European Capitals of Culture: More than just a title?

By Carolina Reyes Chávez

During the last 3 decades, more than 60 cities across Europe have been awarded the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) title. This means for each designated city, in the most general terms, to set up a massive cultural and artistic event during a whole year. The initiative -started in 1985- has become one of the most ambitious and successful cultural projects in Europe, according to the European Union Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. However, despite the large achievements reported in the ex-post evaluations, ECoC remains a fuzzy concept to European citizens, as well as its outreach. Given this, it might be worth it to look at some of the implications of this huge event and try to understand what does it mean in practice to be awarded with this honorable title.

Only a celebration of culture and arts?

One of the main objectives of the ECoC program is to foster the contribution of culture to the long-term development of cities (and this brings up the most interesting matter of the weight that culture has been conferred within the Culture and Creativity European Commission policies during the last decades). ECoC principal aims include promoting mutual understanding and intercultural dialogue among citizens, as well as providing Europeans with opportunities to meet and discover the cultural diversity of the subcontinent. In fact, a strong intention to reinforce a European identity is present in the whole program.

In this regard, the number of activities delivered by each awarded city can be colossal. In 2019, for instance, Matera (Italy) delivered more than 1,300 events, managing to gather over 490,000 local and foreign participants. This involved the development of a huge infrastructure, planning, logistics, marketing, and transport, getting funding from the private sector, etc.

On the other hand, it’s mandatory for each designated city to offer a rich variety of events over and above their normal cultural activity. In 2020-2021, Rijeka (Croatia) presented a grand-scale exhibition, set in 10 pavilions, thematizing different phenomena of the history of radical growth of the city in the last 150 years. Besides, participants were able to enjoy theatre plays, themed walking tours around the city, concerts, conferences, dance, artistic and urban interventions on the public space, sport and food events, workshops, and a “Heritage week”, among others. This means, additionally, enormous research activity and the involvement of academic instances as universities. Moreover, Galway (Ireland) in 2020-2021, besides its cultural programming delivered a Schools Programme along with a production of a podcast on the topics of language, landscape, and migration. In addition to academic production, this also involves the development of new partnerships and the creation of spaces and platforms for the encouragement of critical thinking.

Furthermore, to become an ECoC implies a competition that starts 6 years before the official designated year. In order to bid, cities must already fulfill several requirements such as having a cultural strategy linked to the city development strategy. After a two-year selection process, the two winners have 4 years to be fully prepared to face the immense event.

In terms of funding, the budget estimate for the release of each City’s delivery of the ECoC goes from approximately €38 to €50 million. In Matera 2019, for instance, more than 90% of the overall budget was covered by the public purse, while the rest was provided by the EU and national funding applications (such as the Melina Mercouri prize) and private funding. In a similar way, for Plodiv (Bulgaria) 2019, the almost €40 million budget was covered by the national government, the city’s government, and private sponsors.

Taking all the above into consideration one might wonder, is it worth all this effort to gain a title (which does not necessarily involve receiving EU funding)?

A glimpse of outreach and achievements (spoiler alert: culture – and not economics – is what matters the most).

Looking at the final reports of the ex-post evaluations it is possible to notice several economic impacts in the awarded cities, such as the increasing of the number of people with access to culture initiatives, growth in cultural infrastructure, an increase in the number of people employed in the cultural sector and a strong impact on international tourism. However, while one of the objectives is to certainly improve the image of the city to the outside world, the main focus is put on the impact and legacy to the local citizens and their daily dynamics.

This last thing is not of minor importance. Plovdiv 2019, for instance, managed to use culture as a driver of change for challenges related to its multi-ethnic background, conferring a social dimension to the event’s outcomes.  In addition, it made culture accessible for social groups which previously were not active participants in the cultural life (as the Roma minority, young people from deprived neighborhoods and elderly people from smaller towns and villages), and aimed to bring together different generations and social groups.

The point that it needs to be highlighted is that the relevance of the outreach is not mainly focused on the economic impact for the cities, and this can be the ‘tricky part’, the one that can make the outcomes being perceived as blurred -as they are difficult to measure in a quantitative way- and that can make that the relevance of a colossal event like this pass without being strongly noticed or acknowledged. Although undoubtedly fostering the economic sphere is an important and desired outcome of the ECoC program, being a cultural event requires one to consider its achievements in different – but equally valuable – terms than the economic ones. As there are differences in the medium-term economic results for each city, the stress in the final reports concerning the achievements of each ECoC is on the cultural impacts, namely the strong engagement of citizens, the growing of cultural capacity, the diversifying of cultural offer and the fostering of the cities’ international profile, among others.

Why then European Capital of Culture is a fuzzy concept?

ECoC is clearly a rich and integral program with positive implications that deserves to be better highlighted. In fact, it would not be unfortunate to have more analysis on the subject conducted by someone other than the European Commission itself[1]. This could contribute to a more critical approach to feed into proposals for improving the program and its outreach. As a non-European citizen, one of my main and initial questions, when I started researching on this topic, was how a title like this, which involves huge cultural, artistic, social, economic, q and even identity actions could be a blurred concept for European citizens –some of them being even cultivated and into-worldwide-topic students? Now, my interrogative has been extended to what could be done for ECoC to have a more international impact?

To analyze the whole implications and potential of this program is a large labor that, hopefully, could be done in other reflection spaces.


[1] An extensive analysis can already be found in Monica Sasatelli’s book Becoming Europeans: cultural identity and cultural policies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Picture credits: Marco Markovitch, CC.

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