I was listening to the latest podcast between Nick Cull (University of Southern California and expert on public diplomacy) and Simon Anholt (who coined “nation brand” and is a fierce opponent of “nation branding”). In their weekly “People, Places Power” podcasts they discuss various subjects (UK and Brexit, the EU, etc) . This week they tackled cities and their international impact and reputation. And Latvia, or rather Latvian cities, came up. Simon referred to his time when he was an adviser to the Latvian Prime Minister who wanted to improve the country’s international reputation. Simon relates the experience in his recent book “The Good Country Equation” (recommended). In his visits around the country he found that the provincial cities were not too keen on increasing the international profile. His recommendation was to focus on increasing not the national profile but to concentrate on promoting Riga.
Latvia, Riga, the capital, European Capital of Culture in 2014. Now name nine (9) other cities in Latvia. Take a pause but don’t use Google, Bing or Duck Duck Go (or for book lovers, an atlas). It’s called using memory. Nothing? Found just one (and sure that is not in Estonia or Lithuania?). Well, one of those invisible nine will be a European Capital of Culture in 2027. Nine cities are currently preparing their bids. None has a city population over 100,000 and many are much smaller even with the co-option of the neighbouring region. They are due to submit their bid books in June 2021 (and hopefully make them public online following Slovakia’s approach). The Selection Panel will meet in July to shortlist. And a journalist, Philip Birzulis, is helpfully writing about each candidate to let us know something about the candidates.
Each week he focusses on a different candidate city. So far he has done eight and to end your suspense they are (in no particular order, of course)
The short articles are fascinating. The histories and attractions of the cities clearly show the differences between the cities (and not just in size). What I found missing is a recognition, in almost all of the articles, that the competition is for a European Capital of Culture rather than a Latvian national City of Culture. Neighbouring Lithuania has a annual national title, a legacy of Vilnius 2009. There are clear differences in expectations between the ECOC and a national title. In short, the former is outward looking and the latter more inward looking. One of the few European issues (globalisation versus localism) mentioned by a city in an article was rather put down by the journalist.
The journalist is also a tour guide so it is not unexpected that he highlights the heritage, natural and built, of the cities. These will not help the candidates. There is little on topics of “blocked memory” (which Kaunas 2022 is tackling extremely well). The criteria and scope of the title have changed significantly since Riga held the title in 2014. The Selection Panel will be looking, through six fixed criteria, for a transformational change in the cities. A successful candidate recognises that its current cultural offer is not fit for purpose for the late 2020s and beyond. This becomes even more important as we move to the post pandemic environment and a greater practical implementation of changes (rather than more talk and conferences) to combat the climate emergency. The emphasis is on the cultural offer, not place-making or tourist promotion which are side effects. Audience development, outreach, cultural strategy come to the fore, along with managerial and financial competencies. Key is the “European Dimension”: not simply being in Europe but both showing your own culture but equally importantly letting your own residents see the diversity of cultures in Europe.
It will be very interesting to see the bid books and how they tackle this essential criteria of the “European Dimension”. Have they changed since Anholt’s visits? Are they now actively seeking to engage on European issues? What can they offer to the rest of Europe beyond natural and built attractions and an arts festival?
We look forward to reading the bid books in June!