Recently, I returned from a two-week trip to Istanbul, Turkey, one of the designated European Capitals of Culture for 2010. I’ll admit that I had no idea what this meant, though I felt pretty cool sharing that fact with others—that is, until they asked what that detailed and I sheepishly replied, “Well, it’s a complicated … okay, I have no idea, but doesn’t it sound impressive?”
As it turns out, the process of being selected as a Capital of Culture from the numerous cities in the European Union is complicated, not only for the rigorous planning involved but also because of the financial and social implications of such a title. The program itself is meant to highlight European culture and increase interest in different regions, but whether it has a lasting impact on tourism—and whether that impact is worth the burden of being a Capital of Culture—is fiercely debated.
A Capital New Idea
The idea for promoting certain cities in the EU came about during a 1983 meeting of the Council of Ministers of the European Union. Melina Mercouri, the Greek Minister of Culture at the time, wanted a way to give European culture global prominence. In 1985, Athens became the first of what was then called the European City of Culture.
In 1999, it was renamed and a change was made to the selection process to avoid the heightened competition of previous years. Currently, every member country of the EU will have one of its cities selected to hold the coveted title for one year, with countries chosen a few years in advance so that cities can prepare a cultural program for consideration. The program is a series of events and activities the city comes up with to display itself and its role in the EU to the world. Starting in 2001, up to two cities can be chosen per year.
The Council has strict requirements for the cultural programs cities must come up with in order to apply. Ultimately, plans must emphasize local culture and how it fits into the greater European dynamic, and it should be luring enough to continue drawing people to the area beyond whatever events are part of the program. According to the Web site, it should “have a lasting and sustainable impact on the city’s long-term cultural, economic, and social development.” A laundry list of famous landmarks and anything one would find in a travel guide isn’t adequate; for a city to be recognized, it must come up with something truly special in the eyes of the Council members.
Fame Can Be Fleeting
The fact that so few people had heard of Istanbul’s future title and didn’t know what it meant led me to wonder just how much of a difference being a Capital of Culture makes. I consulted a few travel agencies around my area to see whether people specifically inquire about visiting Capitals of Culture—they don’t. In fact, some of the agents didn’t even know what I was talking about. There isn’t even much hype in Istanbul about its upcoming status change; according to a friend who lives there, while there’s an occasional article about events in the works and what’s in store program-wise, the people aren’t talking about it that much.
There are some who believe that winning the title isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A 2000 article in the International Journal of Cultural Policy analyzing the European City of Culture program found that, while tourism increases briefly close to and during the title year, it eventually drops off and doesn’t do much for the city in the long run. In fact, the author suggests that the largely temporary benefits of being a Capital of Culture might be offset by the bureaucratic and financial headaches of planning and organizing the necessary events.
Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Crown
There’s no doubt that being chosen as a Capital of Culture is a great honor for European cities, but the weight of that title can sometimes feel too heavy, particularly if their economies aren’t exactly flourishing. Some of the recent Capitals, such as Cork in Ireland, suffered from disagreements among project planners, programs that lacked cohesion and organization, and budget concerns. One writer who visited Cork shortly after its Capital year found the culture scene severely lacking, with art galleries closing and building improvements put on standby. The problem is that policymakers become so invested in emphasizing culture that inherent problems within the city’s economic, social, and industrial foundations aren’t given adequate consideration.
Vilnius, Lithuania is a 2009 Capital of Culture and is the first post-Soviet country in the EU to be picked. However, some have questioned whether the city is financially stable enough for that distinction. Proponents believe it will generate more revenue for the city and create jobs because of the potential tourism boost, but critics argue that the city’s lack of experience in hosting such large-scale events could be disastrous. They cite those in charge with spending money and rushing into plans without properly analyzing the impact.
Despite the dearth of knowledge and interest in the Capitals of Culture here in the States (or perhaps even in Europe, if my friend in Istanbul is right about the mostly nonexistent public excitement), there are a few success stories that might give hope to the newer winners. For example, Glasgow was a surprise pick in 1990 because it was mainly known as an industrial city, not a cultural beacon. It wasn’t an easy transition, but now it’s a tourist destination in its own right.
The waning enthusiasm seems to have to do with the program’s increasing bureaucracy outweighing its possible cultural profit. Reigniting the flame that propelled the program forward in the first place and not losing sight of its original intent—to unite Europe and emphasize both local and countrywide culture—are the keys to achieving the EU’s goals. If the upcoming Capitals—Essen, Istanbul, and Pécs in 2010—can get past the project in-fighting and strike a balance between cultural policy and actual development, perhaps they’ll become the next Athens or Glasgow—truly Capitals of Culture, not just by title alone.