Bülent Eczacıbaşı: from medicine to nourishment for the soul

Bülent Eczacıbaşı: from medicine to nourishment for the soul

Joshua Bruce Allen
November 07, 2016

The Eczacıbaşı family’s rise to fame began 100 years ago in İzmir, where Süleyman Ferit gained the surname - meaning head pharmacist - for his high-quality medicines. His grandson, Bülent Eczacıbaşı, is chairman of Eczacıbaşı Holding, one of Turkey’s largest industrial groups. But among many Istanbul residents, the Eczacıbaşı name is better known for patronage of the city’s cultural scene, from Istanbul Modern to the Istanbul Biennial and annual music, theater, jazz, and film festivals.​

Bülent Eczacıbaşı - photo by Muhsin AkgünThe Guide Istanbul (TGI): For you, what is it about Istanbul that makes it such a strong player in the cultural life of the region and the world?

Bülent Eczacıbaşı (BE): There are a number of factors, but two are especially important, I think. On the one hand, Istanbul is an ancient, historical city, with an intricate cultural heritage that spans millennia. This was brought to everyone’s attention just a few years back, when they discovered Neolithic remains at the Yenikapı port, when digging the Marmaray tunnel. Relics and structures from numerous civilizations past and present can be found all over the city, but equally important – though less noticed – is the influence of diverse civilizations on the city’s culture, art and crafts.​

On the other hand, Istanbul is also a young city – a dynamic, crazily crowded, flourishing center of contemporary culture, and art production. Just look at the large number of galleries and museums that have opened in recent years, or the theater groups making a name for themselves internationally. The same goes for culture and art venues: every month there’s a new venue and every day there are concerts and performances around the city. As the world has learned, Istanbul is home to some of the region’s most important culture and art festivals and biennials.​

So the magic formula, if you wish, is that Istanbul combines a rich cultural past with an immense potential and dynamism in the present. And, of course, we should add that our city also has a stunning location, situated as it is along the Bosphorus. There are very few cities worldwide that have all these attributes.​

TGI: In contrast, what does Istanbul still need to reach its full cultural potential?

BE: We urgently need to provide more nourishment to local creativity, whether that be financially, educationally, or by providing more space for creative production and exhibition. Our young society has the creative potential to shape global movements, but it can only do so if we provide much needed incentives and support. As such, it’s extremely important that public and private institutions make culture and arts one of their top priorities, if Istanbul is to achieve its potential in this regard. Public opinion is also a crucial factor, of course. We need to achieve that critical mass of public opinion that kick-starts the virtuous cycle of investment, cultural production and greater demand for culture and the arts. I’d like to believe we’re almost there.​

TGI: The Eczacıbaşı Group began as a pharmaceutical business, but later the family founded several large non-profit art institutions. Other than a love of art, what is the motivation that keeps you organizing cultural events every year?

BE: Love of art is, of course, essential. But equally important is the view that culture and the arts have a critical role to play in social and economic development. The Istanbul Music Festival, which gave rise to the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), was established by my father, Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı, who loved music – especially classical music. He earnestly believed that Turkey had much to learn from the universal values of music and that greater understanding and appreciation could best be encouraged through live performances by the world’s best musicians.​

Over time, İKSV extended this mission to other art branches, so that we now have film, theater, and jazz festivals as well as the Istanbul Music Festival and two biennials: the Istanbul Biennial and the Design Biennial. In each of these, we try to create encounters between local and universal values, as well as traditional and contemporary values; to inspire creative and critical thinking and cultural self-awareness; and to position Istanbul among the world’s foremost capitals of culture and the arts.​

TGI: And how did Istanbul Modern come into being?

BE: My father also initiated what later became the Eczacıbaşı Group’s collection of modern art from Turkey. Over time, and with many new acquisitions, this collection simply became too large to remain a private, corporate collection. Like many collectors, we began to look for ways to share our collection with the public. At that time, now 30-40 years ago, it was already clear to us that a major city like Istanbul couldn’t be without a museum of modern art.​

What I’m about to say is hopefully obvious to everyone now, but at the time, we were only just beginning to understand the central role that museums play in culture and the arts – not just through exhibiting art, but also in creating a common memory of its heritage and evolution, establishing the benchmarks and turning points of its history, imagining its future potential… Equally important, museums have a central role to play in introducing this story and the great variety and talent of our artists to the world.​

Istanbul Modern

I know it will seem unimaginable now, in light of the large number of museums and galleries that Istanbul has today, but until the foundation of the Istanbul Modern in December 2004, there was no place to send international visitors who were interested in the evolution of Turkey’s modern and contemporary art. In any case, the Eczacıbaşı Group essentially took on the responsibility of solving this problem in the early 1980s. Oya, my wife, spent about two decades looking for a suitable venue, finding sponsors, and preparing the human resources needed for such a new venture. Finally in December 2004, with the critical support of the Istanbul Municipality and a number of individuals and institutions, we were able to open Turkey’s first museum focused exclusively on modern and contemporary art.​

TGI: Which events have made you most proud since becoming İKSV chairman in 2010, and why?

BE:  It’s exciting to be actively involved in the organization of İKSV events: you witness first-hand how much you can achieve with a limited budget, how you shape the public’s perception of culture and arts, and how great an effort İKSV staff put into each event. If I must specify a particular event, I would say the Istanbul Design Biennial and the Turkey Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I’ve been an active member of the Istanbul Design Biennial team from the beginning, when it was just an idea we were throwing around. We held our first Design Biennial in 2012 and the event has become one of the most talked-about design biennials worldwide.​

With respect to the Turkey Pavilion, I’m proud that İKSV was able to obtain support to establish a permanent exhibition space for Turkey at the Venice Biennale. With the generous contributions of 21 institutions, we obtained a year-round venue in one of the most interesting buildings at the Biennale, the Sale d’Armi, Arsenale, for the duration of 20 years. As a result, we’re able to exhibit at the International Architectural Exhibition as well. I’m pleased İKSV has led a project that again highlights to an international audience our country’s tremendous creative capacity.​

Bülent Eczacıbaşı - photo by Muhsin Akgün

TGI: Can we expect any new plans for İKSV or Istanbul Modern in the near future? For example, has the museum found a new location for itself if the Galata Port project goes ahead?

BE: İKSV has a powerful structure in terms of culture and the arts but, for our long-term future, we need to strengthen our financial structure further. That’s why one of our top priorities in the period ahead is completing work aimed at achieving that. Afterwards, we can set our sights as far upward and forward as we like.​

When it comes to Istanbul Modern, we’re focused now on organizing our cultural and art activities in such a way as to minimize the effect of the temporary move on our program and audiences. This means carefully considering all aspects of the museum’s activities each time we make a decision, which is quite complex and time-consuming. But we must do it that way, because the decisions we make will affect all of Istanbul, even future generations. Our goal is to ensure Istanbul has a world-class museum building that befits the city’s unique architectural heritage.​

TGI: The number of private museums and galleries in Istanbul has increased greatly in the last twenty years. How do you expect the city’s cultural scene to evolve in future?

BE: You’re absolutely right, the last two decades have seen serious interest, excitement and investment in the arts. Witnessing this transformation and taking responsibility is of course very gratifying. But it still isn’t enough. If we compare ourselves with Europe, we’re only at the beginning of the journey. Investment in culture and the arts needs to be steady, stable, and long-term. Individuals and institutions that pledge to support the arts need to realize it’s a long-term commitment. The art world today requires international collaboration and international visibility, and that requires steady funding.​

Don’t forget that we’re not alone in the emerging art world. Many countries realize now that investments in culture and the arts contribute to strategic competitive advantage. At the same time, you don’t need to be a genius to see that the culture and arts industry in Turkey is bound to continue leaping forward due to its large, young, urban population. Turkey has remarkable potential in this regard, as we discussed earlier, but we need carefully devised projects, well-targeted investment and greater public awareness and interest.​

TGI: With the Kanyon shopping center, the Eczacıbaşı Group contributed to Istanbul’s architectural landscape as well. In terms of architectural beauty, what are your favorite buildings in the city?

BE: There are innumerable buildings in Istanbul that fall into the category of outstanding works of architecture, but I’ll have to admit I have two favorites: Mimar Sinan’s Süleymaniye Mosque and the Manifaturacılar Çarşısı [The Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market, a modernist piece of architecture known today mainly as İMÇ] in its original design by architects Doğan Tekeli, Sami Sisa and Metin Hepgüler, before changes and additions were made in the 1980s.​

TGI: You’re obviously a busy man, but let’s say that you have an empty day in Istanbul. How would you spend it?

BE: If I had an empty day, I’d have a nice long breakfast at home and then, depending on the season, I’d do some sports – either swimming or skiing. After lunch, I’d go to a museum or gallery and then, after dinner in some quiet locale, I’d go to a concert or the theater. I have to say, even dreaming about this is fun.​

TGI: Do you have a favorite dining spot?

BE: For me, eating out in Istanbul means eating fish. Usually I choose a fish restaurant, and there are countless restaurants to choose from. On the other hand, we mustn’t forget the outstanding kebab restaurants in our city, either. Hmm, hard choice…​

TGI: If you were showing a visitor around the city, what lesser-known sights or things to try would you recommend?

BE: With their unique panoramic views, some of my favorite lesser-known spots in the city are Yuşa Hill, the hill above Beykoz, Aya Yorgi Church and its environs on Büyükada, and Mihrabat Park on the hill above Kanlıca.