Istanbul Biennial Overhauls Process for Picking a Curator After Scrutiny Over 2024 Edition

The organization that facilitates the Istanbul Biennial, one of the most important recurring art exhibitions in the Middle East, has created a new structure for selecting the show’s curators, in an about-face that followed controversy over how the 2024 edition’s organizer was picked.

A statement released on Thursday by the biennial only loosely alluded to the scrutiny, which began after the Art Newspaper reported that curator Defne Ayas had been rejected in favor of Iwona Blazwick, who had been a member of the biennial’s own advisory committee. She resigned from the board around the time the report published, as did three other members.

Ayas had been unanimously endorsed by that board but, according to the Art Newspaper, she had been tossed out because the 2015 Venice Biennale Turkish Pavilion that she organized, featuring the work of Sarkis, had contained mention of the Armenian genocide, which Turkey’s government denies having happened. The catalogues were eventually taken out of circulation as a result.

“As the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV)”—the organization that manages the biennial—”we always pay close attention to opinions and commentary in the culture and art world about our activities,” the biennial’s statement said. “In this spirit, we have carefully assessed recent criticism of how we selected the curator of the 18th Istanbul Biennial.”

The biennial said that in an effort to further “the transparency and impartiality of the curatorial selection,” future curators would have to be one of the three recommended by an advisory board. But it left open the possibility that the IKSV could still shoot down that board’s suggestions, forcing them to come up with more.

“If none of the proposed curators offer an approach aligned with the Foundation’s vision, İKSV management can ask the Advisory Board to reconvene and propose different candidates,” the statement said.

“An additional change to the regulation prohibits Istanbul Biennial Advisory Board members from being invited for curatorial posts during their term of office,” it continued. “Even if they resign from the board, they cannot be considered as candidates for the biennial in question.”

Additionally, the biennial promised to finally make public the members of the 2024 edition’s advisory board—something it had done for prior shows, but not for this one, raising alarm among Turkey’s art scene. As it stands currently, Blazwick is still slated to organize the show.

The outcry over the 2024 Istanbul Biennial appears to have already had material effects on the Turkish Pavilion at the forthcoming Venice Biennale, which the IKSV also organizes.

Esra Sarıgedik Öktem was initially named as the curator of the 2024 Turkish Pavilion, a solo presentation by Gülsün Karamustafa. After reports about Ayas’s rejection from the 2024 Istanbul Biennial emerged, some pointed out that Öktem’s commercial enterprise, BüroSarigedik, also represents Karamustafa. Not long afterward, Öktem said she would step aside from the pavilion in order to “avoid any conflict of interest,” ensuring that there would be no “conflicts that may arise in ways that I cannot foresee at the moment.”

Her statement, in which she described herself as “distressed” by Ayas’s situation, did not mention the IKSV’s involvement in the pavilion.