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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Who wants to be The European Capital of Culture - and why??

Bulgaria is one of the few EU member states which has not so far seen one of its cities designated as a European City (since 1999 “Capital”) of Culture - although in 2019 one Bulgarian city will play this role. 10 Bulgarian cities are bidding for the designation – with Sofia’s strong bid facing stiff competition from Plovdiv’s and other well-placed cities such as Varna, Burgas and Veliko Tarnovo. (The photo is, appropriately, of Plovdiv's Roman forum -  the "bread and circus" predecessor of the European Capital of Culture - discovered only in the 1970s when they were digging a road construction)

"I belong to Glasgow"
Glasgow was one of Europe’s first cities to have this title (in 1990) and I was a leading Regional politician during the previous 15 years of regeneration efforts which culminated in this award – and in 1990 I had the great pleasure during the opening ceremonies of a private lunch with Melina Mercouri who, when Greek Minister of Culture, invented the concept.

Historical footnote; I was in my kilt and struck (in those days) quite a fine figure. I got the eye from Melina and was invited to join the small table she had with an attractive Berlin Senator. My (Presbyterian) mother was with me and knew Melina only from her infamous film role as a prostitute. Melina and I (as Socialists) got on like a house on fire but when I back to the table where I had left my Mum in the tender care of a boring Latin scholar and asked if she would like to meet my new friend, she responded tartly - "Certainly not!"
The “Glasgow model” is still talked about in positive terms. See, for example, two slide presentations which compare the Glasgow and Liverpool (2008) experiences here and here

Some basic facts
It is all too easy for municipal leaders to get excited about the prestige of a European award – particularly when its economic impact lies so far in the future by which time it is highly unlikely the leaders will still be around. A note of scepticism is needed. The European Union is very clever with these designations which carry (directly at any rate) very little European funding. Over the 25 years of experience, the average cost of the scheme has been 35 million euros – and only 2% of this has been covered by EC funding! The cost has, of course, ranged from 5-6 million euros of the Bergen and Prague years (2000) to no less than 232 million for Thessalonika’s year in the spotlight (1997) And 99% of the funding of the latter was public. I’ve taken the figures from page 70 of the detailed Palmer report for the EC on the impact of the concept (Palmer, it should be noted was the Director of the Glasgow 1990 project – now with his own International Cultural Consultancy company)

A basic question
So the question for the Bulgarian government and city leaders is how much should they put up – with what sort of hopes for its impact? 
At a time of great austerity, are realistic calculations being made for the running costs of new infrastructure being proposed? 
Most European cities are having difficulties paying the wage and other running costs of existing libraries and swimming pools – let alone having the budget for increased staffing. Maribor (Slovenia) is just finishing its European City of Culture spell – and is already experiencing this problem - with cultural groups being set against one another as a result - and Istanbul(2010) also experienced serious problems
On the other hand the EC has also published its own (positive) spin on the experience of the past 25 years - which looks more at results than processes.

Some experience
The Glasgow authorities made their own positive assessment of impact – 17 years later. But there is another side to the story – which was set out in 2004 in a useful assessment of the Glasgow experience. It did not mince its words
In the narratives deployed by those who advocate city marketing and re-imagining, cities such as Glasgow are all too frequently reified and presented as homogeneous locales of common interests. But ‘Glasgow’ does not ‘do’ things, it is not an agent and it is not ‘Glasgow’ that ‘wins’ or ‘loses’, or that is undergoing a ‘renewal’, but particular (and if recent evidence is anything to go by, fewer) groups of its citizens living in particular parts of the City. The type of strategy adopted in Glasgow – ‘the Glasgow model’ – has contributed to the worsening levels of poverty and deprivation and to the deepening inequalities that characterise the City today. It has done this primarily by constructing Glasgow’s future – and the future for tens of thousands of Glaswegians – as a low paid, workforce grateful from the breadcrumbs from the tables of the entrepreneurs and investors upon which so much effort is spent in attracting and cosseting – and by marginalising and ruling out any alternative strategy based upon large scale public sector investment in sustainable and socially necessary facilities and services. While wishing to avoid any romanticisation of manufacturing employment, it is nonetheless notable that this now accounts for less than 10% of employment in the City (source: OECD, 2002, p. 46).
There appears to have been little effort to secure quality manufacturing employment of a type that might be attractive to many of those out of work and which might offer full-time, sustainable work of a better quality than that on offer in the ‘cappucino’ economy that is now such a pervasive feature of the city centre.
 The paper quotes from a critical 1990 article
. . the Year of Culture has more to do with power politics than culture. It has more to do with millionaire developers than art . . . In 1990, willy-nilly, everything is surrendered, once you join in the enterprise, for above all 1990 makes an unequivocal statement on behalf of corporate wealth.
So that in 1990 it is more a question of art sponsoring big business, promoting the new tourist drive and giving aid and comfort to a shallow ethos of yuppie greed. And for all this of course the people of Glasgow will be made to foot the bill. (McLay, 1990, p. 87)
Lessons - and key elements in any successful approach
If there is one lesson from the 25 years’ experience, it is that the process needs, from the outset, to involve all possible local groups – whether performing, musical, artistic, media, literary, tourist, community, ethnographic, archeological, vinocultural (!!) etc..... It is impossible to get a consensus amongst such groups –whether at strategic or implementations stages. But the effort has to be made – to build up the trust that is needed to have a sustainable and successful result. And cooperation is not easy in southern European countries such as Greece and Italy let alone ex-communist Balkan countries - where cronyism is so rampant and fair selection of contractors and beneficiaries a rare thing.
Key words, however, I would urge on those involved would be trust, transparency, inclusiveness, learning (from the experience of others), realism and modesty (in spending commitments), scepticism (of a lot of the material and claims made on the subject); and distinctiveness (don't copy - recognise and build on your distinctive characteristics).

I am, it should be noted, no great fan of mega-efforts such as Olympics. And I would also advise those involved to spend time looking at the experience not only of the many other cities who have so far been the recipient of this award but of other big events. There are some good overviews (with extensive links) available herehere; and here.

Sofia - so far
Given my various posts on Sofia and its attractions, I obviously feel that Sofia would be a worthy city. for this accolade - not least because so many of its residents seem insufficiently aware of its attractions. The reason the designation was so important to Glasgow (when it was made in 1986 or so) was that it altered the perception of the city - both for outsiders and residents.
Sofia also needs such a boost - and seems already to be going about it in the right way . And I like the contributions which some citizens are already beginning to make to the discussion about what it should be for - in this series on provocateur of the month

From the archives; a good post 3 years ago on "organisational narcissism"!

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