Culture Capital Umeå on a mission of growth | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.12.2013
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Culture Capital Umeå on a mission of growth

Have you ever considered a journey to the Arctic Circle? In 2014, one of Sweden's northernmost cities, Umeå, is in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture to show that the cold isn't only a burden.

Umeå has ambitious plans: "The greater goal of the Capital of Culture year is growth," said Anna Olofsson, head of marketing for the northern Swedish city.

At City Hall, she points energetically to a map of the city and explains that the aim is to draw investors. "We have to continue growing in order to offer the kind of diversity that is expected from a modern city," she said.

Umeå is already one of Sweden's fastest growing cities. In the past 50 years, the population has tripled. Currently, 80,000 people live in the city itself, and there are well over 100,000 in the surrounding region.

Anna Olofsson, Photo: DW/Ralf Bosen

Anna Olofsson is in charge of marketing Umeå this year

Olofsson is hopeful that the population within Umeå will one day reach 200,000 - more than double what it is now.

Elk crossing and high-speed internet

Umeå has profited from a booming industry and state-subsidized universities. Many of its residents are well educated; there are few social problems; and there is essentially no crime. What's more, it's the hometown of the late bestselling author Stieg Larsson.

Small but efficient, the city in the Västerbotten province is the 12th largest in Sweden, and it melds barren nature with urban modernity. Elk can often be seen trotting through the town, and locals and visitors alike come to enjoy dog sled and kayak tours.

On the other hand, Umeå has one of the fastest broadband networks in the western world. And it has a lively cultural scene and an internationally renowned university.

Umeå's City Hall, Photo: DW/Ralf Bosen

The City Hall serves as the temporary headquarters for the Culture Capital team

But the city mustn't rest on its laurels, warns Olofsson.

Colorful and creative chaos

Back at City Hall, the 37-person Culture Capital team is hard at work making Umeå's dream of growth a reality. To do that, they've got a budget of about 40 million euros ($54.7 million).

On the walls of the temporary Culture Capital headquarters, posters with laughing red hearts - the logo for the year - smile down at visitors. Boxes of brochures, folders and fliers are scattered on the floor, still in a state of creative chaos.

A white wooden door, scribbled full with colorful signatures, stands out in particular. "All of the participating artists have left their mark on the door," explained Fredrik Lindegren. With his casual tone and blue jeans, he looks more like a student than the artistic director of the Culture Capital. He's responsible for some 300 events, ranging from festivals and operas to exhibitions, readings and pop concerts.

Challenges ahead

Frederik Lindegren, Photo: DW/Ralf Bosen

Frederik Lindegren is responsible for some 300 events

In 2010, the European Council named Umeå a Capital of Culture 2014, along with Riga in Latvia. The northernmost Culture Capital to date finds itself 650 kilometers (about 400 miles) from the capital Stockholm, but only 150 kilometers from the Arctic Circle.

It was the city's motto, "Curiosity and Passion," its significance as a motor of regional development and the focus on the culture of the indigenous Sami population that ultimately convinced the EU jury. Up to 200,000 culturally interested visitors are expected to attend the events over the course of the year.

"A lot of challenges come with the Culture Capital title," said Lindegren, pointing out that the recognition is also accompanied with EU subsidies. As the Swedish press has commented, the added challenge is that sponsors are not standing in line to contribute to the year-long project, with the financial backing for some of the events yet to be confirmed.

In addition, some members of the Sami minority group have been critical of the Culture Capital year and want to wait and see whether their native culture will be appropriately represented. There have also been accusations that Umeå is more interested in presenting itself than in offering innovative cultural events.

Chinese TAO Dance Theatre, Photo: TAO Dance Theatre

The Chinese TAO Dance Theatre will be performing together with Sami musicians

In response to the criticism, Lindegren refers back to the upcoming highlights on the program. "During midsummer, when it's light in Sweden for nearly 24 hours, there will be a whole series of unusual outdoor events," he promised. Among them is Richard Strauss' opera "Elektra," a co-production of the event center NorrlandsOperan and the Catalan performance group La Fura dels Baus.

"That will be a performance with fire and water, blood and drama," said Lindegren.

Youthful energy

The year's program revolves around the eight seasons of the Sami calendar: spring awakening, return in early summer, summer growth, reflection in late summer, fall harvest, energy in late fall, hiking in winter, and a time of nourishment in late winter. Exhibitions with works by Sami artists will take place throughout the year, offering insights into the indigenous culture.

Alternatively, a youth soccer tournament and heavy metal and punk concerts are on deck to present the young side of the city. Some 34,000 students from across Sweden and abroad currently live in Umeå.

La Fura dels Baus with Zubin Mehta Ring in a performance of Nibelungen, Photo: Palau de les Arts/cmajor-entertainment

La Fura dels Baus is scheduled to perform during Sweden's long summer days

Tolerance and innovation

"The average age is 37," said marketing manager Olofsson, visibly proud. The large percentage of students means the city is impacted by so much fluctuation that, statistically speaking, the entire population is completely replaced every seven years.

Umeå's Culture Capital logo, Photo: Touristic Bureau of Umeå

Smile! The laughing heart is Umeå's logo for the year

This dynamic has made Umeå a cosmopolitan city that is "open to new ideas and a variety of lifestyles," she said.

The roots of tolerance extend far into the past. In northern Sweden, explained Olofsson, the farmers were never subjected to feudalism. Even in the 18th century, they had already developed a progressive culture of discourse based on equality.

"Sweden is a modern country," insisted Olofsson: "And if you want to find the essence of this mentality in a city, then come to Umeå." And if enough people take her suggestion to heart, perhaps Umeå will soon grow to its goal of 200,000 residents.

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