The Istanbul Biennial, one of the European art world’s major events, was thrown into disarray on Friday when its lead curator stepped down and the event was postponed until 2025.
Divisions in the art world over the biennial’s choice of Iwona Blazwick, a British curator, to oversee the event had made it “impossible” for the show to open as planned in September, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which organizes the biennial, said in a news release.
A spokeswoman for the foundation said in a telephone interview that Blazwick had resigned after reaching the decision to postpone.
A furor around the exhibition has been building for months. Before taking on the role of lead curator, Blazwick had been a member of a four-person advisory panel that considered applications for the job and which initially recommended that Defne Ayas, a Turkish curator, should oversee the next edition, its 18th. But the biennial’s organizers rejected that choice and, in August, announced instead that Blazwick herself would be in charge.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts did not respond to an emailed inquiry about why it had rejected Ayas, but art world insiders have theorized that it was because her selection would have been politically inflammatory in Turkey. In 2015, Ayas curated the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Pavilion’s catalog included a brief reference to the Armenian genocide — the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Turkey denies that the genocide occurred.
Blazwick, a high-profile figure in the contemporary art world, who ran the Whitechapel Gallery in London for 20 years, must have seemed like a safer pair of hands, with experience in Europe and the Middle East that suits Istanbul’s position at that crossroads. She is also the chair of a royal commission in Saudi Arabia charged with developing public art projects in the country.
But after Blazwick’s appointment, The Art Newspaper reported the conditions of her selection, including the sidelining of Ayas, and Turkish artists began criticizing the organizer’s actions.
In October, dozens of artists who had participated in previous editions of the biennial signed an online petition calling for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts to overhaul its curatorial selection process. “Who is the decision-maker at the Istanbul Biennial?” the petition asked. “What are the criteria and ethical guidelines for the selection process?”
Within days, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts announced that it would make the selection process more transparent for future editions and would only choose among candidates recommended by its advisory board. Despite that promise, four Turkish artists who had been invited to take part in the biennial announced later that month in an Instagram post that they were declining the invitation because the event no longer represented “a favorable ground for art production and sharing.”
The Istanbul Biennial, which was started in 1987 and takes place in venues across the city, has been increasing in prominence since the early 2000s. It is a treasured window for international curators and collectors into the preoccupations of Turkish artists, many of whom claim to self-censor to avoid upsetting the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative supporters. This year’s edition was to focus on the “role of art in the aftermath of loss and trauma,” while previous editions have had themes around issues including environmental change.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts said in an email that a new curator would be appointed for the 2025 edition. Their appointment, she added, would be made in line with the new, more transparent, selection process.