European Capital of Culture: an award to foster understanding or to attract tourists?

Posted on 31. January 2013

by Marta Remacha

marta-remacha-recio-modifiedDo you know which cities have been chosen this year as “European Capitals of Culture”? If you do a quick search on Google you will find that they are: Marseille(France) and Košice (Slovakia). Maybe you have never heard about this “title” but here in France I have only heard people talking about Marseille for the last two weeks or so. Having done a bit more research on this initiative I discovered that in theory it was set up to“highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures”, “celebrate the cultural ties that link Europeans together”, “bring people from different European countries into contact with each other’s culture and promote mutual understanding” and “foster a feeling of European citizenship”. But in fact, what first came to my mind was that it was an award just to attract tourists.

I have always been drawn to these kinds of events that foster understanding and multiculturalism, but at the same time I am a bit skeptical as generally they are used by the council as a tourist trap. This is also the case with the Olympic Games and the European Green Capital. Both previous to and during the event, the host city is full of life and activity: many areas are renovated, new employment is generated and cultural (or sport) life of the city is revitalized.

So, what’s the problem? First of all, the organization of these events meansgreat investments which rarely are recovered. Perhaps this is not the issue as it is the Government who loses money but the inhabitants who earn it. Once again, this profit is generally gained in the means of temporary and precarious work, and once the season is finished, workers return to unemployment. Likewise for new infrastructures which have been constructed for the occasion: theatres, museums, monuments and spectacle venues suffer a “lifting” in order to give a warm welcome to incoming visitors: a whole series of new equipment has transformed the image of the city but which will have no use in a few years from now. Great news also for Marseille, as the Council has finally stepped up the fight of delinquency and violence, in order to shed its crime-ridden image. Globally, this has been an ambitious project which has cost more than 1,000 million €, partially financed by the EU (400 millions).

The main issue is that otherwise all this money would not have been spent. And this is where the main conflict lies: is it necessary to be bestowed these kinds of honours in order to invest in urbanism and culture? Does it make sense that we spend more money on architectural projects than on museums and exhibitions? What is the future of all these installations, planned in the short term? Should the EU finance the infrastructures of any city, beyond the money really needed to organize cultural performances? Has the project really fostered understanding and celebrated diversity, or has Marseille only swept its problems under the carpet? And the most important thing: is this project thought to broaden the horizons of European citizens or simply to improve the lives of Marseille inhabitants? Indeed, the prediction is that 12 million visitors, only 2 million more than usual, are expected to come to the region.

In balance, it seems to me that all these initiatives are always golden opportunities to the cities. We should be thankful that they continue to be promoted nowadays when so many cutbacks are made, especially in the arts. However, it is precisely at this moment that we should be rethinking the real impact of these initiatives and how money is invested.

Overall, I have taken a look at the program and I myself feel like going to some of the proposals. I look forward to receiving your reactions, or at least, confirmation to me that you have heard about Marseille and Kosice as capitals of culture, which would mean that some success has already been achieved.