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)

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.