There are 18 “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 18 in 2017 are
Luxor Capital of Arab 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, is currently preparing the groundwork for a “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.