Opening ceremony of Guimarães, European Capital of Culture 2012

Being a European Capital of Culture 0

Anna Iltnere

Culture as a force majeure and a mighty power – this is the basic principle under which Riga will begin its year as European Capital of Culture in mid-January 2014. Granted annually to particular cities by the European Union since 1985, this status offers a goldmine of opportunity, its rewards dependant on how skilfully the opportunities are seized. The experience of other cities can certainly be used as a useful “manual”. To this end, met with cultural operators from previous European Capitals of Culture – Vilnius (2009) and Tallinn (2011): both closely involved and some not so closely involved with the organization of the cultural year. We wanted to find out which, in their opinion, are the most sensitive areas of European Capital of Culture – that need a watchful eye in case they become inflamed. Art historian and curator from Lithuania Dr. Raminta Jurenaite names such benefits to Vilnius as the long-term initiatives that were launched as part of the Capital of Culture, e.g. Art Vilnius, the first art fair in the Baltics. She points out, however, that the city lost a lot due to management failures which led to hitches in even financial distribution and the balance between major and minor events. While the Estonians surveyed came to different conclusions, they did agree on such obvious benefits as an influx of tourists, new professional contacts and the opportunity to carry out imaginative urban projects that the municipality might not usually support. In Tallinn, the main downsides were the fragmentation of the programme and a wealth of events without a clear conceptual framework that would allow people to navigate and keep track of what was going on, and simply manage to enjoy everything.

Asked about the current situation and the team’s main field of action, director of the Foundation Rīga 2014, Diāna Čivle, outlines the programme concept and states that work is currently focused on event planning: “The programme concept confirmed for Riga as European Capital of Culture is Force Majeure, with six thematic chapters (Thirst for the Ocean, Freedom Street, Road Map, Survival Kit, Amber Vein, Riga Carnival). As a term most often used by lawyers, Force Majeure is a provocateur, calling for a discussion on culture as a positive, surprising and immense force that can make a difference in people’s lives, relationships and urban development. This is how we stand out from other European Capitals of Culture, and we consider that such an open approach encourages the project developers involved in the programme to collaborate in bearing a common idea. Creative co-creation is one of the challenges of Rīga 2014; involving not just artists and other cultural professionals, but also every Rigan and experts in all fields. Interdisciplinary cooperation and the expansion of borders produce new impressions and the impulse for unexpected surprises,” Diāna Čivle believes. “And that is what we are currently dealing with in our creative kitchen – letting projects and ideas ripen.”

The idea of a European Capital of Culture was born in Greece

The idea of designating a European Capital of Culture every year was proposed by Greek Melina Mercouri (1920-1994) – with the aim of bringing the nations of Europe closer together. “Culture, art and creativity are no less important that technology, trade and economics,” she stated, stressing the outcast status of culture in the Europe of the time, making a project to bring attention to it necessary. It was 1983, and just two years later the European Union launched the proposed programme, making Athens the first European City of Culture (the term “capital” only being introduced in 1999). Melina Mercouri, quite a striking character, was the current Greek Minister of Culture (1981-1989) – the first time in the country’s history this position was held by a woman. Prior to her political career, she was involved in acting, and even received a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for the film “Never on Sunday” in 1960. This role also brought her Oscar and BAFTA nominations,  and she has three Golden Globe nominations under her belt for other films. Raised in a family of influential Athens politicians, Mercuri has stated in an interview that during her childhood,  “The house was always full, for at that time the mayor of Athens was as powerful as a minister, maybe even more so [her grandfather held this position for over 20 years – A.I.]. That was theatre for me. I had a stage, an audience, partners, dialogues, sometimes even long tirades.”

When the Greek military carried out a coup d’état, starting the so-called Black Colonel regime, Mercuri was on a film set in the USA, and immediately began an international resistance campaign, travelling the world and becoming a voice for the Greek people

 “Even when I was very young, I was a rebel. When I was seven or eight I used to escape from the house and go off with a friend to the cinema or to a cafe to listen to music.”

Melina Mercouri

When the military regime was overthrown and Melina Mercouri took the office of Minister of Culture, she was active in attracting foreign interest to Greek culture, as well as encouraging local enthusiasm. During her time in office, the issue of the New Acropolis Museum was raised anew, and an international project competition organized. (The museum was completed and opened in 2007, with an area 10 times larger than that of its predecessor on the Acropolis Hill.) Mercouri also introduced a system of free access for the population to all of Greece’s museums and archaeological sites. In the summer of 1985, in the inaugural address for the first European City of Culture, Mercouri stated that “culture is Greece’s heavy industry”. Her charisma helped restore culture to Greek daily life, as well as to the first pages of newspapers, radio and TV news. Mercouri was minister for 8 consecutive years or two terms, skipping a term before returning to the position in 1993 – 1994, shortly before her death at the age of 74.

The benefits and stumbling blocks of a European Capital of Culture

“The main aim of the European Union’s European Capital of Culture initiative is highlighting the richness, diversity and common ties of European cultures, as well as promoting mutual understanding among Europe’s citizens,” can be read on the website of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia. The previous activities of European Capitals of Culture show that a number of other goals are also achieved, e.g. increased awareness of cities and states, a positive effect on the development of cultural tourism, as well as encouraging cooperation between artists and cultural organizations, generating new contacts and laying the foundations for further development of several cultural projects. Businesses and urban infrastructure also gain, and cooperation between the state and private sector is improved. However, it is clear that the challenge of being a European Capital of Culture is not an easy one, and all kinds of skills are necessary to realize it as successfully as possible.