Democratize our capitals of culture!

Published on 27th September 2012 by Rarita Zbranca

The European Capital of Culture is one of the most successful and attractive of EU programmes. Since its launch in 1985, more than 40 cities have benefited from the attention they have received from the scheme, and every year many cities compete to win the prestigious title.

 

But reality has proven that the process often results in unwanted effects. Too often, local or national governments have taken control of the administration of the programme and neglected its cultural core. Over the years, political interference has often led to situations arising where prestigious cultural directors have been sidelined and the local cultural scene has been disregarded, divided or weakened. A case in point is the Slovenian theatre director Tomaž Pandur, who recently resigned as president of the programme in Maribor, the city due to be the European Capital of Culture in 2012.

 

The title is often perceived as being “good business”, bringing in European funds. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that most of the investment has to be made by local and national governments – the EU only adds up to 1.5 million Euros to the budget, in the form of the Melina Mercouri Prize. It is thus always in the interest of the city that the investment in the programme produces long-term results, creating the conditions for a sustainable and vibrant community life.

 

One obvious danger often faced by the cities involved is their commitment to large-scale infrastructure projects, which rapidly eat up resources and too often stay unfinished throughout the Capital of Culture year. Strategic investment should first and foremost be an investment in people – in improved city life, increased citizen participation, and wider access to culture. Yet the focus is too often solely on the year in which the European Capital of Culture takes place – the year in which the city stands in the spotlights of international attention. This usually leads to a neglect of the time after this year, which prevents decisions being made that lead to a truly sustainable process.

 

The Capital of Culture programme undoubtedly creates great value. But how can a city make the best use of such an opportunity? One way is for the European Capital of Culture programme to be rooted in those aspects that make a city unique. The more the programme is based on the uniqueness of the city and its cultural scene, the more interesting it will be for international audiences. A specific programme positions your city in the eyes of the world with its unique cultural highpoints clearly on view and clearly differentiated from those of other cities, regions and nations. After all, it is a vibrant and healthy local culture that gives a city its European dimension. After too many examples of enormous budgets being spent on large-scale international productions presented as one-off events, cultural experts should now call for a programme that comprises of longer-term artistic collaborations and co-productions of local and international artists.

 

Given the various problems a European Capital of Culture is confronted with, a capital requires a self-management and self-monitoring process to supervise the complex preparation process, as well as the organization of the year itself. This does not mean disentitling the EU Commission of its general responsibility for the European Capital of Culture – however, it should involve an independent monitoring authority, distinct from the implementing agency that currently exists. It should include local civil society, including business, as well as representatives of the cities and regions and independent experts. This “decentralization” is essential in guaranteeing compliance with earlier-agreed promises and conventions. This strict monitoring process is likely to be more effective and efficient when it is not carried out in a “top down” manner.

 

Each European Capital of Culture marks a contribution of the cities and regions to the development of Europe, and is a symbol of the diversity and wealth of our European heritage. Each city can demonstrate what it is capable of and what it means for Europe, and should not simply become the backdrop for an arbitrary cultural event, however attractive it may be. The programme should relate specifically to the special cultural potential of each respective city. This can only be achieved by including the citizens and making the programme – both its development and execution – a joint endeavour. After all, ultimately it is the city that is special, not its political management.

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