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