European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Failing to get the title - learning out of failure


Most of the candidate cities which end up not getting the designation are very often deeply disappointed and due to their own engagement based on a lot of enthusiasm and unexpected signs of creativity cannot really explain themselves why they failed to convince the jury their bid was the best.

Some possible reasons might have been either they did not captured the meaning of the European dimension or else the citizens of their respective city were not sufficiently involved and therefore not behind the bid.

Given the criteria set forth by the European Commission to make sure the best possible candidate city is selected by an independent jury consisting of six national and seven European appointed experts, a lot depends on how each city manages to steer the creative process towards a convincing vision expressed by a well thought through strategy and an impressive cultural programme to be implemented over one year. Other factors such as support from other municipalities and major institutions of the cultural sector helps a lot. Equally the budget does play a huge role. Over time, the jury has made explicit as well the importance of one city making the bid and not as of late an entire region or a network of cities, even though this criterion is still in discussion as the regional factor does play a considerable role ever since Lille 2004 set the tone in that direction.

Obviously all depends on multiple factors as to which city gets finally the designation. Likewise the failure has to be explained to ensure a continuity of learning out of mistakes made but also in the interest to ensure some continuity. Some city have adopted a Plan B while in the UK case those cities who had to concede to Liverpool 2008 decided to create an own title within the United Kingdom so as to give cities another chance at another scale.

Coming to terms with the disappointment

As said disappointment runs high if the city fails to get the title. Although everyone thought to have worked extremely hard for it, they are often at a loss as to why their bid did not make it. As was the case in Holland which selected finally in 2013 Leuuwarden for 2018, there is a first round when many cities compete in the hope to be short listed. It was already a huge surprise that Utrecht did not make it although that city had started with its campaign very early and invested a lot in international relations. Then, in the second round Maastricht and Eindhoven did not make it for 2018. The organizers of Eindhoven were extremely disappointed as they could not really explain to themselves the reason why. They were convinced to have made a good bid. They based this assumption on the fact that their bid addressed the question how this one special year could give cultural substance to the true nature what Europe is all about. For this purpose they developed many novel ideas linked to cultural cooperation between communities. Citizens were inspired and engaged themselves while preparing for the final bid. All the more the set back and to realize once the bid failed, the money earmarked for culture was withdrawn immediately by the Municipal Council.

Such an experience leaves many out on a limb. It is difficult to climb back, so to speak, and assume a normal, everyday life. This is because the prospect of being European Capital of Culture sets free till then unknown energies. Made possible by people not only engaging themselves, but participating with all their imaginations, the whole city starts being focused on future prospects. To tap into such wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm is not something to be encountered in normal times when people follow their own path but without a sense of a collectivity. Doing something for the whole community and for the benefit of the city as a whole out of cultural and not economic reasons is extraordinary. All the more reason to be disappointed as well if the city which is finally selected, does not continue along similar lines and turns instead towards a strategy which commercializes increasingly so culture for the benefit of the economy.

Capturing the potentialities

Whenever a city begins to engage itself in the biding process, this can become a life changing experience. With it goes an enormous portion of optimism that things can be improved. Finally they are tackled not in a strictly managerial and organisational way as known to the administrative course of things, but by listening to artists and others with experiences of how culture works, new ideas are born and insights made understandable despite the whole undertaking a huge complexity by itself. 

The excitement comes by realising this opportunity gives quite another access to a path of development which helps find solutions. This is because people learn to talk openly but also in an atmosphere which is free from the usual political fights. There is as well a sense that this allows everyone to become more engaged in a practical way.

This cultural discourse entails a discovery of many potentialities, as it seems to connect the individual to the overall scope of things: the city in Europe. It poses as well countless questions when contemplating projects in the making. It makes already a difference to regard the market place frequented weekly out of a perspective what it would entail if able to show any future visitor around the town, and to take this visitor to that specific place. Due to that anticipation the normal daily life is no longer regarded as something to ignore but is perceived with new eyes. Cultural reflections start by realizing the only self understanding possible to be maintained is that there is no self understanding. Everything around oneself exists with many and further going potentialities because there is a lot more to be seen and to be experienced once things are cared for and not just singled out as if it merely belongs to me. For the readiness to share gives culture that participatory node and feeling it is really about living and experiencing life fully. To be alive is after all a wonderful feeling.

This kind of remapping of the imaginary space in which to move in has been a key to the success of many European Capitals of Culture, and equally the disappointment when from one day to the next reality kicks in so to speak. Gdanks in Poland had this notion of wishing to continue this intense collaboration but it is hard when there is no formal recognition given in the final end to all these efforts.

Eindhoven was left wondering what were really the priorities of the Jury. They asked what did they not interpret correctly while going through the entire bidding process. Naturally some reasons can be suggested like an oversized budget which made it appear as if wishing to buy oneself into the title. Certainly Leeuwarden is by comparison tiny, and a town on the fringes of main stream culture in Holland, but precisely that might have made the Jury think it is time to give an outsider, a relatively unknown location, much more focus as even these cultures on the fringes deserve attention. Equally Eindhoven had an artistic director who stated right from the start he would only stay till the bid has been made. In other words, the very fact that the person responsible for the artistic concept and cultural programme would not stay to see it through meant no gurantee for a continuity if the title would have been granted to Eindhoven. Still, for any appraisal and to be fair to the Jury, it would be important to study their final evaluation report in which they give reason for having selected Leeuwarden over the other two candidate cities, namely Maastricht and Eindhoven.

Learning out of failure is altogether a huge challenge. Often the necessary learning does not take place because the cultural dimension has been missing in the first place. This cultural dimension should not be confused with what the criterion of the European Dimension entails. The latter is based much more on a notion of success stories linked to the simple notion of making money. Public funds are used but to a limited degree. The EU offers only 1.5 million by awarding the Melina Mercouri Prize while the budget of cities can swell into huge sums ranging anywhere from 60 to 80 million. Still, if taxpayers' money is being used, a prime need is that this project should not cost more and thereby overburden the taxpayers. The cities which ended up with a financial deficit and therefore obliged the city to manage its finances under great difficulties once the year was over are not deemed to be a success. There come to mind immediately such examples as Thessaloniki 1997 and Patras 2006, but also when Copenhagen was ECoC, it had the largest budget in the whole history and ended up with a gaping financial hole.

A historical opportunity to make culture and economy more compatible

What makes the ECoC story so interesting, equally challenging is that it offers an opportunity to handle the money question differently. Thus understandable is the disappointment if this opportunity is not given to the city to prove what it could do to contribute to cultural life in Europe. However, it should not be overlooked that even when a city does receive the designation, that this opportunity is realized.

For instance, Marseille 2013 was offered accordinging to Ferdinand Richard the historical opportunity to implement a cultural concept which is compatible with the family and rural type of business enterprises known as being a part of the Mediterranean culture. It would have meant not to make spectacular events linked to symbolic icons of new buildings, but to ease the pain between small financial outlooks and still a sense of aesthetics which is, however, to a large extent an unfulfilled dream. Instead Marseille opted for the symbolic iconic buildings like the Museum of Civilization from Europe and Mediterranean, and thus required sponsorship money which will use different, more visible criteria to assess if it has any meaning to give large sums of money. Money wants to have something visible, while a qualitative concept of culture works in reality quite differently with the notion of money. That cultural difference in handling money should have been brought out by Marseille. In part, Ulrich Fuchs justified the programme insofar as it was designed to offer a lot of events which could be accessed by everyone since free of charge. But in saying that he admitted the social reality of Marseille is made up of overall population which is quite poor and hence cannot afford to attend expensive events.

Still, to discuss the link between money and success or failure of any ECoC city, something else has to be introduced and may that be the criterion of health. For what sustains life is also a healthy environment with happiness and outlook for new experiences two of the most ingredients. Culture has to be something which prompts people to go out and mingle in the crowd. Many ECoC cities seem to succeed in that sense as the city becomes a stage. It makes possible that people experience themselves in a new context. That is often linked to novel and often outstanding street performances and which can alter the active life in the city, In Marseille alone the huge mirror as something to walk under can transform already urban space.


       Mirror in Marseille during 2013


The freedom to fail - a need of today's youth

Of interest is here what Valletta realized when preparing its bid to be ECoC in 2018, namely that the youth of today needs a freedom to fail. If they are not given that cultural space, they will never learn. They would be condemned to the need to succeed even if means achieving this by whatever, and even often doubtful means, morally speaking. That includes using connections and privileges their parents may have, but which puts them into an unfair position of advantage vis a vis others. The dependency of having a proven track record whenever they apply for a job does not make life any easier. For many jobs and tasks prove to be hard because they go against one main criterion, namely honesty to oneself. The youth knows no one is perfect but still they have ideals which can easily be disappointed. How then to articulate their short comings while getting a chance to prove themselves, that mix is often not handled well at school, at home or in the work place. And the places of socialization like clubs are not the best places to encounter stimulating thoughts and challenges which would take them a step further in realizing what they want to do and how to go about it in achieving such a goal. It says it all when youth caught in the trap of unemployment and dismal prospects to get even a chance to make such experiences which allow them to develop further as a human being decide to turn their back on society and dismiss consequently any suggestion they could do better than merely linger around. 

Modern society has established a very sharp cutting edge of success. So when a city has to face the failure to get the designation, it should still continue to learn as well out of the failure of many cities who had the title to make the most of this unique, indeed historical opportunity. It is perhaps still true what Bart Verschaffel says about every city desiring to get the title, but few know how to handle really well this kind of challenge. More often cities are literally and practically over demanded.

Factors contributing to failure to make the bid

There are countless factors behind a failure to get the bid, some of them obvious, others less. If you happen to be a border city like Görlitz was in the German case for 2010 and missed out with Ruhr 2010 getting the nod, then the reason was that Bob Scott preferred a non border city, so that it could be a full national representative of one, not two cultures. Often it seems that the experts on the Jury are as much influenced by their previous experiences - many were before involved in the set up and implementation of one ECoC city like Mary McCarthy from Cork or Manfred Gaulhofer from Graz with Ulrich Fuchs from Bremen, Linz 2009 and Marseille 2013 now destined to join the Jury in the coming years after 2013 - as they are disposed to a certain model of success. Naturally a great influence has been Bob Palmer and his report which gave a first lay-out of the criteria which do play a role when a city is selected. Thus to draw some conclusions out of previous selections, it does matter to take a closer look at those cities which made it to be short-listed, but then did not make it in the final evaluation. It seems that the best way to approach the first round of selection would be to demonstrate the potential the city has while in the final round it must be shown what has been done in the meantime already with the potential. In that sense culture as process and as progress converge in a convincing form of presentation, but if anything is to go by the Jury can be also impressed by something sexy and impressive in terms of a unison of performance. Here San Sebastian succeeded apparently better than the other Spanish cities while in the case of Italy Ravenna made it into the short list with a chorus performing to underline some unison within the city has been reached while touching upon its cultural heritage and present potentialities.

Some of the outstanding factors which can contribute to a failure need to be taken within the context of understanding the importance of the two key criteria, namely the European dimension and the active participation of the citizens: 


Reasons for a failure to learn from previous ECoC experiences 

Several reasons can be given as to why cities when starting the process of the bid feel they have no one to turn to while interpreting the real intentions of the European Commission and its Jury is a most complicated process.


Series of failures within the European Union

When Melina Mercouri initiated the idea of European Capital of Culture, it was meant to bring Europe together not merely by economic, but also by cultural means. Increasingly so that idea was perverted as more and more culture was used for purpose of urban renewal and for initiating a new component in the economic sector, namely the Creative and Cultural Industries. The shift in priorities towards the film industry, the media and the types of festivals, block buster exhibitions etc. reveal Europe being at the borderline between the local and the global business. More and more city branding demand more resources for image making types of models. There is hardly anything left worth mentioning as to how Europe used to be connected through Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Albert Camus and Seamus Heaney to name but a few. The fact that Marseille 2013 did not honour Albert Camus as had been promised by the original bid shows that intellectual ideas are not readily around when the managerial approach takes over and a year's cultural programme are sustained by another kind of mass culture aiming to bring in the numbers by which a city can claim success. Thus a content process orientation aiming to invest in culture will not succeed readily as the European Union itself has entered a moral crisis of legitimacy. That leaves the ECoC project as one of the most successful ones of the European Union literally out on a limb. But without any endorsement the moral crisis shall not be faced either by the selected cities and instead the avoidance of this moral crisis will have to be dealt with by those cities which in the aftermath to their failure to get the designation enter not only a motivational lapse but also a growing anti Europe population over fed by dreams not linked to Europe as such. What has happened that the cultural dimension of Europe could go so far astray even if countless poetry, film, theatre and street festivals happen the year around and let cities compete with one another for that fluctuating part of the population willing to become cultural tourists. The tourist industry has not as of yet levelled to this term but Glasgow with its annual street festival engaged Bob Palmer to do a thorough evaluation what could be done to ensure the sustainability of that festival. The short message has become, therefore, to stay on the map and to attract the masses of visitors (not tourists per say), hotels, restaurants, and a myth of being a hot spot seem to work more in the direction of the entertainment industry rather than what museums and other cultural institutions of the old order could manage. More and more it forces these cultural institutions to enter the frails and frills of entertainment. Info-tainment has become one of the key terms used to make that distinction as to what counts. It leads to a superficial glance as to what constitutes in reality culture, namely the self understanding people have and by which they can relate to the situation they are going through in the present. Here could help Jean Paul Sartre's term of 'Situation' but today Existential philosophy is a far fetched illusion from what it takes for the masses to attain identity. Sartre was always of the opinion the Capitalist system is clever enough to win off masses of people energy and does so by not letting them gain in identity so that they could organize themselves. That difference between cultural consumerism and cultural emancipation as still to be understood as the prime challenge. Some cities have come close to it like Gdansk 2016 when competing with four other Polish cities not only against the obvious choice in the making, namely Wroclaw but also against a trend Habermas would name as a lack of solidarity. For Gdansk wanted to step outside its own shadow cast by the history linked to the ship yards and Solidarnosc but continue in a similar tradition by wishing to foster the solidarity between artists. The latter would be very much needed for culture to contribute to such a self understanding which could allow the grasping of the difference and therefore of the importance of emancipation. But maybe in going against the trend, there might be found already an explanation as to why Gdansk did not get the bid.

Always it is important not to draw the false lessons out of what turned out to be a failure, and what was a success, for Siegfried Kracauer in his essay about 'the Employees' - die Angestellten - showed how power and rulership works with such a selection mechanism so that those below will never really know who shall be next to get the job.

Bob Palmer named during the 25 year celebration above all one disturbing element, namely the increasing use of modern propaganda like tricks to cover up failures and therefore the use of spin doctor like reports. This means ECoC cities spend up to 25% on public relations exercises. It reflects that substantial cultural events do not count if they are not covered by the media to draw at the very least the attention of everyone that this event has taken place. 

Basically the European Commission is engaged in similar methods. Inclinded to seeking only such proof that shows the policy measures which have been decided upon do work, the EU Commission is not willing to hear anything to the contrary. This has given rise to a very critical article about the new forms of propaganda in which the EU Commission engages in. See Andrew Higgins, „It's 'go along to get along' in Brussels“. Significantly it was published in the last edition of the International Herald Tribune on 14.10.2013 since the next day that famous name was replaced by "the International New York Times".

Studies of failure

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