Reflection on round table discussion “Strategies and tendencies of local cultural development in Europe: the role and impact of European Capital of Culture project” by Ana Letunić

European Capital of Culture is one of the EU’s longest cultural initiatives, with its rhetoric significantly changed since 1985. The project today includes strong political, economic and ideological dimensions that inevitably creates enthusiasm among local agents as well as numerous problems and traps in implementation. From the perspective of a former ECoC candidacy team member, I perceive the idea of ECoC as a highly contested field of meaning, in which different groups or stakeholders partly tend to instrumentalize the symbolic capital of the event for their own goals. In a similar cautious tone, the session “Strategies and tendencies of local cultural development in Europe: the role and impact of European Capital of Culture project” moderated by the researcher Ana Žuvela (Croatia), brought to the fore various challenges and opportunities arising from the mutually antagonistic discourses and policy objectives of the ECoC project.

In the first part of the session, Herman Bashiron Mendolicchio (Spain) presented the main conclusions from his work as an external consultant with Valletta2018. More specifically, he elaborated on the dichotomous nature of the ECoC project and the aspects of legacies and sustainabilities for what he calls the “post-ECoC wave”.  His presentation revolved around three specific and interconnected issues: legacy, community and internationalization. In his view, as well the other speakers’ of the session, legacy intended as a concept of sustainable development should be contemplated since the first day of the project, both by the city and the EU. Concerning the community aspect of ECoC, he shortly elaborated on how Valetta2018 became a national community project due to the size and population of Malta, i.e. it is being directed towards an important shift where the real owner and player is the national community. The third issue tackled upon was the one of internationalisation. He used the concept of translocation in suggesting on how can we understand the transnational character of the ECoC event. Translocation is a term used in the field of genetics, meaning displacement of segments between chromosomes. When translated from the nature to the culture sphere, translocation implies “contemporary forms of displacement among people, their interactions in local contexts and the various transfer mechanisms which occur”, all enabled by transcultural mobility. In a way, it involves influx and outflux of artists and cultural professionals that interact with the local community. The term of translocation seems to conciliate the strong commitment to internationalization, as well the strong commitment to local specifities. In Mendolicchio’s view, through building active platforms for interaction between locals and residents that entice translocal mechanisms, a “city in mobility” is constructed.

Chris Torch (Sweden/Romania), who characterizes himself ”the child of ECoC” due to his strong involvement in three bids in the recent years (Matera2019, Rijeka2020 and Timisoara2021), also elaborated on the importance of ensuring legacy. In his words, the goal of ECoC is to identify the gaps in the cultural system, as opposed to reinforcing the existing structures. The dramaturgy of Torch’s presentation was based on the comparison between the candidacy and the implementation phase. He used the metaphor of a dream to depict the candidacy phase since “the city waking up when it begins to bid”. Still, from my previous experience in the ECoC candidacy team I find it important to highlight what Torch concludes: generating a critical mass of citizen support is in itself a dialogue action and the action of forming a candidacy is as such a cultural action. The following implementation phase, what he calls the reality phase, brings a confrontation with real time challenges, adding up to the significance of “expectation management”. Torch believes the function of ECoC is not to make culture but to create the capacity to make culture. In my opinion, that is a well-formulated ECoC vision: to leave the legacy of coordinated structures that reinforce the capacity and will of citizens “to invent new cultural dreams”.

Continuing on the issue of ECoC legacy, the next speaker was Catherine Cullen (France), special advisor on culture in sustainable cities who has been directly responsible for creation and implementation of Lille 2004. Part of the reason Lille 2004 is perceived as a highly successful example of ECoC is that it ensured its sustainability, mostly visible in the work of Lille 3000, an organization formed on the results of ECoC that continues to project it’s mission into the future. Moreover, Lille 2004 enticed some changes in positions between local and national cultural policy, which is now observable in the distribution of the budget for culture: 75% of funds comes from the local governments while only 25% from the state. Also, the other cities that were in competition (Bordeaux, Toulouse) for the title mobilized all the cultural actors in the same way as if they won the title. Significant consequences for the cities who did not receive the title happened in Croatia, as well, at least in the realm of creation of local cultural strategies. In the words of the moderator of the session, although its been 25 years since the country’s independence, the cities realized they need to have a strategy for local cultural development only when the race for the ECoC title started. This fact somewhat indicates the amount of fine tuning that still has to be done in the winner’s city of Rijeka cultural administration, in order for the implementation of such a complex transnational project to be successful.

Therefore, the last speaker at the session, director of Rijeka 2020 Emina Višnić (Croatia), started her presentation with openly saying that team Rijeka 2020 is currently operating more through the logic of tactics than through strategies, meaning they are catching and making opportunities rather than following a predictable path. Also, they are employing an operational critique of the ECoC concept, i.e. its prescribed production mechanisms. The main reason for that is, as Višnić says, the client (EU) demanding lots of visibility for very little money, which makes ECoC “one of the cheapest promotional materials” of the European Union. Thus, the “management of expectations” plays an important role in the whole process since the expectations are much larger than the currently available resources. Concerning the issue of participation, Višnić believes that due to the size of the project, it has to be collectivized and enable the institutions to build their capacities in various ways. Still, the trending issue of participation needs to be tackled in a critical manner, since it often means that “one powerful actor allows the other to participate” and designates the nature of that participation. With all these possible traps in mind, Višnić whole-heartedly concludes that the most potent challenge in ECoC is to be simultaneously relevant for both the local and international context.

In conclusion of this reflection it seems to important to repeat all the participants continuously brought up the importance of the project’s legacy. This signals an increased awareness of the neoliberal system’s traps, which is based on short-term profit, accelerating growth, market-oriented activity, competitiveness and financial efficiency. Thus, rather than being a one-off spectacle efficient in an economic value system, a relevant ECoC project should enable local cultural ownership, overcome real social divides and create lasting cultural legacies. With ECoC’s underlying structure still based on a bureaucratic and hierarchical top-town policy, this challenge presents another significant ground of the struggle for a more sustainable, open and democratic Europe.