivation behind the reactions is to protect the autonomy of art, and to enable artists expressing their creativity independent from politics and without sticking to the ideology of rulers.

“City Theaters Cannot be Destroyed” is the slogan consumed by a wide variety of art lovers in social media. The concerns of Istanbul’s art community will definitely not be mitigated by the fact that a new General Art Director was immediately appointed after Samlioglu’s resignation. It is doubtful that the new General Art Director, with hands tied, will be effective in administrating.

The only purpose is to protect the autonomy of art, and to enable artists expressing their creativity independent from politics and without sticking to the ideology of rulers.

Soon the scope of the debate about handing the administration of Istanbul’s City Theaters to bureaucrats will be widened and its depth extended. It is also expectable that soon the mayor will propose to shut down City Theater and State Theaters. Recently Prime Minister Erdogan said in one of his inter-party speeches that the Municipal Theaters should be privatized.

We would always be a firm supporter and spectator of art, who seeks to attain to the good and the beautiful. We will not act as mere bystanders as our constitutional rights and freedoms have not been acquired easily. Today we keep our hopes high that the curtains will be opened under bright light the upcoming season.