Capitals of Culture: a worldwide activity

Capitals of Culture An introductory survey Steve Green October 2017

In the paper, link at the top of the post, I survey all the Capitals of Culture programmes: who set them up, objectives, selection and programmes.  There is a comprehensive directory of programmes including tables of every title holder for all programmes.

The European Capital of Culture programme is well known.  But do you know that since the first edition, in Athens in 1985, there have been 30 similar titles around the world?  In 2017 23 cities hold a title.  Over 300 cities have held a title, some more than one title, some two titles at the same time and some more than once. Three programmes have yet to start, and 10 have been closed.

The European title has generated a substantial library of reports, evaluations, theses, commentaries and controversy.  Little has been written about the other programmes. Under the auspices of international organisations, national ministries of culture, regional administrations and NGOs the Capitals illustrate different processes, share some common factors and differ in intention and activity.

My aim is to broaden awareness of the programmes, to trigger more analysis of them. More programmes are in the pipeline, there is no indication the trend for more titles will slow down.

The survey is an introduction.  I welcome more information on titles (except  ECOC) and will keep the paper up to date.

 

BREAKING NEWS:  Arts Council Slovakia will soon announce a new national Capital of Culture programme.

2017: the year of 23 “Capitals of Culture”

There are 23 “Capitals of Culture” around the world in 2017. A few are formally called “City of Culture” but the idea is the same!  The full list is later in this post.

Many cities (amplified by travel journalists, place making and marketing PRs) call themselves a “Cultural Capital”.  There is something special about having the title awarded from outside the city. It implies recognition not self-promotion.

The concept has come a long way since the first “European City of Culture” in 1985.  Built on the initiative of probably the two most well-known Ministers of Culture (Melina Mercouri of Greece and Jack Lang of France) the European Union programme has evolved considerably since that opening event in Athens. Fifty-four cities have held the title (now the European Capital of Culture).  Pafos and Aarhus share the title in 2017 and nine further cities have been selected to hold the title in the years to 2021.

In the mid 1980s there was very little appreciation, in practice or in academic circles, of the impact culture can have in a city. From seeing culture, (especially what used to be called “high culture” mainly for a small minority), in formal galleries, theatres and festivals the understanding now has widened and deepened. An annual title is no longer just a major pageant of artistic celebration but brings benefits through its social and economic impact.  Now there is an abundance of academic and management literature, reports, thesis and indeed consultants each with their own interpretation of the (mostly) positive effects of culture in a city’s wellbeing and prosperity.

From that initial event in 1985 the idea of designating a city as a “Capital of Culture” has been progressively adopted around the world. In some cases the title is organised in a  single country and in others the designation comes from a multi-lateral organization.

There are considerable variations. The main one is probably whether there is an open competition, many benefits can accrue to unsuccessful candidates as well as to the title holder. Are the cities appointed by ministries or through a competition with an independent selection panel? Is there a short period of notice from selection or enough time over several years to develop a programme?  Is the selection based on a city’s heritage and current culture or on a specific programme for the title year? The specific objectives of each programme are different.  The budgets, and programmes, of the capitals vary considerably. Some have an intensive annual programme, others focus on a month.  A few are linked to formal Ministerial meetings and many keep a long arms length from politics.  With the exception of the European Union programme there is severe lack of transparency in most programmes.   I will explore these differences in a longer paper.

The 23 in 2017 are

Aarhus and Pafos        European Capitals of Culture

Hull                              UK City of Culture

Pistoia                         Italian Capital of Culture

 Klaipėda                    Lithuanian Capital of Culture

Lisbon                         Ibero-American Capital of Culture

Vuokkiniemi                Finno-Ugric Capital of Culture

Luxor                          Capital of Arab Culture

Bogra                   Cultural Capital of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation

Amman, Sennar, Mashhad, Kampala      Islamic Capitals of Culture

Kyoto, Changsha City, Daegu,                 Culture Cities of East Asia

Mérida                                                      American Capital of Culture

Turkestan                                                 Culture and Arts Capital of the Turkic World

Some more additions:

Reus is the Catalan Capital of Culture; Bobruisk is the Belarus Capital of Culture and Sharypova is the Capital of Culture in Krasnoyarsk,  Bandar Seri Begawan is the ASEAN Capital of Culture and Ganja is the Commonwealth of Independent States Capital of Culture

There could have been more.  The Irish “City of Culture” programme is on hold as Ireland will host a “European Capital of Culture” (Galway) in 2020.  Canada had a “Cultural Capitals of Canada” programme for 10 years but it ended in 2012.  A non government organisation in Korea awarded the title of National Cultural Capital in 2016 to Siheung  but no news yet on a 2017 title holder. In recent years the idea of a “World Capital of Culture” has been floated and there was an attempt at a “West African Capital of Culture” programme. There was an initial announcement in 2015 that Russia was exploring the idea. A Russian city was one of the candidates for the 2017 Finno-Ugric title.  Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has launched, for 2019 and 2020, the “London Borough of Culture”.    

In addition to these major “Capitals of Culture” programmes there are many more titles for cities. Conakry is the UNESCO “World Book Capital” in 2017.  The European Union has a wide range of titles including “Youth Capital” (Varna in 2017), “Green Capital” (Essen in 2017) and “Capital of Innovation” (Amsterdam in 2016).  Other organisations in Europe award Capital titles, based on a competition, including “Sport” (Marseille in 2017) and “European Regional Gastronomy Award” (East Lombardy, Riga-Gauja and Aarhus).  Indeed several cities have become serial title holders (or at least candidates) seeking titles every few years.  That’s for another paper!.

From small beginnings the organic and unplanned growth of the “Capital of Culture” concept has become a global activity. Every continent has its opportunity (although limited in Africa despite its flourishing cultural activity).  Competitions are attracting more candidates.

So in 2017 if you are looking for somewhere to go, try a “Capital of Culture” or two. If you live near one, support it! Why not encourage your city to bid for a future title

 

NOTE:  edited on 30 December to include note about the Korean National Cultural Capital.

NOTE:  edited in October to include more capitals.