Europe isn′t just about potatoes, says cultural capital initiator | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 11.01.2011
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Europe isn't just about potatoes, says cultural capital initiator

The European Culture Capital initiative helps to highlight Europe's diversity and contributes to the development of the cities involved. What began as a spontaneous idea has developed into a large, multifaceted project.

A view of the Acropolis in Athens

Athens paved the way for the Capital of Culture program

In early 1985, Greece's Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri and her French counterpart Jack Lang were trying to kill some time during an airport layover. During their animated discussion, a light bulb went on for Mercouri.

A former actress and singer, she suddenly had the idea to annually designate a European city as a cultural capital. Mercouri wanted to create a long-lasting cultural concept while Greece held the presidency over the former European Economic Community (the forerunner of the European Union).

Mercouri wanted the unity between member states to be a cultural and not just economic one, expanding its focus beyond agricultural subsidies.

"I believe in cultural exchange," Mercouri told Deutsche Welle in an interview in 1985. "And I think we shouldn't just have a community of potatoes and tomatoes, but that there should also be an exchange for artists."

Athens sets an example

Melina Mercouri

Mercouri came up with the idea

The plans were carried out as discussed. Mercouri declared Athens the first European Capital of Culture, with this official status lasting for just a few weeks during the summer. Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris followed suit, but the first city to come up with an extensive cultural program for this purpose was Glasgow in 1990. After this, a multi-staged application process was introduced, involving presentations and business plans similar to those presented by cities in the running to host the Olympic Games.

In 2004, the European Union expanded by 10 new members; Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. With a total of 27 member states today, two Capitals of Culture are designated each year.

"When the new member states joined in 2004, we realized that one city wasn't enough," said John Macdonald from the European Commission." The rotation between them would have taken too long."

Major event with long-term benefits

The European Capital of Culture program began with a few concerts and art exhibitions, but today the chosen cities organize hundreds of events representing all forms of art. And these events, according to Macdonald, are meant to not just be of benefit to visitors, but a positive long-term effect on the cities themselves.

"Even when the year is over, it should continue," said Macdonald. "Sustainability is already a criterion in the city selection process."

Sculpture The Tulips of Shangri-La by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma at the heart of Lille just before the start of 2004 - its year as the European Capital Culture

Lille benefited from the project

The aim is to launch far-reaching projects, like the renovation of cultural centers, transformation of industrial land and the construction of new cultural establishments. In 2004, the French city of Lille managed to turn 12 former industrial buildings into cultural centers. And in Luxembourg, which featured as Capital of Culture in 1995, a modern art museum was constructed.

An economic catalyst

A study by the European Commission has shown that the Capitals of Culture have benefitted from their status. Historian Juergen Mittag from the Institute for Social Movements in Germany's Ruhr region points out that the initiative has taken on a broader dimension: More than 50 towns and cities in the Ruhr area were involved in 2010.

"This initiative acquired a force of its own to a large degree and today it's much more than just a short summer event," said Mittag. "It is a huge economic factor; it is a huge media factor. It mobilizes entire regions and acquired dimensions that would have been unthinkable in 1985."

The Ruhr2010 events had a budget of 65 million euros ($84 million), which was financed by private investors as well as the participating cities. The European Union provides an initial 1.5 million euros to get things going, but it is the cities' task to secure private and public sources of funding.

…and the winner is:

European cities are lining up to win the coveted Capital of Culture title, with the selection process lasting around six years. The cities are chosen by the panel of ministers in a secret vote. Tallinn and Turku are the designated Capitals of Culture for 2011.

A view of Tallinn's old town

2011 gives Tallinn a chance to show its cultural treasures

As a harbor city, the Estonian capital of Tallinn is planning to focus on the influence of the sea on its history, development and culture. Meanwhile, Turku, a town situated in southern Finland, wants to present a playful look at the mentality of its residents, filled with self-irony.

These cities will be followed in 2012 by Guimaraes (Portugal) and Maribor (Slovenia). In 2013 it is Marseille (France) and Kosice (Slovakia), while 2014 will feature Umea (Sweden) and Riga (Latvia). No cities have yet been chosen for 2015 and beyond, but the European Commission is currently busily plowing through a heap of applications for the coveted title.

Author: Bernd Riegert (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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