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.

 

 

 

 

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.