Placemaking: the Capitals way

Valencia is the European Green Capital for 2024. In 2022 it was both one of the two European Capitals of Smart Tourism and the World Design Capital (which led in 2023 to entry into UNESCO´s 350 strong Creative Cities network). This collecting of titles is not unusual. The emergence of “Capital of….” titles has been growing almost exponentially in recent years. In this short review I´ll focus on “European” titles but I recognise there are many other national, regional and worldwide titles (far too many to record; I tried but gave up).

Along with the Green title, 2024 sees, in Europe, titles in Innovation, Smart Tourism, Youth, Volunteering, Democracy, Sport, Christmas, Inclusion and Diversity, Access and Cycling. Some of these have a secondary title or one for larger cities and one for smaller. And let´s not forget the most well-known and longest running title: the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) with three title holders this year. What distinguishes almost of these titles is the competitive nature rather a marketing-led self proclamation. Their proliferation seems to have crept up by stealth.

I´ll look at the titles from three points of view: of the organisers; the cities (winners and candidates) and the impact/ legacy etc. I´ll end with a list of the current title holders.

Who runs the titles and competitions?

Although the titles use “European” they come from different stables. Often reviewers treat the titles as if they are of the same provenance. Most do follow a standard template: a call for candidates, set criteria, candidates submitting bidbooks, a selection panel to evaluate bids, perhaps a shortlisting and then a final winner is announced. Detailed processes vary, especially on geographic and city eligibility. Few have a financial prize ( the main ones are Culture €1.5m, Innovation €1m). Geographically most candidates have to be within the EU and EEA but there are exceptions: the Youth short list included networks in Georgia, Moldova and Lviv in Ukraine. Cities in Brexit UK could enter for the Innovation title (but haven´t yet).

Organisers fall into three categories. The EU leads the way through the various directorates-general of the Commission; secondly two European networks supported by the EU and thirdly a mixed group of private not for profit organisations.

The EU has few opportunities to engage directly with cities and clearly has seen from the Culture experience that a “Capitals” approach enables them to bypass governments to showcase and promote their objectives at a local level. Unlike the Culture title most of the new competitions recognise recent, rather than projected, performance in the relevant sector. Valencia submitted an incredibly detailed 290 page bidbook for the Green title recording, with evidence, their environmental credentials. Here are two typical introductory statements:

The European Capitals of Inclusion and Diversity Award is granted to local authorities that exemplify outstanding dedication to creating safe, inclusive spaces where all feel that they belong and can flourish. The winning local authorities transform the ideal of inclusion and diversity into tangible deliverables. This serves to inspire others. I thank these European capitals for taking the Union of Equality to citizens at the local level.”

In 2024, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the European Capital of Innovation Awards (iCapital).  The competition rewards those European cities that are courageous enough to open their governance practices to experimentation and push the boundaries of technology for the benefit of their citizens.”  

Smart Tourism, Green and Access City complete the European Union titles. The EU´s Union of the Mediterranean recently launched its award. Tirana and Alexandria have been selected for the first Mediterranean Capitals of Culture and Dialogue for 2025.

Youth and Volunteering capitals fall into the second category. Both are organised by European umbrella networks, supported by grants from the EU.

The third category is varied, a key feature being a not for profit basis. The longest running, since 2001, is Sport; recent examples include Democracy, Christmas and Cycling. A new title and organiser emerges in 2025: a European Capital of Local Retail (Barcelona is already selected as the idea originated there!). They all seem to have been the initiative of an enthusiast who has managed to attract funding and launch the programme. The degree of transparency varies considerably for titles in this category (eg details of candidates, names of evaluation panel, selection criteria and panel reports).

ACES Europe, who run the Sport and Cycling titles, now awards 18 different Capital of Sport titles, including World, African and Winter. It is the only title to require a registration fee (currently €12,000) for candidates. In addition to the European Capital of Sport title it also awards, in 2024, 13 other cities with the title of European City of Sport. It is also the least transparent on its website with no information on whether there are actual competitions, the criteria and who is on the selection panel. A case study in over-reach perhaps or an example of the demand for any title, from cities?

The Democracy title introduced a new form of selection: an expert panel reviews the bids and produces a shortlist. Final selection is by an online poll of over 4,000 self selecting people in a “Citizen’s Jury”. Voters cannot vote for cities in their own country.

The increasing race to win a title

Cities have not been slow to bid for these titles. Over 80 cities put forward bids for the European titles in 2024. Smart Tourism led the way with 30 bids for the main title and a further 11 for its smaller city awards.

Cities are often serial candidates. Genoa, for example, bid for both the Smart Tourism and Sport titles. Former ECOCs are very active in seeking new titles. I remember the then mayor of Riga saying that cities of that size need a title every few years. It keeps the momentum of change alive, rotates into different sectors of city life and builds an international awareness and “brand” for tourism and inward investment. The Mayor of Tirana, host of the new Mediterranean title highlighted this strategy of collecting titles: “We have a fantastic experience with Tirana’s reputation as the capital of Sport, the capital of Youth.“. (Youth in 2022 and Sport in 2023).

The budgets and programmes for the titles look relatively small, considerably smaller than ECOCs. As the awards are based on achievement there is less emphasis on kick starting a new legacy than with the Culture title. Most programmes have a few new conferences and workshops, some new public activities but mainly rely on repurposing existing activities and events. The finances are difficult to find out, there is a definite focus on secrecy and non investigative journalism! Bristol´s Green title in 2025 had a £12.6m budget. In contrast Ljubljana in the following year allocated €600,000. Valencia´s budget for the World Design Capital was €5.5m.

That awkward question: any legacy?

The Culture title has, since 1985, generated a vast library of reports, books, articles, theses and evaluations. The newer titles have not yet reached that level of review. The Green capital seems the most likely to generate interest. It encompasses urban planning, climate emergency, environmental concerns. This 2019 article looks at Lisbon 2019 and Oslo 2020 Green Capitals and seeks:

to determine its (the Green Capital) utility as a policy instrument to catalyse the substantive urban transition to sustainability that the much sought after label seeks to recognize, highlight and honour.

Several Green capitals have produced reports on their year. Most have been self congratulatory rather like many ECOC evaluations. An exception is the very informative report 36 page report on Bristol´s Green year Perhaps its most important finding was the discrepancy between the European Commission’s objectives and those of the city. A common issue with ECOCs.

Ljubljana issued a both report on its year as Green capital in 2016 and a “5 years later” review. (I´ll write a more detailed post on the Green capital). Smart Tourism prompted this survey from China. A feature of some of the titles is a formal network of past winners to share ideas and developments.

What next?

I think we will see even more competitions emerging. Clearly there is a demand both from cities, and a willingness on new organisers to administer. The topics are almost endless! The titles will gain more visibility the longer they continue. The lack of a financial award does not seem to be an obstacle.

There is scope for more analysis, especially of a cross sectoral basis, exploring the effectiveness of these placemaking initiatives: do they meet the objectives of the organiser (especially the EU); do residents respond? Are cities on a roller coaster of bidding? Is the continual bidding worth it? Are many of them little more than a PR opportunity for a city with little programming depth?

The current arrangements for the ECOC run until 2033. Soon the Commission will presumably start a review of both the process and performance of ECOCs to guide any decisions on continuing the programme beyond 2033. There are many lessons to be learnt from these newer competitions (yes, another post is in the offing).

There will be a a new European Commission and European Parliament later in 2024. City mayors, recently through Eurocities, seek to be round the table for EU decisions and policies. In their manifesto for the upcoming elections they call for an Urban Envoy in the Commission to coordinate all EU policies aimed at cities. Time for a working conference involving all the Capital programmes?

Many titles need to become more transparent, both in the selection process and, importantly, by title holders reporting publicly on their activity and legacy.

And the 2024 title holders:

Capitals of Culture in 2024; A title held by 25 (now 26) cities worldwide

Welcome to my 8th annual review of Capitals and Cities of Culture around the world. As usual I only include those where the title has been awarded by an external organisation rather than a self promoted marketing slogan.

The main news this year is Russia´s first Capital of Culture. Despite destroying Ukraine´s cultural infrastructure and killing thousands of Ukrainians in its illegal war of aggression Russia attempts to show “business as usual”. The competition was open to cities over 250,000. Selection has a novel twist: an online public vote, followed by a public presentation to an expert panel. The general criteria were: “Experts assessed the preservation of historical and cultural heritage, the level of development of the urban environment, theatres, museums and archives, education and enlightenment, the introduction of innovations and creative industries.” Nineteen cities put in bids leading to a shortlist of eight: Grozny, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Tomsk, Cheboksary and Chita. Nizhny Novgorod topped the poll with 189,151 votes, 2,000 ahead of Samara. The city is preparing a programme of around 150 events (well worth a read). Unexpectedly, Grozny the Chechen capital, was appointed as the 2025 title holder by the president of the organisers (a member of the Duma and under Western sanctions). It was a very controversial announcement. Several of the other shortlisted cities vented their surprise and anger at this impromptu decision. With the war continuing both Nizhny Novgorod and Grozny are to be boycotted. (No normal activity in an abnormal situation). The long standing regional Capital of Culture in Krasnoyarsk goes to Uzhursky.

The Cultural Cities of East Asia programme gains strength every year. Despite the frequent political differences between the three countries (China, South Korea and Japan) this cultural programme thrives. The 2024 title-holders are Weifang and Dalian in China, Ishikawa in Japan and Gimhae City in South Korea. Weifang is in the UNESCO Creative Cities network for crafts and folk art. Dalian stands out for its 30,000 cherry trees and their blossom. Ishikawa was hit by the earthquake on New Years day. The Korean title holders have formed a network. At their second meeting in September the five previous title holders and Gimhae held a workshop and “shared practical challenges of the current CCEA project and debated on diverse ways to overcome such limitations“.

The Cultural Capital of the Turkic World goes to Änew in Turkmenistan whilst the Commonwealth of Independent States selected Samarkand in Turkmenistan. Änew has important archaeological ruins from the 15th century and an impressive White Wheat Museum whilst Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tripoli in Lebanon hosts the Cultural Capital of the Arab World. The original plan was to hold the title in 2023. It seems a combination of COVID19 and lack of preparations led to a postponement. Marrakesh In Morocco and Shushi in Azerbaijan are the two Cultural Capitals of the Islamic World. Let´s hope they have better luck than Benghazi who had to forgo their programme in 2023 due to the effects of Storm Daniel.

Another UNESCO World Heritage site becomes the Capital of Ibero-American Culture: Sucre in Bolivia. Designated by UCCI and known as the La Cuidad Blanca, reflecting the white painted colonial era houses. The State of Nayarit (Mexico) is the American Capital of Culture continuing the Spanish only nature of this NGO run title.

Time now to look at the 12 Capitals of Culture in Europe.

It is “welcome back” to the Portugal CoC. This lasted for just two editions in 2003 (Coimbra) and 2005 (Faro) before a change of government closed the programme. The restored title follows the example of Italy: the three unsuccessful shortlisted candidates for the European Capital of Culture 2027 are recompensed by holding a national title. In 2024 Aveiro takes the honours followed by Braga and Ponta Delgada before Évora holds the European title.

Pesaro holds the Italy title. A key takeaway from the handover from the 2023 holders, Bergamo/Brescia: In the coming years, at least 200-300 million new tourists are estimated in the world, strongly attracted by the beauty and culture of Italy. The problem is that the ‘historic’ art cities, therefore Rome, Venice, Florence, are already overbooked. For this reason, a network of medium-sized cities is needed, such as Pesaro, Mantua, Parma, Matera and Bergamo and Brescia themselves, to serve the country to increase its competitiveness and attractiveness “. No wonder 26 cities have sent in bids for the 2026 title, now reduced to a shortlist of 10, with decision in March.

The second Serbian title goes to Užice after bids from 12 cities. Kaišiadorys becomes the Lithuanian CoC. There was no Slovakian title holder last year. Humenné beat off competition from Brezno and Šaľa to take the 2024 title.

In the folk-art/traditions group the Finno-Ugric title has not yet been announced. Belarus has selected Belynichi from five candidates.

Regional Capitals of Culture in Spain continue with Sabadell taking the Catalan title and Monóvar (for places over 5,000) and Bicorp (under 5,000) the two Valencian titles. The latter has spectacular cave paintings, (another UNESCO Heritage site)..

And finally: the three European Capitals of Culture: Tartu (Estonia) and Bad Ischl/Salzkammergut (Austria) are joined by Bodø (Norway). The three are probably the smallest trio of ECOCs since the title started in 1985. All three are including rural communities to widen their appeal. The gap between national CoCs and the European title narrows. Bad Ischl is the first “inner Alpine” title holder and Bodø the most northerly. Bodø opens (with memories of Galway) on “On February 3, we’ll gather in a circle around the marina – regardless of the weather – and enjoy a spectacular show before moving inside and continuing the party in town.” All three cities appear in the Guardian´s top ten cultural destinations for 2024.

You may have noticed some missing CoCs. Several titles with 2 to 4 year cycles are in their “off–year” so no UK, Eixo Atlântico, London or Africa title holders. I´ve also dropped the cities which become a CoC on the basis of the location of the summit meeting of an inter-governmental organisation (eg ASEAN and Portuguese Speaking Countries). Has anyone heard if a regional CoC in the Veneto region of Italy exists?

And I missed the French Capital of Culture!!!! It is Pays de Montbéliard Agglomération, a joint venture of 72 communes.

25 and now 26 Cultural Capitals for 2024! Enjoy.

Can ChatGPT help European Capital of Culture candidates?

ChatGPT is all the rage, instilling joy and fear in equal measures. I gave it a try. I asked it to write some advice to a city mayor considering bidding for the European Capital of Culture. In 350 words. Note: bidding, not winning the selection process.

What happened? In seconds, yes seconds, it came up with a plausible letter. And then a few seconds later it came up with another plausible letter. I say “plausible”. If a mayor is asking for advice on whether to enter the competition they normally want some high level, general points: the big picture. Many of the essential boxes were ticked in a general way. It´s not the time to get bogged down in the tactics of preparing a bid let alone gaming the selection panel. There are plenty of consultants out there to do that. My next Chat request will see if it can put them out of business! (joke)

Here is the opening paragraph:

If you’re considering a bid for European Capital of Culture in 2031, congratulations! This is a unique opportunity for your city to showcase its cultural richness and diversity, attract international attention, and boost your local economy. However, winning the title requires careful planning, strong commitment, and effective communication.

Not a bad start. Culture, diversity, local attention and economy tick boxes. And practical matters to the fore. Onwards:

Start early: Preparing a bid for European Capital of Culture takes time, resources, and collaboration with various stakeholders. Ideally, you should start planning at least five years before the application deadline, which is usually in the middle of the previous decade. This will give you enough time to identify your cultural strengths and weaknesses, engage with the local community, and develop a comprehensive bid book.

So far so good. Engage with local community is up there and the “bidbook” makes an appearance. “At least five years” hints at a longer preparation time.

Focus on your unique identity: One of the key criteria for selecting a European Capital of Culture is the city’s cultural and artistic identity. Therefore, it’s important to showcase what makes your city unique and different from others. This could be your historical heritage, contemporary art scene, traditional music, culinary traditions, or any other cultural asset that reflects your city’s identity and diversity.

Goes off on a tangent here. But it is clearly picking up from the countless media articles about an ECOC which, for the most part, regardless of country, fail to understand the central aspect of an ECOC being the future proposed programme rather than the existing offer. A weakness evident: ChatGPT may not be able to prioritise rather than look for the majority sources.

Involve the local community: A successful bid for European Capital of Culture should be rooted in the local community and reflect its aspirations and needs. Therefore, it’s crucial to involve various stakeholders, including artists, cultural institutions, business leaders, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens, in the bid preparation process. This will ensure that the bid is inclusive, participatory, and relevant to the local context.

Not much wrong with that but misses the international aspect.

Think beyond the year of the title: Winning the European Capital of Culture title is not only about organizing a year-long cultural program but also about leaving a lasting legacy for your city and its citizens. Therefore, it’s important to plan for the post-title period and think about how the cultural infrastructure, networks, and partnerships developed during the bidding and hosting process can benefit the city’s cultural and economic development in the long run.

Legacy, post-title, networks etc again good points, even if it uses the American “program”.

Communicate effectively: A successful bid for European Capital of Culture requires effective communication and promotion both within and outside the city. Therefore, it’s important to develop a strong branding and marketing strategy that highlights your city’s cultural strengths, engages with various audiences, and builds a positive image of your city as a vibrant and creative place to live, work, and visit.

Obvious but well said. Aimed at the post selection period but awareness needed at the start.

And finally a rather bland ending:

In summary, preparing a bid for European Capital of Culture requires a combination of creativity, collaboration, and strategic thinking. By following these pieces of advice and engaging with various stakeholders, you can increase your chances of winning the title and leaving a positive legacy for your city and its citizens. Good luck!

The second attempt was along the same lines but with this improved opener:

Develop a clear and compelling vision: One of the most important elements of a successful ECOC bid is having a strong vision for what you want to achieve. Your vision should reflect the unique cultural identity of your city and demonstrate how it can contribute to the wider European cultural scene. It should be creative, ambitious, and inclusive, highlighting your city’s strengths while also addressing its weaknesses.

At last the “European ” gets a mention. Until that point the advice could apply to any of the increasing number of national capitals of culture. With so many alternatives the European aspect of an ECOC stands out even more as the critical criteria. ChatGPT doesn´t quite understand it but perhaps after a few more attempts will get there.

Summary: Not good enough to send as it is. Covers many of the key points but not quite there. It is a good enough draft for anyone writing that opening letter to the mayor and wondering how to start. It needs a more tweaks. There is no overt reference to tourism which mayors often get hung up on. Some comment on the money side (both costs of the bid/ECOC and the expected return to the city; there are plenty of studies) would be useful as well as more Europeaness. Marks out of 10: 6 or 7.

Will robots take over? Yes in many things, can we stop them, no, should we, no. This blog was written by a human.

My Awards of the Year for Capitals and Cities of Culture around the world in 2023

Welcome to my sixth annual preview of cities with a title of Capital or City of Culture (CoC). This year I´m introducing my Awards of the Year.

The Solidarity Award goes to Comrat which was due to be the Commonwealth of Independent States CoC. But Moldova withdrew from the CIS because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So no CIS CoC for Comrat. Principles, and survival, come first.

The Never Give Up Award goes to Leeds. Brexit spoilt their bid to be an ECOC in 2023. Not to give up Leeds 2023 is a year long programme of “explosive creativity”. A role model for unsuccessful candidates. (and a late award to Volterra which was pronounced Tuscan capital of culture in 2022, after being unsuccessful in the Italian CoC for 2021. over 300 events in 2022).

The Blink and You Miss It Award goes to Luanda. The Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries give their CoC to the host of the annual summit (as do several others). Luanda managed their programme in just one week in 2022. No news on the 2023 title holder. No news either of the ASEAN CoC, another which rotates with the chair of the organisation. Indonesia this year.

The Under the Radar Award goes to the Valencian Community. A CoC programme since 2018 managed to escape my notice (and just about everyone else´s). Two title holders (below and above 5,000). In 2023 Geldo (population 700) and Guardamar del Segura (pop 15,000). Who needs PR and marketing?

The It was good whilst it lasted Award goes to the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation. SAARC is on ice because of regional political differences so no more CoCs.

The Welcome to the Club Award goes to Čačak, the first holder of the Serbian CoC. The programme starts in the Spring ” through four sub-themes that together create one whole: “On Freedom”, “On Morava”, “On the crossroads”, “On the cobblestones””.

The Award for Let´s remember you were the first, and hardest, cities in Europe hit by COVID-19 The Italian Capital of Culture has, exceptionally, two cities this year with no competition. The Italian culture ministry chose Bergamo and Brescia in recognition that the two cities were at the forefront of COVID-19 when it first appeared in Europe. The two have a joint programme BGBC2023 with over 100 projects and 500 initiatives.

The Award for Let´s hope they actually do something is shared by the Arab CoC and the three Islamic CoCs. Tripoli (Lebanon) is the Cultural Capital of the Arab World, organised by ALECSO. The three Capitals of Islamic Culture, organised by ISESCO, are Abidjan (Cote d´Ivoire), Selangor (Malaysia) and Benghazi (Libya). The title holders in these two programmes vary from doing not very much (most of them) to a full programme of arts and conferences (rarely).

The Award for We may have serious financial problems but we will carry on goes to Croydon, the fourth holder of the London Borough of Culture title. The programme starts in the spring so little information so far. A major concern surrounds the programme as the council is deep in debt and has applied for significant central government funding.

The Award for Second Time Around is shared. St Helens holds the 2023 title of Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture, five years after holding the original title. The title rotates between 5 of the 6 districts of the region (omitting Liverpool). San Jose in Costa Rica held the Ibero American Capital of Culture in 2006 and repeats in 2023.

The Award for We are far more than Roman Walls goes to Lugo in Galicia. The only city with its Roman walls intact (2km, 71 towers, 10m+high). It is the Eixo Atlántico CoC (EU Interreg project covering northern Portugal and Galicia in Spain). The programme opens in late February and runs until November.

The Award for Let´s split the programme over two years goes to two cities. Both run their programmes until May. Rabat as the first African Capital of Culture and Revúca in Slovakia.

The Award for Supporting traditional culture without threatening contemporary culture goes to Kuhmo, the first time a Finnish municipality has held the Finno-Ugric title.

The Award for Supporting traditional culture whilst imprisoning hundreds of creative workers goes to Slutsk, the Belarus title holder. There are still many cultural workers in prison and artistic freedom is not possible in the country.

The Award for Not Noticing French and English speaking countries goes to the American Capital of Culture “aimed at all the countries of the Americas” which after 24 editions still has not picked a city in the 20 French or English speaking American countries. There is no title this year. The same organisation (Xavier Tudela) has arranged for Lloret de Mar to be the Catalan title holder. Package holiday makers will enjoy a change from the beach.

The Award for Optimistic Budgeting goes to Tauragė the Lithuanian Capital of Culture for 2023. A municipality of 21,000, it will receive €100,000 from the culture ministry and aims for around €500,000 for a full programme.

The Award for Upgrading goes to Shusha. Already nominated by the Azerbaijani government as the cultural capital of the country in 2021, the city gets an upgrade as the Cultural Capital of the Turkic World. At the handover from Bursa “the speakers especially noted that this event was hopeful, proud, and very important.”

The Award for Most Over-looked Cities of Culture is shared by the Cultural Cities of East Asia. Two from China, Chengdu and Meizhou; Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan and Jeonju in South Korea. The cultural ministers met, virtually, in September to formally appoint the cities; good to see the ministers meeting – the heads of government summits have not taken place since 2019. 11 cities competed for the China nomination. There is an interesting review of the Chinese selections since 2013 here. Jeonju (a UNESCO Creative City in Gastronomy) has the largest collection of traditional Hanok houses. It plans 4 major events and 17 projects, mostly festivals. Shizuoka outlines its programme.

The Award for Hey, There are Three of Them Again goes to the European Capital of Culture with three title holders again this year, a consequence of the impact of COVID-19 in 2020 on the programme. Three last year, three next year. Elefsina (or Eleusis) in Greece opens its programme on 4 February under the three themes of “People | Society, Environment, Labour”. Chris Baldwin, fresh from his success at Kaunas, directs the opening event. Timișoara  opens over the weekend of 17-19 February. The year long theme “Shine your light – Light up your city! is the motto that reflects the journey from individual to conscious and involved European citizen, in which community values and passion are rooted.” The third title holder is Veszprém-Balaton in Hungary. It opens on 21-22 January with a distinctly national focus on the Hungarian national anthem and the day of Hungarian culture. Very Orbán.

The Award for Let´s Not Forget Mariupol. Readers of my review for 2022 will recall I mentioned the first Ukrainian City of Culture, Mariupol, in 2021. The destruction of the city, its iconic theatre, the mass murder of its citizens, the looting of heritage and arts, the torture, the forced migration of children, all horrors of the Russian invasion. There have been calls for both Kyiv and Kharkiv to be awarded an ECOC title. The Ukrainian Institute, the organisers of the Ukrainian CoC (and now an associate member of EUNIC, the network of cultural relations institutes of the EU and UK), has asked for a boycott of Russian cultural organisations. Accordingly I am simply recording that Yeniseisk is the Krasnoyarsk Region title holder; where the railway was sabotaged this week. Russia has announced its own Capital of Culture programme for 2024. It is unlikely to improve Russia´s international reputation, one of its aims.

I hope these are most of the 2023 CoCs. I suspect there are more lurking unseen in Google in various languages*. More smaller cities/municipalities. CoC programmes are centred on arts events and festivals; few venture into social issues or creative industries and tourism is the main driver for many. Last year saw exceptional CoCs in Procida, Coventry, Kaunas and the first French CoC Villeurbanne. Good to see the emphasis on evaluation in Coventry. Few CoCs get beyond reporting the numbers of events/audiences/tourists. No doubt CoCs, and candidates, will soon be using ChatGPT software to write evaluations and bid books!

Have an enjoyable year!

  • I knew it! The Veneto region in Italy has its own CoC. Now in its third edition. Applications are now open for the 2023 title holder, closing date 15 February.

Capitals of Culture around the world in 2022

Welcome to my annual preview of Capitals (and Cities) of Culture. The global pandemic disrupted society in 2021 and naturally CoCs were not exempt. Many ran smaller programmes, others deferred to 2022 and some unfortunately failed to take place. In early January we do not know what will happen this year but at least 26 COCs are making plans even with travel restrictions and capacity limits. This year I´ve added videos to the review: to improve our awareness of many of the cities! I’ve also put those CoCs who earned their title though a competition ahead of those who have been simply nominated by the awarding organisation.

Once again the CoCs demonstrate the incredible diversity of culture and the arts across the world. From cutting edge digital arts to centuries old traditions, from cities of 8 million down to small hamlets of a few hundred, with budgets over €50 million down to less than €1m, organisers innovate and develop their offers. Stay safe in 2022 and enjoy your local CoC (there will be more streaming I suspect).

Pride of place goes to France. It is their first national CoC. An interesting competition, limited to places between 20,000 and 200,000 and running every two years. Larger cities are preparing bids for the European title in 2028. The short list of 9 candidates came from a pool of 29 expressions of interest. The successful candidate was Villeurbanne with a programme firmly based around young people. Opens on 7 January.

Italy provides another first. Procida becomes the first island to hold a CoC title. Nearly 400 cities have held a title, several cities on islands but none as an island in its own right. (I discount Singapore as an island-state!). The island, which has been very active in the build up to the year, has a programme of 150 events, 350 artists from 45 countries. Take a drone tour of this fascinating island in the Gulf of Naples.

There was no European Capital of Culture 2021 (ECOC), the first blank year since 1985. The unfortunate Rijeka and Galway from 2020 managed to run a short programme in late 2020 to March 2021 but small consolation for the disruption of their 2020 title year. The 2021 title holders were postponed and will catch up in 2022 and 2023. The three 2022 ECOCs held a joint launch, Kaunas, Novi Sad and Esch-sur-Alzette.

Novi Sad becomes the fifth city outside the EU to hold the title (the list is at the end of the post). Its model, 4P: people, processes, places, programmes, is reflected in the online programme book and in a short video. A longer view gives you a glimpse of the city.

Esch is tackling the regeneration of the city, and incorporates the region across the border in France. The programme has over 2,000 events including 310 performances, 137 exhibitions, 141 concerts and 360 participatory workshops. Its good to see events in Spanish and Portuguese. This article gives a good explanation of the urban decay background and this a wonderful video of time gone by. Watch out for the correct Esch! The director-general for Culture at the European Commission (or her team) made an awkward error!

 Kaunas promises “One big stage for Europe”. The spectacular opening starts on 19 January and involves over 800 artists in more than 100 events. “I think this is like no other ECoC opening, where a city game structure is used to introduce audiences and citizens to the events and themes coming up during 2022,’ says Chris Baldwin, the director of the grand trilogy of Kaunas 2022. One aim of the ECOC is to rediscover the city´s past and “The Jews of Kaunas” book is the first instalment. A quick view of the city.

Coventry was the UK´s COC in 2021. It skilfully delayed its start and runs from May last year to May 2022. One of the more innovative CoCs of recent years. The Reel Store, a permanent immersive digital art gallery opens in March. A review of the first 6 months shows ” Making the arts more accessible is a key focus for the Trust with 43 per cent of tickets being booked by people on lower incomes in the city so far. In this period, 673 local people have taken part in workshops, helping to create events and alongside over 1,500 community dancers, musicians, poets and makers who have taken centre stage as part of events”

Alytus is the Lithuanian CoC. It actually opened on 3 December with a theme of connecting bridges to culture. The video of the opening is well worth skipping through! The bridge theme links 7 platforms during the year. A walk through of the city is here. As usual there are ten smaller CoCs in Lithuania spread around the counties.

Whilst most attention in Slovakia was over the selection of the ECOC in 2026 (Trenčín won), the national CoC was awarded to Revúca. The programme runs from June 2022 to May 2023. “people often do not realize that it is not the icing on the cake – to have theatres, events and even the title City of Culture. It’s more of a starting line. It is an opportunity for you to bring quality, more program and start the city and region for development and better things, “says Karin Kilíková, director of the programme board and project manager of the City of Culture.” View the city and region.

Ukraine had its first CoC in 2021. Two actually as there are two titles, one for larger cities and one for smaller; Mariupol and Slavutych respectively in 2021. The title is organised by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, The 2022 title holders have been selected but the formalities not yet completed, so watch this space!

As an aside Serbia will join the national CoCs in 2023. Čačak will hold the inaugural title after seeing off 17 other candidates. A walking tour.

The Finno Ugric CoC is continuing. Two candidates for the 2022 title saw Baiterek in the Udmurtia region of Russia being awarded the title. The symbol of the title, a carved wooden bird, the “tsirk” is passed from one title holder to the next. A handy overview of the Udmurtia region is in this video.

In the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia, Lesosibirsk saw off 7 other candidates to hold the 2022 title. This is the longest running regional title and remains competitive. An overview of the cultural life in the city is here. Some videos of the closing ceremony from the 2021 holder give an indication of the vibrant cultural life.

Lewisham becomes London’s third Borough of Culture. A key theme is the call for action on the climate emergency. Let´s hope (and require) all CoCs to take the emergency seriously not only by raising awareness but of limiting their own emissions! A quick snapshot.

Now lets go outside Europe to East Asia. The only competitive title is the Capital City of East Asia, bringing China, South Korea and Japan together. Last year the Culture Ministers agreed that China would have two cities to sit alongside the other two. They also approved the ” ‘Kitakyushu Declaration’ with the aim of promoting new cultural and artistic exchange plans using cutting-edge technologies in the post-COVID-19 era” . In 2018 there was a meeting of ECOCs and the East Asian Cities. Last year a zoom meeting was also held: are we starting to see closer cooperation? In 2022 the four cities are

Wenzhou. This article gives a good survey of the proposal and their aims. Of interest is their ambition to work with ECOCs and Asian CoCs as well as the partner cities in East Asia. A quick trip

Jinan, a city of springs, in Shandong province China. Another quick view of the city of 8 million (perhaps the largest city in recent times to hold a title?)

Oita prefecture in Japan formed its executive committee in December. A walk through with a Studio Ghibli focus.

Gyeongju in South Korea, home to UNESCO World Heritage sites. Its slogan for the year is “Gyeongju that opens culture, peace that connects East Asia”. The city was originally selected for 2021 and now will run its programme in the first half of 2022. A drive and walk through.

Turning now to those CoCs where the organising body chooses the title holder without competition (as in the early years of the ECOC).

Bursa in Turkey is the Cultural Capital of the Turkic World. Türksoy, the organisers, are keen to link their title holders with the corresponding ECOCs (Rijeka and Khiva recently) and have already held a zoom call with Novi Sad. A walking tour.

Cairo as the capital of the Islamic World (Arab Region) is another deferral, from 2020. It now plans “the program to celebrate Cairo as the cultural capital of the Islamic world will be launched in mid-February 2022 and will last all year “. The title will be shared with the original 2022 nominee, Rabat (a walking tour). Yaoundé and Bandung are also listed as being the other regional holders of the Islamic title but I can´t find anything about them.

Rabat joins the select group of cities holding two titles concurrently. It is also the first African Capital of Culture, held over from 2020. Its programme starts on 24 January. In May the title organisers( ULCG Africa) will announce the next title holder in 2023/2024. Two cities, Kinshasa and Kigali, have already applied.

Irbid in Jordan holds the Capital of the Arab World title, another deferral from last year. Very active in preparation, the programme will start either just before or after Ramadan. A quick walk through.

Brasília takes its turn as the Ibero-American CoC. A fascinating video introduction to Oscar Niemeyer´s creation.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (the former USSR minus the 3 Baltic countries) have chosen Karakol in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan as their CoC. The title rotates between the member states. Your introduction to the adventure capital of the region!

There are three nominal CoCs: ones where the country is the host of the next regional political summit. Few seem to put on anything more than a short arts festival. The ASEAN capital is Siem Riep, the nearest city to the Angkor Wat World Heritage site. The Community of Portuguese Language Countries have nominated Angola but little news of any activity. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have made no announcements for two years.

There are the two CoCs organised by Xavier Tudela under his “The International Bureau of Cultural Capitals” umbrella: the American goes to Ibagué  in Colombia and the Catalan to Igualada in Spain.

I have not mentioned the CoC in Belarus. Thousands of artists and cultural workers have been arrested and imprisoned by the dictatorship regime. Support the Belarus Free Theatre as it moves out of Minsk. Updates here.

And a final comment. Be careful: there are many press reports that Arles is a “Capital of Culture”. It is indeed the “CoC for Provence”. It is a title awarded by the regional government and rotates around the region as a tourist marketing promotion. This is a common tool in the tourism world as marketing people catch on the appeal of the “CoC” cachet. Arles has certainly jumped ahead in PR over Villeurbanne!

(And those ECOCs outside the EU? Four cities are still outside the EU. Two more have subsequently joined and there are two who were in but are now out. Bergen and Reykjavik in 2000, Stavanger 2008, Istanbul 2010. Kraków and Prague in 2000 were not yet member states. And no jokes about Glasgow 1990 and Liverpool 2008 please)

Selecting the European Capital of Culture: with added transparency

The European Capital of Culture has come a long way since its start in 1985. The current formula runs from 2020 (Galway and Rijeka) through to 2033. The most recent selection was for the title holders in 2025, in Slovenia (Nova Gorica) and Germany (Chemnitz). The latter competition caused a mild controversy seemingly triggered by Nuremburg’s unsuccessful candidacy.

It is over 4 years since I left the selection panel after 5 years membership. A veteran of over 150 bid-books, presentations, monitoring and evaluation reports with 3 years as its chair. Now I am merely an interested observer.

The chairman of the committee of Länder culture ministers in Germany has said he wants to improve the “transparency” of the programme. “The chairman of the Kultur-MK, Berlin’s Senator for Culture Dr. Klaus Lederer, will work at the European Commission to strengthen a transparent selection process in order to make the successful EU project “European Capital of Culture” future-proof.”

An excellent idea as feedback is always welcome. I think the ECOC programme does need future proofing for its remaining editions until 2033 but to be honest I don’t think the selection part of the programme is the weakest. Sore losers are sore losers.

I assume that, in the interests of transparency, Dr Lederer will make his views public and look forward to an interesting international discussion. In the meantime and to start the ball rolling here are some suggestions he might take into account:

The ECOC idea has led to over 30 similar programmes worldwide. Some have flourished for a few years and been closed, others are developing strongly, all are different. They have learnt from the ECOC programme; time for the ECOC to learn from them. One outstanding idea is to put the names and CVs of the selection panel on the European Commission’s website (as the new French Capital of Culture programme does). Transparency starts with this step: who are the judges? There is no risk of pressure being placed on them; most will have their own digital presence already. They should also ensure they stay completely away from candidate cities!

A spending limit. There are rumours that Nuremburg spent over €4 million on their campaign. Other candidates elsewhere have also spent vast sums in their bid preparation. If I was a local taxpayer I would be appalled. It is far too much to spend on a campaign. It raises false hopes; it leads to a spending race among candidates; it brings overt party politics into play (bad enough now when a bid is too closely associated with a mayor or a political party). Set a limit, say €1 million. Require audited accounts to be given to the selection panel before the meetings and recorded in the bid books.

One of the positive steps in the current Decision is the requirement for cities to have a cultural policy. But this has become a “tick box” exercise. The real test comes from unsuccessful candidates: how much of their cultural policy have they carried out, without the title? Perhaps the ECOC should follow the example of some other European competitions and ask “what changes has the city made in the 2-3 years before the selection meeting in line with their cultural policy?”. No more of city councils approving a policy a few months or even weeks before the selection meeting where the document becomes the end-product not the action. Candidates start their planning years in advance so there are no problems over timing.

The bid-books were shortened a few years ago but are still far too long at 80 to100 pages. Increasingly they are full of padding, of stating the obvious, or meandering down academic theory paths. They are losing focus and sharpness. Cut them in half, a maximum of 50 pages for final selection. Drop some sections. Require a simplification of objectives, say 5 maximum.

Publish the bid-books, in downloadable fashion, at the time they are presented to the managing ministry. There is no risk of giving pointers, “secrets” away to the other candidates. The competition in Germany was good in this respect. with all bid-books published on submission (even before the panel saw them!). Candidates owe it to their citizens to be as public as possible, especially as they are spending so much of their money.

Virtually every candidate uses consultants. There are probably around 20-25 consultants who assist candidates; most have experience of running an ECOC. They are well-known inside the ECOC “family”; some are full time, others part time/occasional. One German group is very successful. I’ve no problem with this (and would urge any candidate to use experienced consultants to advise (but not of course, to write their bid-book). For transparency they must be named in the bid-books (many are already).

The Italian Capital of Culture in its competition for the 2022 title has made a wonderful breakthrough: the selection meetings were broadcast live on YouTube (and still available). As Zoom meetings become the norm (and probably even after the pandemic cools down) broadcasting selection meetings live is a great transparent step forward.

One of the criteria for selection is the “European Dimension”. Evaluations have frequently pointed out this is poorly understood and delivered. Some ECOCs at least make a substantial part of their programme international. This criterion is now even more important. More and more countries are running their own Capitals of Culture programmes. France is the latest to join the list. So what can differentiate an ECOC from a national CoC? the European Dimension. But the tendency is for an increased localisation of a programme, addressing only local issues. It makes for simple PR and appeals to local politicians but this is not the rationale for the programme. It is not simply what a city offers as a tourist destination or the occasional arts event but a deeper relationship with the cultures across Europe, including those of a migrant heritage in their own cities.

Some areas I would expect to see at the forefront of future ECOCs are the impact of digitalisation and tackling the climate emergency. It is no good to simply say ” a sustainable cultural sector”. City cultural policies as well as ECOCs really need to be active change agents. These are key European Union objectives and the cultural, education and urban sectors need to lead the way; “business as usual” or a “return to 2019” are no longer options.

Size matters. Some recently selected ECOCs are from very small cities, less than 20,000 population. Can these make an impact at European level more than a national or local region? With more than 60 cities having held the title, with many major cities not considering the title brings enough “value added” and the political requirement to open the competition to all member states it is not surprising small cities are now winning the title. Cities which can only find €1m a year from their own budgets and rely on regional and national funding hardly inspire confidence. Do they have adequate local management without the need to import expertise? Procida, an island of just 11,000, has just won the Italian Capital of Culture award for 2022. The newest national title, France, has recognised the size issue; its new Capital of Culture 2022 award is for cities up to 200,000. With 29 candidates it has a successful start. Perhaps an ECOC limit of 50,000 with smaller areas seeking a national title.

These points may help with selection. The next problem is less with this part of the programme but with the delivery of the ECOC. Too many recent title holders have run into major problems at Board and senior management level (CEO and to a lesser extent at Artistic Director), and in some cases at the national culture ministry. But that’s for another day.

Over to you for comments, especially from Dr Lederer. On twitter as #ECOCtransparency

Capitals and Cities of Culture in 2021

Welcome to my annual survey of the Capitals and Cities of Culture. 2020 was, for an obvious reason, one of considerable anxiety for the organisers of Capitals of Culture. The global coronavirus pandemic meant many programmes were cancelled, deferred, reorganised or delayed. In the grand scheme of things, with 88,000,000 cases and approaching 2,000,000 deaths, Capital of Culture programmes are well down the list of priorities. Culture and the arts have a role to play in societies, when it is safe and when they can be delivered safely. At the moment, January 2021, it is still not certain how the 2021 titles will pan out. Lockdowns, movement restrictions, a near total collapse of tourist travel will all seriously limit even the best plans. The safety of performers, technicians and spectators will come first. As Norman Foster wrote, crises bring forward changes which would have happened; in the new normality let’s hope cultural programmes also change. For many we can expect to see a greater and more imaginative use of digital. Will they pay more attention to the climate emergency for example?

Rijeka and Galway, the European Capitals of Culture both opened in wet conditions and almost at once had to stop. The EU’s institutions have (laboriously and slowly) allowed both to run limited programmes until March 2021. The planned 2021 cities have been deferred: Timisoara and Elefsina move to 2023 (sharing with Veszprem); Novi Sad to 2022 sharing with Kaunas and Esch).

In Italy Parma will also run into 2021, now renamed Parma 2020+21. The Italian government fast tracked Bergamo and Brescia to be joint title holders in 2023, the two cities with the worse COVID19 outbreaks in early 2020. The 2022 competition is well under way with 28 candidates.

Coventry, the UK City of Culture, sensibly delayed its opening until May when its full programme starts and now runs until May 2022. Chenine Bhathena, Creative Director writes “This will be one extraordinary year of joyful celebration with a strong social conscience, as we create a new history for our city.”  Several cities are bidding for the 2025 title: Southampton, Bradford, Lancashire and Medway. Selection expected at the end of the year.

Trakai in Lithuania managed a reasonable programme in 2020 and hands over to Neringa. The Deputy Director of Trakai Municipality looked back:

“Although the year was really difficult and full of surprises due to the situation of the pandemic, we are happy to have successfully overcome all the difficulties. I believe that the Capital of Culture project in Trakai really left an indelible mark with its events, concerts, art installations and bold decisions.

Slovakia has nominated the small town of Stará Ľubovňa as its Capital of Culture for 2021. Several cities in Slovakia have recently submitted their bid books for the ECOC title in 2026.

In Portugal, Braga, the Eixo Atlântico title holder in 2020 has deferred its programme to 2021. It, along with other cities, is preparing its bid for the ECOC title in 2027.

Mishkan, the Finno-Ugric Capital in 2020 in a sign of the times held its closing conference on Zoom. Abja-Paluoja, (Mulgimaa region, Estonia) takes over the baton for 2021.

In the year of uplifting anti Lukashenko demonstrations it is weird to report on the Capital of Culture in Belarus. The title, where holders reinforce heritage and folk arts, goes to Borisov in 2021. Many cultural workers were arrested and tortured by the regime.

The Cultural Capital of Krasnoyarsk 2020 in Russia runs from April to March and the current holder is the Karatuz District.

The East Asia programme is developing strongly. The three countries , China, Korea and Japan have, for the first time nominated four cities for 2021. Two, Kitakyushu (Japan) and Suncheon (Korea) are carried over from 2020; neither started their programmes last year. China has nominated two cities Shaoxing and Dunhuang. Gyeongju in Korea was initially selected for 2021 but will be held over to 2022.

The Ibero-American title goes to Mexico City, following on from Buenos Aires. As is common with this title 2021 marks several anniversaries in Mexico’s history.

The Cultural Capital of the Turkic World for 2021 does not yet appear to have been announced; the title holders normally start their programmes in the Spring. Sakarya and Trabzon have both indicated their candidatures.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) nominated Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, as the title holder in 2021.

The Capital of Arab Culture title goes to Irbid in Jordan . The three Capitals of Islamic Culture are Doha, Islamabad and Banjul. These two programmes have varying success. Some title holders do little, others have a reasonable programme. There is little news about their 2021 intentions although there was a promising meeting in Doha in December to outline their programme.

The Angkor temples in Cambodia need little introduction. the nearby city of Siem Reap is the ASEAN City of Culture for 2021-22.

There has been little news about the SAARC Capital of Culture. The title was awarded to India for 2020 and nothing further was heard. The Maldives are next in line. In previous years the title has gone to a major archaeological/heritage site; the country is chosen in alphabetical order.

The Community of Portuguese Language Countries nominates as its Capital of Culture a city in the country hosting its two-yearly ministerial meetings. In 2021-23 this is Angola but no information yet about a programme.

The United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA) as organisers of the Capital of African Culture had hoped to launch their new title in 2020. Marrakesh was chosen but a week or so before its opening Rabat was given the designation. A mystery with conspiracy theories abounding. In May UCLGA postponed the Rabat programme. no news yet on its resumption.

The two independent titles organised from Barcelona continue, Catalan (in 2021 Tortosa) and Americas (in 2021 Zacatecas State in Mexico).

The London Borough of Culture has re-scheduled. Brent, 2020 title, ran a revised programme. Lewisham has moved from 2021 to 2022 with Croydon in 2023. Liverpool’s Regional Borough of Culture goes to Halton in 2021 with a Bryan Adams concert as a highlight.

And for the first time, the Ukrainian Capital of Culture. In 2021 Mariupol and Slavutych hold the title. Will be very interesting to see the direction the competition will take: the balance between folk arts/heritage to contemporary.

On an optimistic note there will soon be a new Capital of Culture: France has joined the increasing number of countries with a national title. As several cities prepare their bids for the European Capital of Culture in 2028 the new French title follows a format pioneered by Canada and is aimed at smaller municipalities (or groups) of between 20,000 to 200,000. The selection process is under way, the closing date was 31 December 2020. Final selection is in March and the first title runs in 2022.

The global pandemic has disrupted the world in 2020 and into 2021. The progressive roll out of the vaccines may ameliorate the worst but in the meantime mask, socially distance and wash hands and follow your local official advice.

An inauspicious start to the African Capital of Culture

Strange goings on in Morocco. Until a few days ago Marrakesh was getting ready to host the first African Capital of Culture. Its PR was in full swing. But just eight days before its official launch it was announced that Marrakesh has “withdrawn” and Rabat will hold the title.

Marrakesh was invited to hold the first, pilot, African Capital of Culture title by the “owners”, the Africa region of the Union of Cities and Local Government, at its Africities conference in 2018. (No link to the UCLGA site as it seems unsafe).

And since then it has been developing a programme. Its honorary president Mahi Binebine, a well known painter and cultural figure, attended a formal presentation in Paris on 16 January. He was with the president of the organising committee and general secretary of UCLGA, Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi.

To quote a media interview with the pair:

“In Africa, people no longer dream at home, they dream towards the North and we have to stop.” This plea by Moroccan artist Mahi Binebine is at the heart of a new pan-African event, “African Capitals of Culture”, to strengthen the dialogue between artists and economic opportunities in the cultural sector on the continent.

On the program of Marrakesh Capital of Culture: an “African garden” presenting sculptures near the very crowded Jamaa El Fna square, the travelling exhibition including paintings “Lend me your dream”, at the initiative of investors Moroccans and presenting around thirty major artists from the continent, a literary fair, concerts, fashion shows “with African colours, yellow, garish red!”, describes Mr. Binebine.

Coming to Paris for the launch, the president of the Organising Committee of African Capitals of Culture and general secretary of the UCLG, the Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, recognises that “too often, culture has been left behind” by the authorities on the continent and that “most” professionals in the sector do not live by it.

“There are efforts to be made so that Africa’s contribution to universal culture is commensurate with its cultural depth,” he believes. According to him, cities have “a big role to play” in making the “junction between the cultural substratum carried by the traditional authorities and the modernity called by the cultural industries”.

So far so good. The official launch was set for 31 January with a street parade.

And then suddenly an announcement, from UCLGA, saying that Rabat would hold the title.

Mr Binebine on 22 January (six days after the Paris presentation) put a post on Facebook:

“I have the sad regret to announce to you that it was decided (for incomprehensible reasons) and after several months of intense preparation, that the ocher city would desist in favor of Rabat”, 

The Moroccan press had reported “royal anger” after a visit of the King ” predicting that the “delays and failures” of the projects would cause an “administrative earthquake”.

More background here.. although very little light being shone on the reason for the change.

A press release from UCLGA said

“After examining the assets of the city in terms of the specifications for the celebration of African capitals of culture, the committee welcomed the candidacy of Rabat, and decided to designate Rabat as the African capital of culture in 2020/2021 ”,

It was signed by the Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa), Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi.

A team has been put in place, including members of the management of the African Capitals of Culture, to work on the general programming of the various events and activities. This team will present the results of its work and consultations to the public next March at a conference planned in Rabat.

Rabat was nominated as a “Capital of Culture” by the government in 2014.. one of many cities around the world which adopt the title as a tourist marketing slogan.

Not an auspicious start to the African Capital of Culture idea.

Capitals and Cities of Culture in 2020

This year 26 cities in 24 countries around the world will celebrate a City or Capital of Culture title awarded to them (rather than self proclaimed as a marketing ploy, there are many more of them!).

Potentially the most interesting is the first African Capital of Culture. Marrakesh in Morocco is the first title holder, the title organisers are the Africa branch of the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG). Will the city with its undoubted heritage put on a programme combining that heritage with contemporary arts? How will it deal with censorship? At the conference in November 2018 of Africities a session was run with representatives of the European Commission and European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). It is far too early to suggest the African title can be as comprehensive as the ECOC in its first edition but it is a start.

An update. At the last minute the government of Morocco has stepped in and makes Rabat the title holder. Marrakesh is simply dumped. Not a very good sign for the new title if it is at the mercy of governments. I hope the UCLG make a protest.

The ECOCs of the year are Rijeka in Croatia and Galway in Ireland. The latter had a struggle getting their act together but in the last year under a new CEO they have put together a sound programme. Rijeka in contrast have been very active and successful in their preparations. Croatia assumes the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first six months of 2020 and has set out a wide range of cultural objectives. Croatia is the only EU member state where the culture minister is an international expert in cultural policy!

Lithuania was the first European country to develop its own national title, this year Trakai has the honour. Its impressive castle in a lake will undoubtedly feature as a venue. There are ten other “towns of culture” in the country, one in each county: an innovative way for smaller towns to highlight their cultural offers.

Parma takes the Italian title. There was no Italian Capital last year as Matera held the ECOC title but now the national title is back in full flow.

Braga in Portugal is the regional Eixo Atlântico Capital of Culture. A full programme from February to November is planned, no doubt as a practice run for their bid for the ECOC title in 2027.

Lida is the Belarus national title holder. This title stands out in Europe as being very folk art and heritage based under the restrictive government control. The Catalan regional title is with El Vendrell, home of the Pablo Casals Foundation and museum.

Russia hosts two very different titles. The Krasnoyarsk region has yet to announce its title holder. Mishkino is the Finno-Ugric Capital, a region of just 7,000 people. The only City of Culture programme run by civil society: the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN) and URALIC Centre for Indigenous Peoples.

The Commonwealth of Independent States has designated Shymkent in Kazakhstan as their 2020 title holder.

The London Borough of Culture moves on from Waltham Forest to Brent in 2020. Sefton in Liverpool also holds a Borough of Culture title. This title is held on a planned rotation of the 6 boroughs in the region and omits the competitive element. There is no UK City of Culture title in 2020, Coventry is in full planning mode for 2021.

Slovakia in 2020 also has its second title holder, Nové Zámky.

South America hosts two titles. Buenos Aires is the Ibero-American capital (for the second time after 1992 and following its 2017 year as Ibero-American Capital of Gastronomy) and Punta Arenas in Chile is the American title.

The Arab and Islamic titles are a mixed bag. Sometimes there is a good programme, more often the title appears to pass the city by. The Islamic titles in 2020 are Bamako in Mali, Cairo in Egypt and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Cairo appears to be planning a significant programme. Bethlehem hosts the Arab title, the university is fully engaged and will run projects including a “Bethlehem University Prize for Arabic Fiction”.

Khiva is the second city in Uzbekistan to host a title in 2020, holding the Turkic World title. Normally Turkic World programmes start in April.

The Culture City of East Asia has, as usual, three cities. Yangzhou (China), Kitakyushu (Japan) and Sucheon (South Korea). Year by year the title holders seem to be becoming more adventurous in their programmes. The competition to hold the title in China and South Korea is attracting more applicants every year. Kitakyushu will be “competing” with the Cultural Olympiad of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Several titles follow the summit meetings of their organisers. Their programmes generally are limited to high profile openings, a few concerts and exhibitions: a medium sized arts festival with little ambition to any other objectives or legacy. Yogyakarta continues with its ASEAN title which is spread over two years between the meetings of ASEAN member states. Praia and Velha (Ribeira Grande de Santiago) in Cape Verde are also in the second year of their Capital of Culture of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. There is no news yet of the SAARC title holder; it is scheduled to be in India as the member states take it in turn to host the title. Thimphu in Bhutan hosted the 2018/19 title.

An updated and revised edition of my global survey and directory of Capitals and Cities of Culture is in preparation. The 2017 edition is available here.

Galway 2020 is prepared to launch

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.