European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

25 Years of Success: Presentation of ECOC in Brussels, March 23 - 24, 2010


Viewpoint of the EU Commission on 25 year history of European Capitals of Culture

When the two day celebration of 25 years of European Capitals of Culture took place in Brussels, March 23 and 24, 2010 it was not expected, but made a difference that speakers like Bob Palmer brought a sober note to the event. Praised as one of the most successful projects of the EU, it could have been well just a celebration but it was not. Despite the opening speeches by Barroso, President of the EU Commission and Doris Pack, President of the Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, Media and Sport of the European Parliament, the political level revealed itself as being not fully in tune with the practical difficulties linked to the implementation of this project. As Bob Palmer would say it was a love affair between Melina Mercouri and Jack Lang which started with a kiss and ended with a child now 25 years old. To refer to a project in such anthropological terms means, of course, one thing which is not being articulated but which can make a difference, namely when a love ends in silence. That means real love is cut off and silenced so that creative impulses to bring about something authentic go astray or are never noticed. The report 'In from the Margin' is still relevant today according to Michael D. Higgins and that says a lot about current state of affairs.

Since the EU Commission aims with such a meeting to further the exchange of best practices between past, current and future Capitals, the question has to be posed why then no one observed that the ECCM folded in 2010? The network had set it as prime aim since 1992 to connect former, current and future European Capitals of Culture. Spyros Mercouris, honorary chairman of the network and brother of Melina, but also the coordinator of this institution when Athens was the first European Capital of Culture in 1985, maintains the EU Commission could have done more to support the network, both financially and logistically. Instead the network had been replaced by an informal network while the European Commission has realised the title can be handled as a much desired prize by many cities. Alone for 2016 with Spain and Poland taking turns as the Commission has gone ahead to award double the title every year there are 16 cities competing in Spain. When it was in Germany the turn to prepare for 2010, there were 20 cities. Each city spends quite a lot of money on its bid and since this brings about a notion of competition in the field of culture at city level, the EU Commission views this favorable. What this viewpoint does not include is an evaluation what this does to culture and more so the possibilities of keeping up this exchange of experiences. There is at risk by becoming so many cities, that quality is lost in all of this quantity orientated success measures. That can be best reflected on hand of what is happening in those cities which have received the designation and what lessons are drawn at an event like this 25 years in to the history of European Capitals of Culture.

The achievements of ECoC over 25 years


Key speech by Bob Palmer

Bob Palmer, Brussels 25 year celebration March 23, 2010

When Bob Palmer gave his speech at the 25 year celebration of European Capitals of Culture in Brussels March 23 - 24, 2010 he compared this history to what started from a kiss between Melina Mercouri and Jack Lang, became a child, grew up and has now come into age.

At the same time, he attests that European Capitals of Culture have become by now a cultural industry of its own.

Bob Palmer was director of Glasgow 1990 and Brussels 2000, and since then is referred to as the most quoted author with regards to his evaluation study of European Capitals of Culture which he did on behalf of the European Commission in 2004.

This study in 2004 he followed up with a smaller review of recent experiences with European Capitals of Culture together with Greg Richards.

So when he spoke at this conference dedicated to the achievements of the past cities while many new candidate cities for the years to come were present, it was notable that Bob Palmer gave through his speech a sober tone to the celebration. His main criticism is the growing discrepancy between official reports and what happens in reality in those cities during that one year of designation as if a lot of spin doctors were at work. Crucial are, therefore, the indicators he listed in order to clarify the issues not being dealt with.

1. While everyone speaks about 'creativity of city', it is not at all clear how this is to be organized and once a creative process has been started, how to continue it after the one year is over?

2. Governance of a city in cultural terms is not that easy nor self-understood. It requires something crucial, equal intangible, namely trust of people, while in relation to the program developed for the one year there is a need for much more clarification of the impact claimed or meant to have been achieved.

3. As anyone can imagine implementation is made most difficult because there is a need to deal with so many different 'egos', so how to deal with that?

4. Very often cities underestimate the required operational and organisational capacity needed to be in place well ahead of the special year. Usually only a very limited capacity is made available in real terms, while cities remain silent about the real gaps. This is because many cities are too protective about its own myth and reputation as the one capable of dealing with everything. Instead they should engage themselves with a willingness to learn in all preparatory measures and heed practical advice from the cities who have gone through this experience already.

5. When it comes to use of resources, there is a dangerous trend to increase levels of spending especially in larger cities to make possible all sorts of things during that one year but how to sustain that cultural capital when the year is over? Certainly the special circumstance when huge amounts of money are spent, it is certain that it will not last. Much more should be done to avoid right from the start 'inflationary spending'.

6. The European Commission should be careful about fostering a growing European Cultural Capital Industry for it will benefit the marketing and advertising industry, but not in substance the arts and artists and therefore also not conduicive of a cultural development Europe would be much more in need of.

7. A much more rigorous evaluation should be done of the Cultural Capital programs, that is what each city presents when making the bid and also in follow-up to that selection process, once having received the designation what shall be finally implemented. Critical are the following points when it comes to evaluate these programs:

Obviously these points are in need to being expanded on further, and it goes without saying that one truism prevails. It has been repeatedly stressed not only by Bob Palmer, but also by people who realize what mistakes were made over the past twenty-five years, namely to allow political intervention in the artistic director's works. How many have lost their jobs before the program could be implemented is an indication that this job can be compared to one of the most dangerous ejection seats.

Other outstanding personalities present

Mary McCarthy from Cork 2005 and member of selection jury for 3 years


Liverpool ’08 and the role of Bob Scott

Beatriz Garcia and Bob Scott at the 25 year ECoC celebration in Brussels

Bob Scott entertained first of all everyone with his quiz and then developed as key panel speaker his idea about European Capitals of Culture. He was of the opinion that any ECoC city has to be the national representative of the country selected from and therefore he would not select cross border cities such as Goerlitz in Germany. Moreover he stressed the importance of communication and cited as example his own preparatory work for Liverpool '08 which meant travelling down many times to London in order to speak there with the main media, including the BBC. Without media coverage he knew no European Capital of Culture would be deemed to be a success since then much what was being done during that one year would remain 'invisible'.

Liverpool '08 developed a special program to substantiate the need to monitor and to evaluate the implementation of the year's program. For this a special team was founded to do under the guidance of Beatriz Garcia the Liverpool '08 Impact Study. Beatriz Garcia made a presentation of this work at the 25 year celebration in Brussels. Simply she would call the impact study the putting of numbers into their context.

25 years later – an exhibition as a scandal

The exhibition organised by the City of Athens - Documentation Centre but it was not very well received in Brussels. Gottfried Wagner stated in public that the way cities were presented amounts to nothing less than a scandal! He demanded that the exhibition be taken down right away. With such a public statement the representatives of the City of Athens and of the Documentation Centre have to live. Clearly the making of the exhibition was that of a company skilled in graphic design, but without any substantial knowledge about the history of European Capitals of Culture and therefore unable to come up with an interesting concept on how to tell that story. If things are done moreover without a clear intellectual base, and the collection and documentation of what ECoC cities have achieved demands high standards of professionalism, then one is really asking for trouble.

Already the ECCM exhibition curated by Spyros Mercouris for Patras 2006 to reflect upon 20 years was heavily criticized. It had a typical signature or way of dealing with the story of European Capitals of Culture as if a mere flow of images transformed into beautiful posters but then that was not enough to tell really the story. It was just another viewpoint.

Poster of ECCM exhibition 2006 to depict Thessaloniki 1997

That exhibition was meant to travel from European Capital of Culture to European Capital of Culture and thereby be enriched. But the lack of 3D objects and the lack of funds to provide with a variety of collections / texts / photos / records of what ECoC cities achieved during that one year reflects the fact that no institution is taking care of keeping the archive updated.

Documentation Centre in Athens

The Documentation Centre was closed in late 2010 after the incumbant mayor of Athens lost the election. Currently efforts are under way to re-start the Documentation Centre with the aim to ensure the archive is not only updated but becomes an active memory base for the ongoing learning process between former, current and future European Capitals of Culture.


Hatto Fischer 24.4.2010



1. The EU Brochure about 25 years of European Capitals of Culture can be found at:

2. A summary of the celebration held in Brussels on March 23 – 24, 2010 and more specifically what was contemplated upon as the pros and cons of the title ‘European Capital of Culture’ after 25 years can be found at actions/doc/ecoc/conclusions_ecoc.pdf

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