Being a European Capital of Culture


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. 

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”.

A clear concept and communication with the public

“There’s a harsh rule – if you are doing something wonderful, but nobody knows about it, you might as well not be doing it,” says Laur Kaunissare, emphasising the critical role of communication with the public – “not just marketing, but communication overall is very important”. Maarin Mürk claims this was one of Tallinn’s weakest links – the way of presenting information was poor: “The Tallinn 2011 logo could be seen all over the city, but they did not make the main focus or the main axis of the programme clear – what else, except for the concentration of events, made that year’s events different from any other year? It is wonderful if the European capital of Culture acts as an umbrella for a great diversity of ideas, but a backbone is still necessary to help people navigate and perceive the event programme as a whole. This is also easier to present to the public.” Of course, this implies that form should be balanced with content before investing in public relations. “In order to communicate, first there has to be a great idea to share,” Laur Kaunissare repeats. Giving a speech in Brussels in 2010, Robert Palmer also emphasised the need for a reasonable balance:  “There is a danger of these cities being transformed into cultural industries with the communication budget for public relation exercises alone going proportionally up at the expense of some real investments in the arts and in authentic cultural developments.” Jokingly, Kaunissare adds that he is not quite sure whether the aim of a European Capital of Culture is being a marketing project with an ‘icing’ of culture, or a cultural project with an ‘icing’ of marketing.

Less is more

Maarin Mürk questions whether it is even possible to take all the necessary measures for a European Capital of Culture to reach the bar set. Namely, whether the aspirations themselves are not too grand. Although Tallinn 2011 was organized by a great team, involving highly regarded professionals from various fields of culture, there was still a feeling that all the good intentions were buried under efforts to re-invent the wheel.  As the saying goes – “We wanted to do it better, but wound up with the usual.” There is an acute lack of time to find the most suitable strategy, carry out administrative duties and still see the big picture clearly.” Mürk sees the solution in a clear idea – to define what there is a desire to do; to find a specific leitmotif. “Maybe some projects have to be discarded, maybe less should be done, if this helps to maintain a clear vision and carry it out properly. In Tallinn last year, it was sometimes sad to realize that so much was going on, but it was not possible to see it all. Creative people, in particular, missed out on a lot – while you were organizing one event, another one was going on next door.” Regarding the distribution of finances, Dr. Raminta Jurenaite emphasized intelligent programme development: “It is very important to think strategically and plan special events in various cultural sectors. In Vilnius, millions were spent on New Year fireworks, as well as on excess promotional material, like souvenir cups and chocolates, leading to a lack of money for more important things. Care must be taken that the programme is not dominated by mediocre events, if larger and more sustainable projects suffer on their behalf.”

The European dimension

Returning to the birthplace of the European Capital of Culture in Greece, and the initial purpose of the idea, Robert Palmer observes that “the European dimension has not been a primary focus for European Capitals of Culture, and the potential for bringing Europeans closer together has not been realized.” However, he points out that this original idea could do with some changes – changing the focus from building relationships between Europeans to establishing an international platform to introduce European culture to the rest of the world.

Opening ceremony of Guimarães, European Capital of Culture 2012, on January 14

This year, Slovenia’s second city Maribor and Portugal’s Guimarães hold the status of European Capitals of Culture. In 2013, the chosen two are Marseille in France and Košice in Slovakia, while Umeå in Sweden will be European Capital of Culture in addition to Riga in 2014. In 2015 the position will be held by Mons in Belgium and Plzeňin the Czech Republic, while Spain’s San Sebastián and Wrocław in Poland will be up in 2016.

Read Robert Palmer’s study here