Artists displaying a banner which translates as \'Hey Sultan, take your hands off theatre\'
Moves by Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government to privatise state-owned theatres have enraged secular-minded artists, who fear the move will be a “death warrant” for the arts.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan has argued that theatres are not in state hands in almost any developed country. Sahin Erguney, head of the State Theater Artists’ Association, has warned that ending their funding will turn Turkey into a cultural desert.
Erguney’s association is one of several groups that signed a statement opposing any sell-off and staged demonstrations in main cities.
He said he was defending state-owned theaters, which put on 5,000-6,000 performances annually, reaching out to people in almost every corner of the country. There are 58 state theatres in Turkey employing some 700 people, mostly in big cities including Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Private theatres also benefit from some state funding.
In 2012, the Culture Ministry allocated close to 140 million liras ($63 million) for state theatres and in 2011 some 3.5 million liras for private theatres.
The row is the latest in a series of clashes between the government and the country’s secularists.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has already introduced major changes in the education system, allowing children as young as 10 to attend religious schools.
The whole row started after Istanbul’s AKP Mayor Kadir Topbas recently amended the regulations of the city theatres to name civil servants to their administration.
That was interpreted as ruling party interference in the arts, but Erdogan backed the initiative, further antagonising the performers by accusing them of arrogance.
“For God’s sake,” he told his opponents, “I am asking who are you? Are theatres your monopoly in this country? Are the arts your monopoly?”
Hundreds of actors and actresses demonstrated in Ankara and in Istanbul earlier this month, unfurling banners reading, “Hey, Sultan. Take your hands off the theatres.”
“We are theatre players enjoying intellectual and artistic freedom,” said Tamer Levent, head of the Theatre, Opera and Ballet Members Foundation. “We are creators. Our freedom to perform art cannot be restricted. The prime minister has launched a lynching campaign against us.”
“If there is a need for support, then we as the government can sponsor plays that we want,” Erdogan replied, sparking accusations of censorship.
Artists said the government was seeking to promote “conservative art” in line with its political and ideological agenda.
“This is serious censorship,” said Erguney. “Throughout history, ruling powers disturbed by opposition within the arts have attempted to get them under control, but the arts can never go into a government’s control.”
Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay has stayed out of the war of words.
But he offered some reassurance, saying that arts and artists were under the protection of the constitution. Gunay’s office was not available for further comment.