European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

What to do with the sign European Capital of Culture?

European Capitals of Culture: what to do with the advertisement sign 'culture' or Reflections about the wounded soul of Europe - Hatto Fischer

(original text was written in German for the February 2010 edition of Journal SPOTZS in Linz - see )

It is imaginable to see when entering a city besides the blue EU sign with the many stars the sign „European Capital of Culture”. Since Athens started it in 1985 this concept has been praised as one of the most successful European projects. However, Bob Palmer and Greg Richards ask in their second report whether these cities will ever attain cultural sustainability, never mind fulfil the goals they have set for themselves during that one year when designated to be European Capitals of Culture.

A basic criticism of the latest version of European Capital of Culture is rather then doing substantial cultural work that there are fore mostly ‘spin-doctors’ determining the events. Hence much more care is taken about the image of the city rather than to promote the real strength of culture as an honest up-righteousness. For that culture would need independence and especially no interference by politics. Unfortunately the opposite is the case in most of the Capitals of Culture.

To this criticism fits what former Minister of Culture for Ireland, Michael D. Higgins said at the last ECCM Symposium “Productivity of Culture” held in Athens Oct. 2007. [1]Contrary to the disposition to use culture for the sake of the economy as quasi innovative force and therefore talk about a ‘cultural industry’, he is of the opinion that culture has to be perceived as being a much wider concept than that of the economy. But that does not suit those who wish to use culture for a new form of cultural tourism, if not for urban renewal projects. How many visitors come then to the city during that one year, it counts more than the experiences people could make when they interact with artists in such a setting of a European Capital of Culture. [2]

It was the original idea of Melina Mercouri to understand ‘capitals of culture’ as enabling people to come together. Not needed are, therefore, mass events whose forms suit more the viewing of fire work spectacles, but dialogs which allow for an imaginative approach to new ideas.

An important reason can be stated as to why so many cities fail with this concept. Bart Verschaffel, philosopher and coordinator of literature when Antwerp was Capital of Culture in 1993 and Eric Antonis the artistic director. He thinks many cities desire this designation but most of them are over demanded in reality. It does not mean merely having or not the needed infrastructures in place e.g. new museums, concert halls etc., but requires a special conduct towards culture, in particular one which allows for critical questions and doubt.

In Linz there existed within its cultural development plan such an important idea as to aim a combination of social and cultural work, so that any home visit could be equal to the discovery of an artist i.e. instead of being the recipient of social welfare to become active by preparing for a photo exhibition. That is after all culture in the active sense: giving recognition to creative potentials and bringing that to another, indeed more public level.

The city of Cork as European Capital of Culture promoted the creation of pairs with one poet writing in another language being matched up with a translator living in Cork. That was done in recognition of the fact that many good translations are brought about by a seeming crazy love by one person of this specific poet but which promotes the understanding of the other.

European capitals of culture which do not heed such details, they will fail as well in the overall sense. Not that the post of the artistic director is something like a dangerous ejection seat and that politics intervenes too much, but there is made generally speaking the mistake to hire the responsible people for only this one special year. Consequently they disappear after this one year is over. Quite the opposite is the case with Eric Antonis who was the artistic director of Antwerp in 1993. Bart Verschaffel thinks even when speaking today with Eric Antonis, it is as if speaking with the entire city. That is proof of sustainability. Eric Antonis had made it a precondition for his work that there would be no interference from the side of politics.  It implies also not giving in when the mayor demands, for example, that his wife acts in that specific theatrical play. This is why he understood to build up cultural infrastructures and capacities since 1993. Today the city can respond with a multitude of possibilities to the demand for culture. Of interest is equally that he understood culture as being open to doubt, in order to allow for the creation of new artistic works. During that one year 20 new operas were written, 19 of which had their premiere in 1993.

Failure is like success relative, but what would be culture without persistent questions? Vice versa, where to take from all the energy for the much praised dialog, when no one poses critical questions? To that belongs as well the participation of the people in the city, and not only during the phase of the application but especially during that one special year. But where are the representatives of civil society and of the cultural sector even though they were present at the beginning in the case of both Istanbul and Pecs? Hence no one needs to be astonished that people did not know what took place in Patras 2006 or in Linz 2009 since too few things became known to the general public of Europe. This is all the more amazing in the case of Linz since the city had prepared itself so well for the designation competition by having a cultural development plan in place when filing the application. It had promised with that a lot of things!

As someone who has experienced the dissolvement of the ECCM Network, that is the association of former, current and future European Capitals of Culture, another reason for the failures of many cities can be named. At the latest critical voices of the ECCM were heard by the time the network met in Patras 2006 even though the network was considered to be until then an essential part of the European Capital of Culture concept. But what was missing at organisational level of the ECCM, that was the courage to name things by their name, in particular what was happening in Patras 2006. Since the city was, however, hosting the ECCM network, no one dared to criticize the host. One behaved like good guests do. However, Bob Palmer had warned already in 2004 the EU Commission about the pending disaster in Patras, but no consequences were drawn in Brussels. Even the transformation of Essen into Ruhr 2010 and therefore a gross deviation from the original application was merely criticized behind the scene but nothing happened, officially speaking.

Ever more criticism levelled at the ECCM stated that the network no longer understood to respond to the needs of the newly designated cities. Added pressure came from this direction once the EU designated two instead of one city per year and even for 2010 three. That brought the active cities into a majority vis a vis the “old ones”. An enormous impatience spread out. No one wanted to hear anymore what had taken place in Athens 1985. Instead they wanted to go ahead and prepare themselves for that one special year. In particular, under the influence of Liverpool with Ruhr 2010 in its tow there was created the wrong, equally fatal impression that the new cities had nothing to learn from the former ones. They were of the opinion to benefit more from each other once freed from a formal network which demands membership fees and has an executive committee dominated by Spyros Mercouris. Consequently the new cities created an informal network to which should belong the newly designated ones, the current ones, and those cities who were European Capitals of Culture during the past two years. It was done with the intention to exchange experiences but also to “move forward without further delay” (as it is stated so often in managerial jargon).

This kind of arrogance does not exist by chance but results out of short term thinking to be able to do everything better, if only given the chance to do everything anew. Similar to the investments made on the green meadow to avoid hindrance of cultural heritages, this is bringing about ever more merely short and middle term concepts for the European Capitals of Culture. Consequently they shall never realize a significant level of cultural sustainability nor will these cities participate in the all important transfer of knowledge. The latter depends upon how is perceived the situation of cultures in Europe and what promotes cultural development in Europe. Needless to say, ‘the soul of Europe’ is at the same time deeply wounded due to over commercialization and technology driven re-organisational drives. How else to bring about cultural resistance, if not by means of an integrity of memories and sobering down of thoughts in terms of lived through experiences? Hence no value is given to working out the special role a city has to perceive when obtaining the designation and what specific tasks are connected with that, insofar as the cultural cohesion of Europe has to be attained and renewed.

Culture requires consistence over many years. Only then can be diminished the arbitrariness in how things are dealt with, culturally speaking, and a grammar of life be anticipated, indeed be lived and experienced. Insofar as European Capitals of Culture give recognition to the fact that they want to retain an openness for the new by upholding the artistic freedom of articulation and thereby willing to take the old on board, then this consistency in the interpretation of European cultures can become the most important contribution of these cities towards an understanding of Europe. Hence something special would be added to this every year. But to work out such substantial connectivity between the various European Capitals of Culture and their concepts, to this has made a first contribution Juergen Mittag with his book “The story of European Capitals of Culture”. As a matter of fact, there could be discovered many similarities e.g. Weimar with its SALVE concept to connect Goethe/Schiller with Buchenwald as an attempt to over come that horrific past just as Linz has to overcome that negative heritage insofar as Hitler wanted to designate this city as a cultural Metropolis along the Danube. Culture would be in this sense an ongoing learning process taking place in the present but reflective of the past, in order to be open for the potential new in the future.



[1] ECCM Symposium see

[2] Linz 2009 takes stock

Posted on January 27, 2010 by Matti Allam

After a successful year of being European Capital of Culture in 2009, Linz has published an account of the ECoC work on their website. Here is a little teaser of facts for you:

To read more about Linz 2009, download the narrative account and the facts & figures pdf document.

^ Top

« Linz 2009 | Thoughts about ECoC after Linz '09 by Tanja Brandmayr »