Capitals of Culture in 2019: the idea keeps on growing, two new titles this year

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 ShorunzhaThe 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.

 

 

 

 

2017: the year of 23 “Capitals of Culture”

For the capitals of culture in 2018 go to this page.

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.