Cultural capitals

Each year, a European city is selected to become the City of Culture. Enormous funds are allotted to it for a period of one calendar year, during which it gets a chance to showcase its cultural life

WHAT follows may make for somewhat dense reading, but the idea deserves attention. At a national forum less than a year ago, I proposed that we, in India, should think of initiating a scheme of designating one city in each region of India as a Cultural Capital for two years, so that massive funds could be poured into it for creating a high-class infrastructure for cultural activities. But at that time I had — in all honesty — no idea at all that such a scheme, with variations of its own, had been in existence in Europe for the last 25 years. When I travelled to Europe soon afterwards, I discovered this fact to my own embarrassment.

A view of a city square in Linz at night
A view of a city square in Linz at night 

Undaunted, however, I wanted to know more about that scheme not only to inform myself but also to prepare for fleshing the idea out if and when the proposal might come up for consideration. I found out that the historic cities of Linz in Austria and Vilnius in Poland had been declared as European Cultural Capitals for the year 2009. Immediately, I decided to write to the city of Linz, asking them to send me any information that they had for their city, and their plans for the year. There was not enough time then to receive anything, but when I landed in Europe again a few days back, I found an enormous pile of literature, an inundation if you like, waiting for me: all sent by the city authorities of Linz.

In it, there were whole books, brochure upon brochure, announcements, invitations to various events. By now, the year 2009 was over, but I decided to learn about what was going on. I shall return to Linz — that beautiful and ancient city on the Danube — a bit later, but, first, on the scheme under which it was declared European Cultural Capital for 2009.

The idea goes back to 1983 when Melina Mercouri, great actress and an icon of her generation, proposed, in her capacity as the Greek Minister of Culture, that each year a city be designated as the European City of Culture, for she believed that culture was not receiving the same attention as politics and economics. The powerful European Union — EU, for short — was in the process of being formed by that time, and she strongly advocated the idea that a project be launched for promoting European cultures within the member states. Two years later, the idea received a concrete shape. The first city to be given the honour of being the European City of Culture was Athens.

Slowly, the programme underwent some modifications. The term ‘City of Culture’ was replaced by ‘Capital of Culture’. The EU embraced the cause with enthusiasm. Each year now two cities — this year there are three: Essen in Germany, Pecs in Hungary, and Istanbul in Turkey — are given that designation. An elaborate process of selection has been put into place; cities vie with one another to gain that honour; detailed preparations are made far ahead of time. But, once selected, each city receives enormous funds for a period of one calendar year during which it gets a chance to showcase its cultural life and to transform its cultural base. The programme has been a resounding success and not only numerous cities — Florence, Amsterdam, Madrid, Stockholm, Glasgow, to name a few — have benefited from it, but the whole cultural field has been energised. Studies commissioned by the EU have shown how not only the cultural landscape of the cities has been transformed but how beneficial has the programme been for the socio-economic development of the entire region. Today, the idea is flourishing, and why not? A whole continent gets richer in the process.

To go back to Linz, however. As I ploughed through the information that the city had sent, I was staggered at the scale of what had been planned and the processes of thought that had gone into it.

True that the city, going back as it does to at least 1200 years, already has an impressive infrastructure and several institution: an old castle, a music theatre, the city museum called the Nordico, a science park, an open culture house known as OK, a 63 meter high ‘Tower of Knowledge’ that houses the main library and the adult education centre, a superb Promenade along the Danube, and so on. But everything required fresh thinking. For quite some time the city had been seen as a grey industrial city but it was now turning colour. Great new exhibitions were held; the Ars Electronica Centre was turned into a museum of the future, with 6,500 square metres of space and its LED illuminated glass forms; new musical ensembles were formed; fresh symphonies commissioned; a rotating platform, the ‘Linzer Eye’, was created in the river giving the viewer a constantly changing perspective on the city; sculptures all along the Danube embankment were brilliantly lit. Nothing was left out of consideration: the brightest minds of Europe were invited to come and contribute to symposia, theatres, concert halls, street performances, poetry readings, operas. Every theatre packed its programme for the entire year, every institution had thought of doing something different, and richer. The list it too long, far too long, to go into here, but some idea can at least be formed. Linz was not going to remain, in some ways, the city that it had become: a grey industrial city, as said before.

What I found especially interesting in all this also was the fact that a wide cross-section of the people of Linz was asked questions ahead of time as to what their expectations were. And all kinds of voices were heard before plans were finalized. "What is certainly lacking in Linz is large and small venues in the Inner City area", a hotel chef opined. "This is where we need to focus on the symbiosis between art, culture and gastronomy." The head of the Film Festival said: "True innovation is never found in a culture fixated on the spectacular or the mainstream. It needs a spirit of adventure and change. Linz must remain a city in a state of flux, where innovative, subversive subcultural initiatives are allowed to flourish." A social worker wrote to the city: "Contact between citizens and institutions is in need of improvement. Immigrant citizens have to be taken into account as well." An agitated citizen held forth, thus: "For whom is Linz supposed to be Austria’s most interesting city? For Linzers? For Austrians, Germans, the Japanese? For Italians, politicians, cobble-stone spectacle artists, art freaks? For the masses, for consumers, soccer fans, tradespeople, industrial tycoons? Or for everyone?"

Not every point of view could have been accommodated, nor every plan realized. But everyone who has been to Linz this year says that the city has acquired a new soul.

The point is: can we learn something from all this?