Capitals of Culture in 2018

The cycle of cities with Capital, or City, of Culture titles continues into 2018.

Twenty three cities held titles in 2017.  Some had spectacular successes and some were almost invisible.  Hull (UK City of Culture), Aarhus (European Union), and Lisbon (Ibero-American) led the way not only with dynamic programmes but with an eye on the future.  All three have plans for maintaining the momentum and do not see the title year as a simple mega arts festival or city vanity project.  A special call out to Vuokkiniemi, the fourth and final Finno-Ugric title holder.

An interesting event took place in Shanghai where cultural managers from past European Union title holders met with their counterparts from East Asian title holders to compare notes.  It is promising to hear that several of the East Asian title holders were seeing the linkages between their arts orientated festivals and city development.

So now to the 2018 offering. Twenty-one cities so far named.  It is noticeable this year that fewer have their webpages, or Facebook/Twitter, up and running. Most programmes start in late January through to late April.  I’ll update links as they come online.

A new title starts in Victoria, Australia. The first holder is Bendigo and surrounding municipalities.  It looks like a mix of top down and smaller scale local events. One to watch and to see if there will be a 2019 title holder.

The three East Asian Cultural Cities title holders are Busan (Korea), Kanazawa (Japan) and Harbin (China).  Busan’s programme opens on 12 April.  Harbin’s annual ice and snow sculpture festival makes a spectacular start.

Two titles in Asia seem to be invisible or even non-existent.  Bandar Seri Bagwan in Brunei had the ASEAN title but seems to have done little in 2017.  Perhaps only a courtesy title?   The SAARC title in 2017 went to Mahasthangarh at Bogra in Bangladesh in 2017 but little if anything seems to have happened. It looks like the title recognises important heritage sites in the region rather than an active programme of events. No news of any holder in 2018.

The Islamic title has three cities spread over its three regions:  Bahrain, Libreville (Gabon) and Nakhichevan (Azerbaijan).   Last year, two holders Sennar and Kampala appeared to do nothing and Amman had a small programme.  Mashhad in Iran was active with a very well promoted programme on Twitter and Facebook of formal conferences and events. Little in the way of the arts, even with those with strong Islamic traditions.  The year-end saw  public demonstrations against the regime.

The Arab title for 2018 was scheduled to go to Basra in Iraq. However at the last moment the city withdrew citing its unpreparedness. In December 2017 ALECSO, the title organisers, selected Oujda in Morocco as a replacement. It will be interesting to see how the city builds a programme at such short notice. Luxor, the 2017 holder, had a vibrant programme of traditional arts and folklore from the region mixed with interesting professional conferences on Arab cities, culture and arts and formal government speeches opposing the globalisation of culture. There was little indication of the nature of the audiences.

The Belarus and Krasnoyarsk titles also focus on traditional and folk arts with little contemporary or modern arts. Both reflect the censorship and nationalism of their approach to culture. Their focus appears entirely local.  Novopolotsk holds the Belarus title in 2018.  Shushensky is the Krasnoyarsk title holder, the first time a city in the rural south of the Russian region has been selected by the expert jury of the competition. Over 55,000 people attended over 250 events in Sharypova, the 2017 title holder.

The Turkic World title in 2018 goes to Kastomonu in northern Turkey. Turkestan’s programme in 2017 consisted of over 40 events, one of the smaller programmes for a capital of culture. The Commonwealth of Independent States title will be held by Goris in Armenia. It will be interesting to see if the programme is more imaginative than those in the more culturally restrictive countries in the CIS.

Lisbon ran a progressive programme in 2017 as the Ibero-American title holder in 2017; with a strong thematic approach. The city also developed a major new cultural strategy.  Will La Paz in 2018 achieve the same high level of achievement?  It sets out with a strong ambitions. It’s the third time they have held the title so have the experience.  La Paz has joined Agenda21’s “Culture in Sustainable Cities” programme and becomes a Pilot City. Panama, the 2019 title holder, is already developing its programme with international advisers.  These cities are making the Ibero-American title the lead Capital of Culture programme in the Americas.

The privately run American title has been controversial in the past. Mérida in Mexico held the title for a second time in 2017.  A strongly entertaining programme but the key points are an open call fund for small cultural projects in 2018 and the city has joined the UGLC Pilot Cities programme. Both look healthy steps towards a legacy. The selection of the 2018 title holder appears to have been difficult.  Early in 2016 the Venezuelan city of Barcelona was reported to be applying.  However it seems the political and economic chaos of the country slowed down its application and it wasn’t until December 2017 that the state around Barcelona, El Estado de Anzoátegui, was announced as the 2018 title holder. Instead of a public sector manager the programme is led by an NGO which promotes the use of the Spanish language.

The Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries anointed Salvador in Brazil as its first title holder for 2018 but there is little evidence yet of a programme. The city was named as one of the places to visit by Bloomberg Business Week and is hosting an exhibition of photographs of the Allende government in Chile which was part of Lisbon’s Ibero-American programme.

Europe has a cluster of title holders.  In Lithuania Klaipėda in 2017 had an extensive programme, a challenge in 2018 for Marijampolė, a much smaller city. The Italian City of Culture had its second edition in 2017 and Pistoia ran a strong programme with a heritage and tourist focus. In 2018 attention switches to Palermo in Sicily who beat 20 other applicants. The increasing attraction of the title was demonstrated when 31 cities applied for the 2020 title; winner to be announced in January.

Two regional titles show that titles do not need to be a national level.  Eixo Atlántico’s title is every two years and in 2018 the Portuguese city of Santa Maria da Feria takes the crown.  In Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia the city of Manresa holds the regional Catalan title and opens its programme on 20 January. The city voted overwhelmingly for parties seeking independence from Spain in the December 2017 regional election. It will be interesting if they can keep the divisive regional politics out of culture or will they use the arts for a political statement?

That just leaves the two European Union Capitals of Culture.  Malta’s government has been in the news with  serious concerns over its approach to the rule of law so it will be interesting to see how Valletta 2018 develops, a very small city in the EU’s smallest member state.  Leeuwarden (now marketed as Friesland) promises much after a solid development period.  Both Valletta and Leeuwarden suffered by losing key senior people only months before the title year. Not a sound management approach.  Will they recover? I was on the selection panel for both and will be looking to see how their programmes compare with the promises they made at selection.  I have a worrying feeling that the gap between the sales pitch in bid-books and the actual delivery is widening.

No UK title this year as it runs in a 4 yearly cycle, Coventry will hold the title in 2021.  Surely it is time to make this a two-yearly event given Hull’s success.

In February the mayor of London will announce the first London Boroughs of Culture for 2019 and 2020. There are 22 applicants (out of 32 boroughs).  As well as the Italy2020 announcement (see above) Slovakia will announce its first title holder in May for 2019.

Tourism is one of the main reasons for a city to seek a title, although the evidence of sustained tourism growth is not that strong.  The Guardian puts Leeuwarden, Valletta and Palermo in its “Hotlist” of Places to Visit in 2018.  Lonely Planet highlights Tallinn and Matera, the EU title holders in 2011 and 2019, and La Paz (in its frugal section).  La Paz (“the coolest city in south America”) also features in the New York Times listing of affordable destinations.

My major survey of all Capitals of Culture programmes since 1985, will soon be updated to include a commentary on the 2017 title holders, news of the 2018 title holders and the new title in Slovakia.



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.