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January 06, 2013, Sunday

‘Number 10 is missing from the team’

Bragging about İstanbul as one of the greatest cultural sites on the globe just does not cut it. The great metropolis is truly a magnet for the devotees of arts, archeology and lifestyle. One becomes only more amazed by the day how it has become, arguably, the world's number one destination for lovers of fine cuisine. Its airport, now a busy hub, is straining under the number of flights and passport queues.

The number of international visitors to İstanbul has been coming closer to 10 million every year. It has three times that of, say, a great city like Berlin.

Yet, it is also amazing that no official or public institution in this land had bothered to investigate the economic impact of cultural activities. So, for the first time, we have a report which gives some data, clues and proposals about the linkage between the two. Prepared by economic experts Dr. Zeynep Ekşioğlu and Özlem Ece, it is presented by the very influential İstanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts (İKSV) in relation to its 40th anniversary.

İKSV is a big fish in the industry of culture here, a hub of various activities -- festivals, biennale, exhibitions, concerts, installations. Last year, attendees of İKSV events reached almost half a million people, with about 10,000 of them international guests, I am told by Bülent Eczacıbaşı, its chairman.

The data the report presents is limited only to İKSV activities, but it enlightens us to the immense potential of cultural activities for the economy. The data concerning 2011 tells us that the overall share of the added value -- triggered by the activities -- exceeds TL 70 million (around $30 million). İKSV received that year only TL 2 million in public support, but paid taxes double of that amount in return; value added tax (VAT) revenues also were above TL 2 million, which means İKSV managed to multiply the amount by turning it into tax income.

One can argue that had public support been higher, the financial return would have been as well. These figures also remind us bitterly that in the attractive cities of the world with populations surpassing 1 million, per capita public support for culture and the arts averages at nearly 60 euros, while in İstanbul, a city of 14 million inhabitants, it remains at only 20 euros.

So, if the AKP government aims for a powerful Turkey in 2023 -- when the country will celebrate its 100th anniversary -- with a per capita income of $25,000, exports surpassing $500 billion and a place among the top 10 economies, what will the share of culture and arts be in that picture?

Eczacıbaşı posed this question and added, “If Turkey is to play in the super league, something is still missing, and that is its goals and aims in regards to culture.” He uses another soccer metaphor: “If we talk about a super league team, we must realize that we are missing the team's number 10: public sponsorship.”

One conclusion of the report is that İstanbul will require between 80 and 100 euros of public support per capita if culture is added into the super league picture. (But, of course, it should not be all about the İKSV and should be distributed fairly and efficiently to others as well.) Figures in the report show the gap between İstanbul and other hubs of culture as of 2009: public spending in Venice is almost 100 euros per capita; in Barcelona it is 97; in Berlin, 165; Lyon, 212 and Geneva, 745. True, when the “city of two continents” was elected a European Capital of Culture in 2010, the amount may have risen above 20 euros per capita, but then it came back down.

There is obviously much to be done. The report proposes changes and puts some points in bold letters. First and foremost, it calls for increasing the budget of the Ministry of Culture (which is below even 0.5 percent of the total budget). At the very least, it says, the ministry's share of funding should be at 1 percent. Further, it demands that some shares of lottery revenues be given to public spending for culture. Also, a small portion of real estate taxes can be allocated for strengthening İstanbul's brand value.

And, as I agree with fully, it is perhaps time to consider a “city tax” for the metropolis. Such a tax is being implemented successfully in many cities of Europe. One problem might be persuading hotel owners, but as İKSV CEO Görgün Taner suggested, “One can imagine an amount of 1 to 5 euros per tourist [for such a tax], and it will not cause much pain or resistance.'

These are all fine, but, as Eczacıbaşı said, it must be the government's task to find the team's number 10.

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