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Opening ceremony of Guimarães, European Capital of Culture 2012

Not in vain did the European Commission contract Robert Palmer in 2004 to carry out a study on how the European Capitals of Culture have fared so far. Robert Palmer is one of the most competent experts on Capitals of Culture, having directed two himself – Glasgow in 1990 and Brussels in 2000. The team’s analysis, performed over six months, and Palmer’s conclusions are definitely another manual for anyone involved in Capital of Culture programme development, event planning and organizing. The other useful “manual”, mentioned in the introduction, is the experience and insights of cities themselves. We offer the most important points for consideration.

Political ambitions

From the title, it seems undeniable that that the central axis of a European Capital of Culture is – culture. However, Robert Palmer indicates in the study that “the cultural dimension has been overshadowed by political ambitions and other primarily noncultural interests and agendas”. Laur Kaunissare, an interdisciplinary project curator from Tallinn who worked as project coordinator within the Tallinn 2011 team, also mentions political issues as a shortcoming.  “Ideally, a Capital of Culture should be a city with a stable political climate. This is of key importance in order for there to be clarity regarding the funding that is dependent on politicians. Even if you’re sure that money is short, clarity still makes it possible to start planning things early.” Art critic and founder of the site, Maarin Mürk, who took part in developing the urban installation festival LIFT11one of the most noticeable and interesting cultural events of last year in Tallinn– recommends just being prepared for the situation, at times, “to become ugly, since big money and political interests are involved”.


Although it may seem a straightforward requirement, starting work on time is another stumbling block. According to Palmer, cities rarely use the time given to invest sufficient effort into programme development. Laur Kaunissare mentions the German city of Essen (representing the Ruhr), European Capital of Culture in 2010, as a positive example. They organized the “Still-Life” project, closing the highway for tens of kilometres and holding public picnics. This certainly could not have been done without starting preparations early, carefully planning and approving everything.” The A40/B1 motorway stretches for 60km, linking the towns and cities, the suburbs and the inhabitants of the Ruhr Metropolis. On July 18 201o, this traffic artery froze for a whole day, replacing the usual roar of cars and motorcycles with music, chatter and a 60km-long banquet.

“Still-Life” in the Ruhr, 2010. Photo:

Long-term investments

In the study, Robert Palmer indicates that the European Capitals of Culture that integrate the given year within a common cultural development plan are more successful overall. Thus it is important to include long-term, sustainable initiatives in the programme – not just short-term events with ephemeral consequences. This is also highlighted by Dr Raminta Jurenaite from Lithuania, since “usually, the state cultural sector has a constant lack of financial resources, so it is worth utilizing the European Capital of Culture platform to create lasting assets: expand museums, improve concert hall tecnology, develop other cultural institutions, and introduce other events with a potential future.” As mentioned previously, Dr. Raminta Jurenaite was part of the team that established the international Art Vilnius art fair in 2009, currently the only such fair in the Baltics, to be held for the third time this summer. Anu Liivak, director of the KUMU art museum, admits that Tallinn’s programme as European Capital of Culture was mostly made up of numerous, but short-term events. However, she would like to highlight and commend the initiatives promoting the development of peripheral urban areas, including them in the trajectory of local cultural life. For example, the development of Tallinn’s port neighbourhood is sure to continue in future years.

A charismatic leader

Through an analysis and evaluation of European Capitals of Culture between 1985 and 2004, Palmer concluded that there is of course no recipe or formula for success. However, there are a number of critical factors that every city should take into account. One of these is “identifying strong leaders and managers”. This was also emphasized by Maarin Mürk, who considers that “Tallinn lacked a charismatic leader expressing a certain conviction of what it means to be a European Capital of Culture. There was no one to clearly define an approach. People tend to consider that Capital of Culture events are anything and for everyone, but this just leads to a shapeless result.” Mürk believes that the solution lies in strict decision-making, best done if there is a leader who “defines a clear policy – this and nothing else”.