An Istanbul Art Fair’s Chairman Has Apologized for a Mass Email Defending Turkey’s Invasion of Syria—But a Staff Exodus Has Begun

Ali Güreli says his remarks were driven by "emotions."

Ali Güreli, founder and chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, has written a vigorous defense of the Turkish invasion of Syria on behalf of the fair. Photo: Sitki Kosemen.

The chairman of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair, Ali Güreli, has walked back an astonishing email he circulated earlier this month that strongly defended the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and urged fair goers not to believe “black propaganda” about the slaughter of Kurds in the region.

In a follow-up email on October 18, Güreli admitted that his initial missive was “entirely inappropriate” and that he is rethinking the fair’s governance as a result. But that may be too little too late for Contemporary Istanbul. Its artistic director, Anissa Touati, and entire selection committee, have stepped down in response to Güreli’s comments, artnet News has learned.

I sincerely apologize for the shock [my email] may have caused to all our friends in the art world, to our partners, to my colleagues at Contemporary Istanbul, and to my family,” Güreli wrote in his second email. He said that it was written in his name only, and not in his capacity as the fair’s chairman, though it was sent out on Contemporary Istanbul letterhead and signed “Ali Güreli, Chairman.”

Güreli, however, continued his attack on the media and news reports that the fair is financially supported by the Turkish government. Güreli wrote that “despite what some news outlets claim, CI has been, since the beginning, an independent organization, sponsored by the private sector.” While it is true that the fair’s main sponsor is the privately owned Akbank, the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality are both listed as sponsors on its website.

“I was in no position to comment on Turkey’s political context, which is very complex, and it was wrong for me to do so, especially given the circumstances,” Güreli writes, adding that “emotions” drove his actions. The internal source told artnet News that Güreli was expected to step down last Friday, but that has not come to pass.

A spokesperson for the fair told artnet News that Güreli has been talking with the board about various “different solutions,” one of which had seen him consider stepping down as chairman. “However after careful consideration, he does not think at this stage that it is the best solution for the future of Contemporary Istanbul,” the spokesperson says. “He is convinced, nonetheless, that it is necessary to rethink the corporate governance of Contemporary Istanbul so that this situation never happens again.”

The spokesperson also confirmed the other team departures. “Several members of the organization have expressed the desire to contribute to the discussions to build this new corporate governance, others have expressed indeed a different view about it and the desire to step down.”

The representative said the fair will share an update on the new governance strategy in a couple of weeks.

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