Capitals and Cities of Culture in 2021

Welcome to my annual survey of the Capitals and Cities of Culture. 2020 was, for an obvious reason, one of considerable anxiety for the organisers of Capitals of Culture. The global coronavirus pandemic meant many programmes were cancelled, deferred, reorganised or delayed. In the grand scheme of things, with 88,000,000 cases and approaching 2,000,000 deaths, Capital of Culture programmes are well down the list of priorities. Culture and the arts have a role to play in societies, when it is safe and when they can be delivered safely. At the moment, January 2021, it is still not certain how the 2021 titles will pan out. Lockdowns, movement restrictions, a near total collapse of tourist travel will all seriously limit even the best plans. The safety of performers, technicians and spectators will come first. As Norman Foster wrote, crises bring forward changes which would have happened; in the new normality let’s hope cultural programmes also change. For many we can expect to see a greater and more imaginative use of digital. Will they pay more attention to the climate emergency for example?

Rijeka and Galway, the European Capitals of Culture both opened in wet conditions and almost at once had to stop. The EU’s institutions have (laboriously and slowly) allowed both to run limited programmes until March 2021. The planned 2021 cities have been deferred: Timisoara and Elefsina move to 2023 (sharing with Veszprem); Novi Sad to 2022 sharing with Kaunas and Esch).

In Italy Parma will also run into 2021, now renamed Parma 2020+21. The Italian government fast tracked Bergamo and Brescia to be joint title holders in 2023, the two cities with the worse COVID19 outbreaks in early 2020. The 2022 competition is well under way with 28 candidates.

Coventry, the UK City of Culture, sensibly delayed its opening until May when its full programme starts and now runs until May 2022. Chenine Bhathena, Creative Director writes “This will be one extraordinary year of joyful celebration with a strong social conscience, as we create a new history for our city.”  Several cities are bidding for the 2025 title: Southampton, Bradford, Lancashire and Medway. Selection expected at the end of the year.

Trakai in Lithuania managed a reasonable programme in 2020 and hands over to Neringa. The Deputy Director of Trakai Municipality looked back:

“Although the year was really difficult and full of surprises due to the situation of the pandemic, we are happy to have successfully overcome all the difficulties. I believe that the Capital of Culture project in Trakai really left an indelible mark with its events, concerts, art installations and bold decisions.

Slovakia has nominated the small town of Stará Ľubovňa as its Capital of Culture for 2021. Several cities in Slovakia have recently submitted their bid books for the ECOC title in 2026.

In Portugal, Braga, the Eixo Atlântico title holder in 2020 has deferred its programme to 2021. It, along with other cities, is preparing its bid for the ECOC title in 2027.

Mishkan, the Finno-Ugric Capital in 2020 in a sign of the times held its closing conference on Zoom. Abja-Paluoja, (Mulgimaa region, Estonia) takes over the baton for 2021.

In the year of uplifting anti Lukashenko demonstrations it is weird to report on the Capital of Culture in Belarus. The title, where holders reinforce heritage and folk arts, goes to Borisov in 2021. Many cultural workers were arrested and tortured by the regime.

The Cultural Capital of Krasnoyarsk 2020 in Russia runs from April to March and the current holder is the Karatuz District.

The East Asia programme is developing strongly. The three countries , China, Korea and Japan have, for the first time nominated four cities for 2021. Two, Kitakyushu (Japan) and Suncheon (Korea) are carried over from 2020; neither started their programmes last year. China has nominated two cities Shaoxing and Dunhuang. Gyeongju in Korea was initially selected for 2021 but will be held over to 2022.

The Ibero-American title goes to Mexico City, following on from Buenos Aires. As is common with this title 2021 marks several anniversaries in Mexico’s history.

The Cultural Capital of the Turkic World for 2021 does not yet appear to have been announced; the title holders normally start their programmes in the Spring. Sakarya and Trabzon have both indicated their candidatures.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) nominated Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, as the title holder in 2021.

The Capital of Arab Culture title goes to Irbid in Jordan . The three Capitals of Islamic Culture are Doha, Islamabad and Banjul. These two programmes have varying success. Some title holders do little, others have a reasonable programme. There is little news about their 2021 intentions although there was a promising meeting in Doha in December to outline their programme.

The Angkor temples in Cambodia need little introduction. the nearby city of Siem Reap is the ASEAN City of Culture for 2021-22.

There has been little news about the SAARC Capital of Culture. The title was awarded to India for 2020 and nothing further was heard. The Maldives are next in line. In previous years the title has gone to a major archaeological/heritage site; the country is chosen in alphabetical order.

The Community of Portuguese Language Countries nominates as its Capital of Culture a city in the country hosting its two-yearly ministerial meetings. In 2021-23 this is Angola but no information yet about a programme.

The United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA) as organisers of the Capital of African Culture had hoped to launch their new title in 2020. Marrakesh was chosen but a week or so before its opening Rabat was given the designation. A mystery with conspiracy theories abounding. In May UCLGA postponed the Rabat programme. no news yet on its resumption.

The two independent titles organised from Barcelona continue, Catalan (in 2021 Tortosa) and Americas (in 2021 Zacatecas State in Mexico).

The London Borough of Culture has re-scheduled. Brent, 2020 title, ran a revised programme. Lewisham has moved from 2021 to 2022 with Croydon in 2023. Liverpool’s Regional Borough of Culture goes to Halton in 2021 with a Bryan Adams concert as a highlight.

And for the first time, the Ukrainian Capital of Culture. In 2021 Mariupol and Slavutych hold the title. Will be very interesting to see the direction the competition will take: the balance between folk arts/heritage to contemporary.

On an optimistic note there will soon be a new Capital of Culture: France has joined the increasing number of countries with a national title. As several cities prepare their bids for the European Capital of Culture in 2028 the new French title follows a format pioneered by Canada and is aimed at smaller municipalities (or groups) of between 20,000 to 200,000. The selection process is under way, the closing date was 31 December 2020. Final selection is in March and the first title runs in 2022.

The global pandemic has disrupted the world in 2020 and into 2021. The progressive roll out of the vaccines may ameliorate the worst but in the meantime mask, socially distance and wash hands and follow your local official advice.

Capitals and Cities of Culture in 2020

This year 26 cities in 24 countries around the world will celebrate a City or Capital of Culture title awarded to them (rather than self proclaimed as a marketing ploy, there are many more of them!).

Potentially the most interesting is the first African Capital of Culture. Marrakesh in Morocco is the first title holder, the title organisers are the Africa branch of the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG). Will the city with its undoubted heritage put on a programme combining that heritage with contemporary arts? How will it deal with censorship? At the conference in November 2018 of Africities a session was run with representatives of the European Commission and European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). It is far too early to suggest the African title can be as comprehensive as the ECOC in its first edition but it is a start.

An update. At the last minute the government of Morocco has stepped in and makes Rabat the title holder. Marrakesh is simply dumped. Not a very good sign for the new title if it is at the mercy of governments. I hope the UCLG make a protest.

The ECOCs of the year are Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland. The latter had a struggle getting their act together but in the last year under a new CEO they have put together a sound programme. Rijeka in contrast have been very active and successful in their preparations. Croatia assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of 2020 and has set out a wide range of cultural objectives. Croatia is the only EU member state where the culture minister is an international expert in cultural policy!

Lithuania was the first European country to develop its own national title, this year Trakai has the honour. Its impressive castle in a lake will undoubtedly feature as a venue. There are ten other “towns of culture” in the country, one in each county: an innovative way for smaller towns to highlight their cultural offers.

Parma takes the Italian title. There was no Italian Capital last year as Matera held the ECOC title but now the national title is back in full flow.

Braga in Portugal is the regional Eixo Atlântico Capital of Culture. A full programme from February to November is planned, no doubt as a practice run for their bid for the ECOC title in 2027.

Lida is the Belarus national title holder. This title stands out in Europe as being very folk art and heritage based under the restrictive government control. The Catalan regional title is with El Vendrell, home of the Pablo Casals Foundation and museum.

Russia hosts two very different titles. The Krasnoyarsk region has yet to announce its title holder. Mishkino is the Finno-Ugric Capital, a region of just 7,000 people. The only City of Culture programme run by civil society: the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN) and URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples.

The Commonwealth of Independent States has designated Shymkent in Kazakhstan as their 2020 title holder.

The London Borough of Culture moves on from Waltham Forest to Brent in 2020. Sefton in Liverpool also holds a Borough of Culture title. This title is held on a planned rotation of the 6 boroughs in the region and omits the competitive element. There is no UK City of Culture title in 2020, Coventry is in full planning mode for 2021.

Slovakia in 2020 also has its second title holder, Nové Zámky.

South America hosts two titles. Buenos Aires is the Ibero-American capital (for the second time after 1992 and following its 2017 year as Ibero-American Capital of Gastronomy) and Punta Arenas in Chile is the American title.

The Arab and Islamic titles are a mixed bag. Sometimes there is a good programme, more often the title appears to pass the city by. The Islamic titles in 2020 are Bamako in Mali, Cairo in Egypt and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Cairo appears to be planning a significant programme. Bethlehem hosts the Arab title, the university is fully engaged and will run projects including a “Bethlehem University Prize for Arabic Fiction”.

Khiva is the second city in Uzbekistan to host a title in 2020, holding the Turkic World title. Normally Turkic World programmes start in April.

The Culture City of East Asia has, as usual, three cities. Yangzhou (China), Kitakyushu (Japan) and Sucheon (South Korea). Year by year the title holders seem to be becoming more adventurous in their programmes. The competition to hold the title in China and South Korea is attracting more applicants every year. Kitakyushu will be “competing” with the Cultural Olympiad of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Several titles follow the summit meetings of their organisers. Their programmes generally are limited to high profile openings, a few concerts and exhibitions: a medium sized arts festival with little ambition to any other objectives or legacy. Yogyakarta continues with its ASEAN title which is spread over two years between the meetings of ASEAN member states. Praia and Velha (Ribeira Grande de Santiago) in Cape Verde are also in the second year of their Capital of Culture of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. There is no news yet of the SAARC title holder; it is scheduled to be in India as the member states take it in turn to host the title. Thimphu in Bhutan hosted the 2018/19 title.

An updated and revised edition of my global survey and directory of Capitals and Cities of Culture is in preparation. The 2017 edition is available here.

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.