Galway have announced their European Capital of Culture programme for 2020. They share the title with Rijeka. I have a soft spot for both: back in 2016 I chaired the selection panels which recommended the two cities. Rijeka have launched their programme in an innovative Time Out edition.
Galway beat off three other Irish cities for the title. Dublin in the first round and then Limerick and an imaginatively named Three Sisters ( a combined bid from Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny). The ten members of the panel, from ten different EU member states, were not unanimous in their choice but Galway convinced a majority. Their report is online.
The bid was based on a 100 page “bidbook” (based on a set of questions common to all bidders) and a presentation to the panel. Galway surprised us by handing out VR headsets (first time I think any of us had used one) and showing us a VR film. Why? Because a key part of their bid, the innovative bit, was their aim to be the first digital and virtual European Capital of Culture.
The bidbook is not simply a sales pitch; it becomes the de facto contract for the title holder. Why? Several reasons. Firstly it would be extremely unfair to the unsuccessful cities if a title holder cleared off and did something different “But you won on the promise of X and are delivering Y”? makes the Vote Leave promises look sane. The book also provides the monitoring panel (another group of international experts some also from the selection panel) a touchstone to see how the city is progressively implementing the project. It is expected that there will be some variation from the projects in the bid-book: partners disappear or drop out, budgets are redrawn, new projects and partners come into play. But generally most of the bid-book should take place.
So how does the programme match up to the bid-book promises? The journey from 2016 to now has been, shall we say, bumpy. This is not unusual in an ECOC (sorry for the acronym). Almost predictably Galway’s management has fallen over two of the standard hurdles which have tripped many previous ECOCs.
Firstly personal, at Board, CEO and Artistic Director level. We can go back to Liverpool in 2008 for the mother of all personnel and political problems from its selection in 2003 until Phil Redmond taking control very close to the 2008 year. Since then Maribor 2012, Donostia San Sebastian 2016, Plzen 2016, Leeuwarden 2018, Aarhus 2017, Valletta 2018 and more have lost a CEO and/or both an Artistic Director during the build up period. Political interference, misunderstanding of the nature of an ECOC, poor selection, the reasons are numerous, never quite the same.
Secondly money. Again most ECOCs fail to meet the financial forecasts (hopes?) set out in the bidbook. Selection panels are alert to this. In Galway’s case the panel reported its concern that the private funding aspiration, at over 15% of the total, was rarely achieved. Press reports indicate a pending shortfall in Galway. Public sector funding often also falls short as national, regional and city funding does not quite match up to their initial hopes.
So nothing new, Galway simply did not learn from previous ECOCs. That is water under the bridge but it means more effective PR before the opening to overcome the negative impressions (until the final evaluation which I hope will follow the excellent evaluation of Limerick, Irish Capital of Culture in 2014, carried out by the then Ministry of Arts, and the independent ECOC evaluations of ECORYS). I find evaluations by local universities unconvincing and too orientated to pleasing the management and local funders. Too often they are statistical reports with little critical analysis.
The programme? Give a sound management team €30m plus, a few years lead in and a good programme surely follows. There are enough artists to fill a years programme; at the lowest end simply putting the standard festivals into the programme fills a lot of pages. An ECOC should be more. In many ways an ECOC, linked to a city’s cultural strategy over the following few years, should be saying to the local arts scene that it needs to step-change for the future, the current business as usual needs shaking up. The local arts scene often think an ECOC is an opportunity for more money for them to do what they are doing now. Wrong. An ECOC is strategically instrumental. It is not a marketing exercise for the city, although the tourist business will pick it up. It is an opportunity to change the city. And over time, not over one year. Take perhaps the most holistic city development taking in an ECOC: Lille in 2004. Still changing, still developing after more than 20 years. And not just with periodic spectacles.
The Galway programme follows ,on the surface, the proposals in the bidbook. Same project titles, but it seems they have been slimmed down. Many of the more innovative elements are missing or downplayed. A shortfall in funding? Too adventurous? Various managers not up to it (a common ECOC problem between selection and delivery which is why most ECOCs now run extensive cultural management training programmes). Is the programme international enough? To me that is a fundamental issue. It is why an ECOC is radically different from a national capital of culture (like Limerick 2014, Derry 2013, Hull 2017). They have narrower criteria and objectives. It is difficult to see the internationalism in the programme. There is a page of international names but are these who have helped on the way or are actually providing content during the year? The recent norm is that well over half of the events in an ECOC are international (and the further away the better).
One key sentence in ECOC formal reports is: an ECOC is not just about promoting your own city but increasing the awareness of the diversity of European cultures in your own city. Note the plural. One key point made by Galway in the selection was that 24% of the residents are New Irish. I can’t see a corresponding engagement of them in the programme or even in the list of staff of the ECOC. I can’t see, but this could be in a secondary programme, much debate about the cultural implications of Brexit. This is perhaps one of the key European issues which needs discussion in an ECOC in Ireland.
A major legacy of many ECOCs has been that the local arts managers have used the event to pioneer new international partnerships and break new ground. I can’t see this from the programme. I hope the normal festivals are different in scale and content to their previous incarnations. “International Festivals” should surely be totally international! One standard question of the selection panel used to be ” How will your festivals be different in the ECOC year?”.
The ECOC year is about to start. Time to watch, time to enjoy. Time soon for the city administration to sit down, with many others, to plan.. and finance.. the legacies. The bidbook listed many to be used as starting points. Will Galway follow the way of some ECOCs and fold in December 2020 and disappear or will the cultural life in Galway in 2021 be demonstrably different from that in 2019? And I don’t mean tourists but artists, youth groups, arts in school, participatory and community arts, the creative industries, attendance at arts events (and not counting passive attendance at spectacles). And will people have a wider understanding of the other lesser used languages in Europe alongside a growth in Gaelic? Twenty years, and longer, from now journalists will still be describing Galway as a European Capital of Culture, not just in the tourism pages. It is a brand which requires constant attention. Time will tell.