European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Final Report of Athens 1985 by Spyros Mercouris

Athens, Cultural Capital of Europe 1985

I do not know if you realize how much benefit we gained, or rather, can gain from the project „Athens, Cultural Capital of Europe 1985“, if only we handle it well. Indeed, this event reaches out to all levels of the concept 'culture', i.e. to politics, science, art, even to organization and technology.

  1. Exterior Politics

Until this year, the E.C., essentially an economic and commercial community, had never engaged in cultural activities. As a result, a budget for sponsoring cultural events never existed. In informal meetings with the ministers of culture, our government opened the discussion regarding cultural identity and the need to define and express it in various ways. At that early stage, our government managed to question the E.C.'s exclusive emphasis on commercial and industrial exchanges. It hereby voiced and brought to light the anxieties of the intellectual world of Europe.

Thus Greece laid the cornerstone of a very difficult and demanding enterprise: to gain official recognition for the exchange of ideas and cultural experiences, and, simultaneously, to improve communications among artists and intelligentsia.

This noteworthy initiative also marked the beginning of a reply to the intrusion of American culture. The latter tends to alienate and subdue traditional as well as contemporary characteristics of the various European nations.

Favorable circumstances made this initiative coincide with parallel movements in the economic, scientific and technological evolution of the member-states of the E.C.

We essentially proposed to bring out a certain city's cultural face and richness, as well as its connections to the cultural history and future of its people. The fact that our proposal was unanimously accepted obliged the E.C. To start listing expenditures on cultural matters as a formal budget item.

Significantly enough, it was the PASOK-party which initiated this successful proposal. PASOK had shaped its own distinct policy and had begun to carry it out with innovative boldness. This contrasted with the policy of New Democracy, which had proven to be a mere spectator for so many years.

Athens was chosen to become the first 'Cultural Capital of Europe', a historical event! Other European nations expressed their enthusiasm for this decision by vying with each other to send the best and most successful artistic contributions, and by spending large sums of money on cultural events. (These events are known to you all. Referring to them might not be necessarz. I do, however, have the data available on file.)

I wish to make more detailed mention of:

Apart from the participating nations of the European Community, other European countries were also represented, such as Austria, East Germany, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Switzerland. The U.S.A., Canada, the Soviet Union, Japan, Austria, India and some African countries also contributed.

Newspapers recognized world-wide commentred on this cultural event in the most flattering terms. I refer to the Sunday Times, for instance, in an address to its government: the paper held up Athens as a cultural precedent and called the project an extraordinary accomplishment.

This initiative of selecting a 'Cultural Capital of Europe' was so successful that it became institutionalized. Moreover, two cities, Florence and Amsterdam, competed for the title the following year.

Greeks abroad

It is a well-know fact that one third of the Greek population lives outside of Greece. Cultural bonds then prove to be the strongest ties between fatherland and communities abroad. When Athens had just been proclaimed 'Cultural Capital of Europe', the reactions among Greek emigrants were very positive. If we provide the right information regarding further parallel activities, the emigrants' national pride will grow, and their moral and emotional dependence on Greece will be reinforced.

The Confederation of Greek-American Associations of Philadelphia and Delaware has already requested that the ship Kyreneia 2 be sent to the U.S.A. For a visit.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is negotiating to receive the exhibition called 'Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art'.


The Academy of Athens housed the exhibition entitled 'Cyprus, 9,000 Years of Culture Pillaged', which proved to be a great success: it received 80,000 visitors. It has now been moved to Thessaloniki. Apart from its art-historical interest, the exhibition has a distinct political dimension: it shows the destruction which a military invasion can inflict even onto works of art. It also presents the consequences of the war and of the Turkish aggression against culture altogether. The whole subject is veary moving and affects public opinion world-wide.

Finally, although Reagan's air embargo, proclaimed upon an act of hijacking, coincided with the first manifestations of 'Athens, Cultural Capital of Europe 1985', foreign political leaders still traveled to Greece to attend the opening ceremony. Among them were the ruler of one country, two ministers of foreign affairs, and twelve ministers of culture.

2. Interior Politics

We were being accussed of organizing parties and show-case manifestations. These accusations were fired at us by the opposition press of New Democracy and by the K.K.E. (communist party), but also by the uninformed part of PASOK itself. We want zou to know that we did exactly the opposite.

Cultural and political evaluation:

Since we realized that the project 'Athens, Cultural Capital of Europe 1985' would be a golden opportunity to make real advancement, we engaged into a new policy. We did, however, always keep in mind that the purpose of art is not just to entertain but also to challenge.

As a result, theater people, felt increasingly challenged by the better quality, character, discipline, practice and technique of foreign productions. They realized that, if they wanted to distinguish themselves as good actors, all factors contributing to a production had to be improved.

Correspondingly, we made sure that our exhibitions were entirely based on research and study, and that their organization followed contemporary methods and technology.

Perfect pre-arrangements were made for building certain constructions, no longer of an improvised nature. Foreign producers congratulated us on this achievement (e.g. Peter Stein and Peter Brook at the Petra Theater).

Even less popular exhibitions cannot but bear witness to their scientific value, didactic significance, and, in general, to their perfect organization and presentation.

Finally, the subjects discussed at the conferences were organized, fed into current debates world-wide.

Mobilization of the Intelligentsia

We recruited the very best forces of the intelligentsia to carry out all of the above projects. The following institutions lent their assistance and cooperation to this undertaking: the Academy of Athens, Athens University, the Polytechnic School, Panteios University, the Art Gallery (Pinakothiki), the Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum, the Benaki Museum, more than 100 museums, organizations, associations, and banks throughout the country, and, of course, the Municipality of Athens.

In addtion, more than 300 renowned scientist and, of course, all the services of the Ministry of Culture cooperated. Not onlz the archaeological service, but also the government and many ministries lent their support, such as, for instance, the National Defense Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of the Commercial Fleet, etc.

Mobilization and Participation of the Artists

We met with full participation and had to make a final selection. Seventy-two theater companies, for instance, applied. A special committee selected 34 of them.

In the field of music, not one important composer declined to work together with the best musicians, regardless of their political colors.

As far as classical music is concerned, young soloists were given the first opportunity to display their talent. The state orchestra finally acquired its own house.

For the first time, jazz and rock bands received real attention: they were encouraged to perform within the framework of the international rock and jazz festival.

With regard to figurative arts, more than 100 painters, etchers, and about 50 sculptors took part. Their works were exhibited in the Art Gallery (Pinakothiki) as well as in local municipalities near Athens.

As far as dance is concerned, the very best dancers participated. Apart from folk dance groups, nine dance companies took part and gave performances in Athens and in the nearby municipalities.


We agreed with the mayors of the municipalities near Athens to cooperate in mapping all the available performance spaces. We considered their local needs and consequently granted them subsidies for building the right infrastructure. We gave 45,000,000 drachmas to 18 municipalities for cultural centers, theaters, cinemas, construction, and equipment. But we did not merely grant them subsidies. We also sent architects and technicians over to help them carry out the works and to show them how new constructions needed to be built. In addition, we moved cultural manifestations of high quality, exhibitons, and lectures to 27 municipalities.

For your information, we have congratulations letters and thank-you letters written by the mayors on file.

We can also provide you with statististics regarding audience participation. I mention to you briefly that more than 1,000,000 people attended the theater and music performances, and that 800,000 people visited the exhibitions.

For your information, I enclosed detailed statistics on audience participation everywhere in Athens and in the municipalities.

3. Economy, Employment and Expenditure

We believe steadfastly in the workings of culture. We emphasize that culture is at the heart of a country's political, social and economic life. There is, however, no direct financial gain attached to culture, which makes it hard to estimate its significance.

It should, however, not escape our attention that, when the level of culture, education, and intellectual life rises, citizens will be able to understand better their daily problems. They will evaluate their priorities better, and will face life's hardships with more ease and understanding.

More specifically, now that Greece's indirect resources have disappeared or have decreased much (resources generated by the fleet, emigrants, tourism), our Ministry will create very profitable new opportunities. For this purpose, however, our Ministry will need assistance and support.

The project 'Athens, Cultural Capital of Europe' puts this ideal into practice. Please, consult the related letters hereby attached.

As far as tourism is concerned, a country like Greece may well be identified with the concept of culture itself: it houses a civilization thousands of years old. Hence, it should not be merely synonym with sun and sea!

Here again, Athens gave the start signal by extending the winter season, but mainly by paving the way for the development of a Cultural Policy, as we indicated in detail.


Regarding employment, I can inform you that more than 1,000 musicians were employed, more than 600 actors, more than 200 dancers, many scientists and technicians, as well as guards, workmen, cleaners, and theater-attendants.

Although we had asked for 765 million drachmas to cover expenses exceeding our budget, we only received 690 million from the Ministry of Economics.

Please, consult our program and evaluate the real cost of the companies we brought, of the exhibitions we set up, of the personalities invited to the conferences, of the permanent infrastructure and works of socio-political benefit which remain. Then tell me what ministry could possibly have accomplished more than what I just mentioned.

What remains:

1. Infrastructure

National Archaeological Museum (renovation and modernization of five rooms).

O.L.P. (exhibition space of 3,000 square meters, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Commercial Fleet).

The Old University in Plaka (in cooperation with Athens University).

Papadopoulos Lyceum, on Akademias and Sina Streets (in cooperation with Athens University).

The Iliou Melathron

The Vera Kouloura Hall in Palaio Phaliro

The Roman Agora Theater

The Petra Theater, Petroupolis

The Theater of the Eastern Municipalities (Hymettus, with grants to seven municipalities)

The Floating Theater of Glyphada

The Alsos Theater of Nea Smyrni

The Theater of Argyroupolis (equipment, lighting)

The movie-theater Pallas (study, acoustics, new stage, restoration)

Excavations at the silver-mines of Laureion

The Kyreneia Ship

Assistance in the construction of the Trireme undertaken by the Military Navy

Assistance and support for the restoration of the interior of the cruiser Averov

2. Equipment (headlights, lighting, see the above)

3. Mapping of performance areas in Athens and its surroundings (we now have a complete picture of what exists in each municipality).

4. Full knowledge of the artistic world

5. Connections with the intelligentsia

6. Experience of technical personnel

7. Work experience (knowledge and flexibility)

8. Research studies

9. Catalogues, writings

10. Municipalities of:

Glyphada, Argyroupolis, Nea Smyrni, Hymettus, Chaidari, Nea Philadelphia, Drapetsona, Agii Anargyri, Metamorphosi, Galatsi, Piraeus, Daphni, Marousi, Perama, Paleio Phaliro (Construction of exhibition spaces, cultural centers, theaters, spectators' stand and stage).

The exhibitions organized, many of which have already been scheduled to tour Greece and to go abroad.

The creation of an institution: Florence, which will be the second 'Cultural Capital of Europe', already contact us to request advice on how to organize this event. As a member-state of the European Community, we will be present in the next cultural capital. We also intend to set up an exhibition kiosk, illustrating the project 'Athens, Cultural Capital' and introducing the city of Florence. This project will reinforce our presence within the European Community. Simultaneously, it will emphasize that we took the initiative to establish this institution.

Organization – Coordination

This huge enterprise was carried out according to planned methods, effectively and silently. Minimal expenses (ten million) were made. Less than 15 people were hired as extra personnel.

For the sake of comparison, please, consider the following: The National Tourist Organization has at its disposal 65 employees to work with only two theaters serving the Athens Festival. Also, it is engaged in the organisation of its cultural manifestations on a permanent basis. Now we can understand what a great task our Ministry accomplished in organizing and coordinating this event.

I mention in detail:

  1. Our Ministry composed the final plan of action

  2. It cooperated with the Government and the Ministries

  3. It set up committees

  4. It established contacts and cooperated with the member-states of the European Community

  5. It cooperated with the National Tourist Organization in coordinating the Athens Festival.

  6. It contacted the mayors of the municipalities near Athens regarding cultural manifestations and building infrastructure

  7. It gathered a group of architects and technical personnel

  8. It cooperated with the intelligentsia and entrusted part of the events to them.

  9. It established contacts with museums in Greece and abroad.

  10. It contacted artists and cooperated with the selection committee.

  11. It organized the reception of foreign companies

  12. It negotiated the financial offers and demands of foreign companies

  13. It scheduled and coordinated the sequence of the cultural manifestations in theaters and municipalities

  14. It organized conferences

  15. It organized exhibitions

  16. It supervised the publication of all printed materials and catalogues

  17. Our Ministry had only six months at its disposal to plan all those events. Again, it had only another six months' period to put these plans into practice.


Spyros Mercouris

Athens 1985

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