|Bengi Ünsal. Photo credit: Ali Guler / IKSV|
Bengi Ünsal, previously a Director at the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), the producers of the Istanbul Jazz Festival, has just been appointed as Southbank Centre’s Senior Contemporary Music Programmer. The move was extensively reported back in Turkey. We caught up with her before she officially starts her new role in the context of International Women’s Day. The interviewer is another Turkish adoptive Londoner, Emrah Tokalac:
Emrah Tokalac: How did you get going in your career in music in Turkey?
Bengi Ünsal: I’ve always wanted my life to be immersed in music, but coming from a country where schoolchildren are hardly encouraged to go in that direction, I ended up studying business instead. I’d spend hours watching music channels, reading whatever music magazine I could find, and attempting to translate lyrics into Turkish. Then I started working at a TV channel as the music programmer whilst studying, prompting my father to comment that I might’ve been the only person who made a career out of watching TV. Then came the record labels, festivals, and a venue (Salon IKSV)… A total of two decades in the sector.
ET: Was it easy or difficult to establish the career you have?
BÜ: The hardest part was to resist conventional career options. So, a job in banking like my father’s or working in FMCG companies or consultancy firms were out of question. Once I decided that I wanted to be in music no matter what, the rest was full of ups and downs as any other career story would assume. I’ve endured long hours, low recognition and even experienced bankruptcy, but my dedication to music always helped me carry on. I’ve met many wonderful people along the way, which is part of the experience and makes me who I am.
ET:Were there role models or important mentors?
BÜ: Other than my mother who is extremely talented in music and arts… I’d mention Alev Eyilmez, who was Head of International at Universal Music and my mentor during my time there as a Product Manager. She was a strong character with kindness and grace. Now, I am excited to be working with Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly and Director of Music Gillian Moore and I feel privileged to be in a place where I can learn from them.
RT: What is the Istanbul Jazz Festival like and how many years were you there?
BÜ: The Festival is truly contemporary and diverse in its programming, given the budget set, and I was very proud to be part of the team between 2005 and 2007. The Festival work led me to acknowledge that our work was actually for the greater good, touching people’s lives with unforgettable musical experiences from the likes of Nick Cave, Keith Jarrett, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Hiromi and Massive Attack. Indeed, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the happiness in their faces.
ET: What do you think is the biggest challenge that art scene in Turkey has to tackle?
BÜ: There isn’t one, but many. I believe it starts at school and with education. We don’t have a decent art education embedded in our curriculum. Art is seen as a leisurely activity, a luxury to most, not a basic need cultivating generations. Add to this the lack of government’s support or unavailability of venues and funds, all leading to insufficient demand. Perhaps the biggest challenge in that sense is to educate and develop audiences.
ET: What were the reactions like when you announced your news about Southbank Centre?
BÜ: Getting a job at a leading arts centre in a cultural hotspot like London has inspired some enthusiastic reactions as if I were a footballer who landed on a lucrative deal in the Premier League if you see the analogy. I was humbled by how people who might not even know me personally were congratulating me on that. My family and friends were very proud.
ET: You’ve visited London many times, but how are your first impressions of living and beginning work here? Anything that you’re particularly looking forward to?
BÜ: I’ve already been spending a lot of time here for the past two years. I think London offers the opportunity to experience some of the best examples of art on a global scale and that makes this city ever so important for me. Working here, particularly at Southbank Centre, is a dream come true. I’m very excited and looking forward to this experience.
ET: Can you draw parallels between the art scenes in Istanbul and London or are they starkly different?
BÜ: Too soon to answer as I’ve just arrived! All I can say for the time being is that there’s much happening here for sure, especially in terms of multi-disciplinary art forms, whereas what’s on offer in Istanbul is sadly very limited.
ET: Do you have any tips for those interested in working in the music industry?
BÜ: Just get into it, whatever job or opportunity it may be.
ET: Any thoughts about International Women’s Day?
BÜ: Although I’ve been very lucky in my life and career, I see how gender parity is still far from being achieved in many places. I’m very interested to examine all forms of gender inequality and how its impact affects our lives. It will be my first day at the Southbank Centre on IWD, so it already is poised to become a life-changing moment. It’s also when the much-anticipated Women of the World Festival kicks off, bringing together politicians, business leaders, artists, activists and refugees to discuss gender equality. I’ll definitely be there, join me if you can.
Emrah Tokalac is Senior Marketing and Communications Manager at Kings Place