Welcome to my annual preview of Capitals, and Cities, of Culture around the world. It’s becoming as regular as Lonely Planets’ Places to Visit!
The concept of a designated City or Capital of Culture has come a long way from its initial offering in Athens in 1985. I exclude those cities which use the phrase as a marketing promotion. A designation means someone else has made the call, through open competition or more frequently in closed-door ministerial meetings.
There is a wide variation. Some are merely token: a few events organised by the government or official bodies, a form of diplomatic showcasing; in others nothing appears to happen, an honorary title. Many have a larger than usual arts programme with little focus. At the other extreme some titles seek to transform a city (eg European and UK). Some are contemporary arts minded, others resolutely fix on heritage and folk arts; most aim to increase tourism. The United Kingdom title stands out not just with its 4 yearly cycle but as the most focused on broader economic rather than cultural benefits.
As usual there is a shortage of reviews and evaluations of programmes outside of the European and UK titles. This is not surprising; many of the titles are in countries with severe press restrictions and secretive officialdom. Information simply does not come out. But there are some where an enterprising researcher could mine for an article or even a thesis: Lithuania, Italy, Ibero-American and even the private American titles all offer possible research interests. Makes a change from the seemingly endless articles rehashing the same academic “experts” with little critical understanding on the European title.
More titles come on board each year. 2019 sees two newcomers. Waltham Forest becomes the first holder of the London Borough of Culture title. I’ve a soft spot for this one as I lived in the borough for over 25 years. Banská Štiavnica is the first national title holder in Slovakia.
The two European Capitals of Culture are Matera and Plovdiv. Another soft spot as these two were the first I announced as chair of the selection panel. I’ve followed their ups and downs since then and look forward to their comprehensive programmes.
In the Americas the flagship is Panama, the Ibero-American title holder. It merges this title with its celebration of its 500 years anniversary. Its build up programme has been impressive including listening to experiences from international cultural experts. The privately run American title goes (as usual with no competition or openness) to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. The title had a poor 2018 as a casualty of the Venezuelan collapse but San Miguel, a UNESCO World Heritage city , together with its region, could put the title back on track after an interesting Mérida in 2016.
There are fewer titles in Europe this year. The United Kingdom now waits as Coventry prepares for 2021 (and a debate starts about a smaller “Towns of Culture” title). The next stage of the Hull 2017 evaluation should come out; it will start to evaluate the programme and its possible legacy and follows the extensive preliminary review report issued by Hull University in March 2018. The Italian title sits out the year (not to compete with Matera) until Parma in 2020. In Portugal and Spain the Eixo Atlántico title has its fallow year before a 2020 title holder. Spain does host the Catalan title of Cervera.
Lithuania has 11 title holders. yes, I’ll repeat that, 11 title holders. Rokiškis is the national title holder. There are 10 holders of the “Small Capitals of Culture” title, one from each county. Lessons there for the UK Towns proposal?
Belarus has two titles, both in the south-west of the country. Pinsk holds the national title and Brest that of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Both titles are low-key, more conservative and folk orientated. The government still persecutes members and supporters of the exiled Free Theatre of Belarus which is increasing its programme around the world as well as in Belarus.
Russia also hosts two titles.The regional title in Krasnoyarsk goes to Achinsk and the Finno-Ugric holder is Shorunzha. The latter title makes a welcome return (now for three more years). Run by youth organisations it is a purely cultural title. The Turkic World title goes to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Let’s hope it continues the pattern of considerable regional cultural partnerships and performances.
The Arab title year runs from April to March. Oujda in Morocco will finish their programme of over 600 events and hand over to Port-Sudan in Sudan. The Islamic title has four holders this year, one in each of its three regions and one in the host city of its annual Culture Ministers meeting. The latter title goes to Tunis. Hopes are not high after the underwhelming impact of Sfax as the Capital of Arab Culture two years ago. Expectations are only for a few more events at the official cultural institutions level. ISESCO who run the Islamic title have decreed 2019 as the Year of Islamic Cultural Heritage. It follows on from the European Year of Cultural Heritage last year; I wonder if there are any joint projects in the pipeline? They are also calling on the three Islamic capitals to twin with the fourth title holder, Al-Quds, also known as Jerusalem. The other two title holders are Bandar Seri Begawan (who did little as an ASEAN holder two years ago) and Bissau.
Yogyakarta holds the ASEAN title, having canvassed for it two years ago. A centre of Javan culture it remains to be seen how a programme develops. So far the ASEAN titles have been disappointing.
The three remaining titles are the East Asia Cities of Culture. This trilateral programme is gaining in strength with competitions in two countries (not Japan) and programmes moving beyond a showcase of traditional arts. Xi’an, the archaeological home of the warriors, is the Chinese representative; Incheon in Korea and Toshima in Japan are the three cities for 2019.
Several titles have not yet released their 2019 title holders. SAARC in South Asia (probably a heritage site in India as they follow an alphabetical rota of member states); Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, CPLP, (probably somewhere in Cape Verde as the host of the biennial meeting of culture ministers) and Victoria in Australia. I’m not sure the latter is an annual event, any news welcome as they don’t answer emails.
Will France join the national titles list, with its first edition in 2021? The previous culture minister indicated “oui” in the summer of 2018 but little has been heard from his successor.
So the year starts with 22 declared title holders, plus the 10 Small Capitals in Lithuania and possibly 2 or 3 more. The Capitals of Culture concept develops every year; let’s hope more of the titles start to evolve and leave a lasting change in the city.