European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Cultural plan realized in Athens 1985 by Spyros Mercouris

On November 28, 1983, in Athens the then Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri gathered all Community Culture ministers together in order to submit to them the following question:

“How is it possible for a community which is deprived of its cultural dimension to grow?”

and continued:

“Our role as Ministers of Culture is clear. Our responsibility a must. Culture is the soul of society. Therefore, our foremost duty is to look at the foundations and nature of this Community. This does not mean that we should impose our ideals. On the contrary, we must recognize the diversities and the differences amongst the people of Europe.

“The determining factor of a European identity lies precisely in respecting these diversities with the aim of creating a living dialogue between the cultures of Europe. It is time for our voice to be heard as loud as that of the technocrats. Culture, art and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce and the economy.”

The European Community, a commercial and economic community up to that point, had not given special attention to its cultural dimension and Culture Ministers met informally.

When our country proposed to the Ministers of Culture the event of the Cultural Capital, it did so in the belief that by looking into the roots of European Culture, discovering the old as well as searching for a new cultural identity, a real contribution would be made which would enhance the reinvigoration both of the individual citizen and of the peoples of Europe.

Also, it was certain that through the efforts to achieve a higher quality of life, the event of the Cultural Capital would expand to cities of European countries outside the Community according to the principles of Democracy, pluralism and rule of law.

The proposal was unanimously accepted and the institution of European Cultural Capital was created with Athens being chosen first Cultural Capital of Europe for the year 1985.

Though first on the list, Athens had from the beginning an understanding and a wide vision for this cultural event and its prospects.

We wanted the event of Cultural capitals to be not a festival but a meeting place for discussion and exchange of ideas, for communication, where artists, intellectuals and scientists would bring their work and efforts together towards the promotion of the European thought.

To be a tool which would allow the citizens of Europe to be more than mere spectators, to participate, to understand, to feel, to define and shape new ideas and relationships in the process of a politically unified Europe.

It is because of this that we experienced a sense of extraordinary satisfaction when, at the formal opening of the festivities heralding the Cultural Capital of Athens on 21 June 1985, we heard President Mitterrand say that this is Year one of Europe.

The Ministry of Culture undertook responsibility for the organization of the events, mobilizing all of its resources and forming a flexible, streamlined office and I was appointed coordinator of the first cultural capital of Europe, Athens ’85. We created and formed committees for visual arts, music, theatre, conferences, cinema, architecture, folklore, dance and exhibitions.

In this overall attempt we had the support of all the cultural centres of the country such as the Athens Academy, the Athens University and the Technical University of Athens, the Pandeion University, more than 100 museums across the country headed by the National Museum of Greece, the Byzantine Museum, the Benaki Museum, the National Gallery, etc. Further support was provided by the Municipality of Athens and local municipalities of Greater Athens, various organizations, banks, associations and, of course, the Government through its Ministries.

Our most important objectives were:

  1. The creation of infrastructure projects.
  2. Mobilization and participation of the cultural, scientific and artistic elements of the country.
  3. Exchange of new ideas and experiences and cooperation with other European Union countries as well as non-member countries through theair participation in all expressions of art.
  4. Cultural decentralization. A close study of the resources of the local district governments of Attica and support for their financial and technical infrastructure.
  5. Citizens’ participation and presence in the events.
  6. Cultural upgrading, always bearing in mind that arts are not only to entertain but also to educate and to improve the quality of life.



The National Theatre of Greece, 38 other Greek theatre companies and 23 famous companies from other countries took part in the theatrical events with plays directed by renowned directors, such as: “Plutus” by Ronconi, “Oresteia” by Peter Stein, “Mahabarata” by Peter Brook, “Coriolanus” from the National Theatre of Great Britain by Peter Hall, “Lucrezia Borgia” from the Theatre National de Challot by A. Vitez, Stringberg’s “Tempest” by Giorgio Streller, “The Oedipus Myth” by the Theatre la Mama, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the New Shakespeare Company, “Trojan Women” by T. Suzuki, “The Persians” by Gunter Heyme, “John Gabriel Borkman” by Ingmar Bergman, etc. All major Greek composers and vocalists took part and 23 groups from other countries, including: Badishes Staatstheater with Handel’s opera “Xerxes”, Convent Garden with Verdi’s “Macbeth” and King Priame, Verdi’s “Othelo” directed by Jules Dassin, the Washington Symphony Orchestra with Rostropovic, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta, R.A.I. Symphony Orchestra (Milan) by Hatzinikos as well as a Festival of jazz and a Festival of famous rock groups.

Leading Greek dance groups and many other companies from various countries took part in the dance events, such as the Kirov Ballet, Le Grand Ballet Canadien, Matsuyama Ballet of Tokyo, the National Ballet of Canada, Alvin Eily, the London Contemporary Dance, Maurice Bejart and others.

Twelve conferences were organized. The most important were: “Man in the Era of Technology”, “The Mediterranean in the Great Historical Time”, “Contemporary Democracy at the Dawn of the 21st Century”, “Economy and Culture”.

Also, 37 exhibitions were staged, five of which marked the beginning of further successful exhibitions abroad: “Democracy and Cultural Education”, “Greece and the Sea”, “Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art”, “Memories, Regeneration, Quest”, which presented, through the works of Greek artists of recent decades, memories from the ancient, Byzantine and old heritage which coexist in harmony or antithesis with the trends of Western European art.

Finally, there was the four-day exhibition of Architecture and City Planning, depicting the development process of the city of Athens through its architecture and the relationship of the Athenians with their city.

The decision of the Ministers of Culture of the European Union to name Athens “First Cultural Capital of Europe” was both sudden and unexpected.

In the turbulent world of politics it is generally very difficult to convince people of the benefit and scale of the objective. At the same time, Athens, in spite of its history and radiance, had neither the infrastructure nor the necessary facilities to fulfill such an obligation.

Therefore, the Ministry of Culture asked the government for an emergency appropriation of funds. The government responded positively and, based on a budget forecast which we submitted to the Ministry of National Economy, we received the amount of 766 million dr., which at the time was approximately 5.5 million dollars.

The amount was a first considered inflated for an event whose nature was doubted and we had additional difficulties in proving how productive the use of these funds would be. Public opinion was not so certain. It was very difficult for us to convince all those concerned that what is of real importance for the development of societies is to understand and to help others understand that Culture is not an abstract notion and that it should not interest only intellectuals or a fraction of society.

In culture, benefits and financial return are not always immediately forthcoming. They are continuous and take time. Besides the fact that the arts and culture upgrade the quality of life, they also shape awareness and create identity, factors which contribute to enhance productivity in the economy and play an important role in investments.

The successful development and functioning of cities, regions and states is built upon the services sector, upon information and new technologies all of which create a solid cultural infrastructure which in turn improve modernization and increase productivity for the economics of such areas.

The interests in the arts, in communications, tourism and entertainment, as well as in new technologies and means of information constitute a permanent point of reference for the citizens of the areas in which they are developed and contribute to the export of cultural goods to national and world markets.

Bearing in mind the above, the funding of 765 million dr by the Ministry of National Economy proved to be an excellent investment since we succeeded in realizing the following aims:

Construction, renovation and operation of building complexes and exhibition areas such as:


Construction of Theatres


In agreement and cooperation with the mayors of the Attica region we made maps of areas and appropriated funds for infrastructure works.

We gave 45 million dr to 18 municipalities for cultural centres, theatres, cinemas, for renovations and equipment.

We appointed architects and technicians for the execution and studies of the plans for these works.

We developed an intense publishing activity of exemplary publications of brochures and literary works.

We employed more than 300 scientists, 1,000 composers, musicians and conductors, 600 actors, 200 dancers and many technicians, guards, workers, porters etc.

We accomplished a general high standard of performances due to an intense inflow of high-level artistic events from abroad and we obtained for our country a mass media recognition and above all, due to the Athens success, we established the institution of European Cultural Capitals.

The money given to us was, on the whole, very little. This was proved by the fact that “Athens Cultural Capital” had by a large margin the lowest budget and cost of all succeeding cultural capitals.

Nevertheless, we managed to have the assistance and cooperation of various ministries and the government, as well as support from the European Union and the member-states.

The enthusiasm of the member states in welcoming the decision was demonstrated by the competitive spirit in which they sent their most successful and finest artistic companies and is also shown by the extent to which they contributed to the realization of these programs:


The total contribution of all the member-states amounted to 263.132 million dr.

This amount was not sent to us directly, but was used to cover the expenses of opera, music, dance, theatre groups, exhibitions, etc.

Many of the events were staged not only in Athens but were taken round the Attica region. More than a million people attended the theatrical and musical events and 800,000 visited the exhibitions.


In the 80’s, when this cultural event first began, a dynamic momentum existed and all those who participated wished to build a new Europe and believed and worked to achieve this aim.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, powerful European countries have returned to the policy of creating centres of power.  If, however, we believed in the power of culture, if we considered and counted on culture more, if we had examined with care the character and diversities of the peoples of Europe, perhaps we could have avoided the tragedy of the Balkans. This is not utopian, it is a reality. Better less haste and a wiser political will.

Fine Arts, Poetry, Drama, Music, Science are all expressions of Culture. However, the meaning of culture is much deeper and wider.

Culture is formed by what man has said and done from thousands of years ago to the present time, has been accepted by societies and people and has been added to their habits, thoughts and memories.

Curiosity, Desire, Thought, Reason, Consciousness, Will, Create Energy and Development is what man has acquired through the ages. Culture absorbs from the past, molds the present and shapes the future.

Culture exists in all that we do, in all our activities. It is knowledge, education, behavior, tolerance, respect of the opinion of others, quality and way of life.

Melina’s initiative for the creation of the event of Cultural Capitals of Europe and the questions about the future of Europe retain all their relevance today. As important as it was to start the Cultural Capitals of Europe then, so it remains as important now, when this cultural event has matured and acquired such importance that all the cities of Europe want to participate.

In spite of all the economic priorities which the European Union has put forward, the gap which has emerged between political and economic decision making and society in general is causing increasing concern. These matters cannot be treated with cynicism. In the long run we cannot allow giving a few crumbs to Culture to become an excuse.

The exchange of ideas and communication between the citizens and societies of Europe is more important than ever. Culture can become the unifying factor between the worlds of politics, economics and the societies and citizens of Europe.

Thus the Network felt the necessity, in cooperation with the organizing committee of Thessaloniki ’97 Cultural Capital of Europe, the “European Cultural Foundation” and the “Melina Mercouri Foundation”, to organize a major cultural symposium to take place in June 1997, in the framework of Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe, with the theme “The signifance of Culture on the eve of the new Millennium”.

It is essential to create an awareness of the existing situation by analyzing the decline of cultural values and the second-rate position culture holds in the world of pol,itics, economics, finance and the mass media, where it is considered as something negligible and is mostly used as an excuse.

The aim of the conference is to permit a free discussion among a small number (20 – 25) of outstanding personalities on burning questions of cultural theory and cultural policies. The universal dimension of these issues requires the presence of persons covering a variety of fields and representing different social areas.

Participants will freely choose their own topics in order to launch a high-level discussion by suggesting new ideas and visions. Each city member of the Network can assist by proposing one or two keynote speakers to take part in the symposium, for a contribution of the cities to be achieved.

The Network now consists of 31 cities and its potential is great. It will be very positive if all the cities that have been Cultural Capitals and Cultural Months of Europe and all the cities that have been nominated Cultural Capitals up to the year 2000 will work together to prepare a wide cultural program throughout Europe.

The new millennium is at out door.

Throughout the ages mankind has consistently sought progress and renewal.

In the long history of human civilization, there has been a whole series of renaissances, each making its contribution to moral and intellectual regeneration and to the betterment of the quality of life.

Man is the driving force. But if man wishes to sing again, he will have to cast his mind back to the eternal values he himself created. If he wishes to dream again, he will have to create new values.

And, who knows?, perhaps the event of Cultural Capitals and Cultural Months of Europe may assist the old Continent of Europe with new ideas and values so essential for nations, communities, and especially man.




Spyros Mercouris           Kastelli, Crete 2006 



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