European Cultural Capital Cities

A Tale of Two (European Cultural Capital) Cities told by Claudia Woolgar
1 October 2020


Impossible to imagine: you work for years on a project. You consult, you dream, you invest. You create an amazing cultural programme lasting 12 months which stretches across Europe, forging new cultural links and shared creative visions. You win the much sought-after title of European Capital of Culture. And three months into your cultural year the world is in crisis.

Covid-19: the blight of 2020.The world goes into lockdown. You have no choice. You have to stop. You have to cancel shows. You cannot deliver your programme.

Having worked for years on the programme for Leeuwarden-Friesland European Capital of Culture in 2018, my heart went out to Galway, lreland and Rijeka, Croatia — the two European Capitals of Culture this year. All that money spent — and not just for the year itself, but during all those preparatory years. Building a programme, building a team, nurturing support for the year on a multitude of fronts and at all levels: sponsor, city, regional and national governments, local businesses, and with the local and regional press. Building trust and support within the artistic community — in the host city and also across Europe with all the project partners. And growing support within the community despite the nay-sayers, the cynics, the critical local press. There is nothing equal to delivering the year as planned to vindicate the value of all the financial, creative, and strategic investment.

All ground to a halt. Overnight.


Residual Geometry fraxinus ii. Photo courtesy of ECoC Galway.


So how did these two cities respond to having their European Capital of Culture (ECoC) year halted by Covid-19? And how did Brussels respond to the cities’ inability to deliver as planned?

l let the first shock and the fear of Covid-19 recede, and then l contact Marilyn Gaughan-Reddan, Head of Programme in Galway. “lt’s been difficult. Our opening launch was cancelled because of a storm. We’ve had a few big storms. And a pandemic. Unusual weather even for Ireland!” Marilyn is smiling at me through Zoom, but she looks tired. We remembered an evening together in Brussels, years ago, prior to 2018. Both of us excitedly planning, creatively, for our title year. An evening of hope and laughter, it now feels like another world away. She continues, “When we got the call about the national lockdown, I felt sick. l had to sit down. As the week enfolded and St Patrick’s Day was cancelled, exhaustion and sadness fell, dropping on us all.”

With no public gatherings allowed and box office projections in chaos, the Galway ECoC office closed down in March. But, despite the unprecedented challenges the pandemic posed, they did not let sadness win. The decision was quickly taken to focus on the artists — more specifically, on the local artistic community. It was a hugely commendable approach, but redundancies inevitably followed. This included Artichoke, the London-based company which in January 2019 had been brought in to help shape the programme and build its international content around the three core themes: language, landscape, and migration.

Discussions had to take place with the EU in Brussels; the Ministry for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture & Sport; local and regional councils; sponsors; business partners; funders – the list of stakeholders for an ECoC is extensive. Gaughan-Reddan told me, “The Department [Ministry] were fantastic. It was a very positive experience… In this industry we’ll do anything to have the show go on, but to have that at governmental level is really heart-warming.”


Tobogan performance. Photo courtesy of ECoC Rijeka 2020.


But how do you not lose the support you need when you fail to deliver what you promised? Marilyn Gaughan-Reddan looks drained when she recalls this period, even after the easing of the initial draconian lockdown measures. “The easier option is to shut down… But we worked on-line, constantly rethinking what event could go where in line with current restrictions. Endless risk assessments. Making events Covid-proof with plans A, B, C, and D. I even had my first E yesterday – they’d thought about everything! We’re going to be living with Covid-19 for a long time. Accept your now-reality. Plan now for later.”

Their key word was resilience, and the decision was quickly taken to deliver on the long-standing goal of sustaining and maintaining the local artistic community. In talking to Gaughan-Reddan I couldn’t help but feel that, actually, the Covid-19 crisis became, in some way, an inspiration when she told me, “It has demanded a new way of thinking. Rewriting projects with artists and partners. Incredible creativity, resilience, and agility. That will stay with me forever.”

She gave me some examples of projects which were rethought, reshaped. “We maintained our small towns/big ideas approach – 78 projects are up and running. They have to change with every new (restriction) announcement. There are no big spectacles, no street events. There is no place where our communities and audiences can gather.”


Legend of Gilmarsh Macnas. Photo credit: Julia Dunin.


The solution is one we are now familiar with in these strange times: many events shifted online. “People may not be able to be at events, but they can access them online.” She pauses. “But being together online is not being together in a large event.” Sadness flickers across her face. “County Galway has very little cultural infrastructure. The county residents would come to the city to experience international work, so we wanted to turn this on its head. Let people experience art in a different way.” With physical attendance being possible outside, within the rules, the county itself has become their stage. “Our largest projects are in the county, in rural areas, in the middle of the mountain range in Connemara.”

And she tells me about their project Aerial/Sparks created by the Irish artist Louise Manifold: “The entire island of Inis Oírr is an art gallery. The island is hosting the artists, and the islanders are totally engaged with the project, excited that their island is a gallery. Our landscape is our gallery, our streets and parks are our theatres.”

Crucially, the ECoC year has been extended, with some events running into March 2021. The challenge of reaching audiences remains, but Marilyn Gaughan-Reddan says, “We’re working with a tourism task force and the Chamber of Commerce, focusing on the staycation market. We’ve all had to be very agile, to step back and reflect. We can’t do this, but we can do that. Working together and finding ways to move forward, to engage more people and maintain the relationships. This is Galway. It is our home. For all of us. Together. It was an opportunity to do something different. We remained solution focussed, on what we do well — quality, safety and supporting as many artists as we can. We have 350 artists who are back to work! We’re really proud of this.

“As producers we’re used to crisis after crisis, and we respond. Chaos – it is the sector, it’s the way it is. So, it’s not what we thought, but it will be special. As a producer you have to accept that you cannot control this and that’s really bloody hard. But embrace the chaos. It will make you a better producer. And be brilliant! Feck it! l’ve got it! I’m bricking it, but l’m going to do it! We’re making the art happen!”

As for the second European City of Culture 2020, Rijeka, there had been almost seven years put into preparing the event. It is the first city in Croatia to host an ECoC, fighting off nine large Croatian cities to win the title. I spoke to Irena Kregar Šegota, CEO of Rijeka2020, about the chosen city. She said, “Rijeka is known as a city of progressive urban contemporary culture. But also as the bad guy, the bad kid in the family, the one not afraid to ask difficult questions. Our wish was to make the city more visible, nationally and in Europe. In cultural and tourism terms but also in general terms. Strengthen the cultural and creative sector. Work with local communities, with tools and platforms on how to involve different communities in cultural activities. To respect artistic freedom and to enlarge that space.

“We had two spectacular months with double the number of visitors. And then in March it all stopped. It was not possible to physically carry on with the programme. Money stopped. The city budget was blocked, government budgets were blocked. The previous CEO hoped to reactivate in the summer. But in April, we realized it was impossible and more serious than we had expected”.

Just as the City Council took up a large amount of the administrative workload in Galway, so the City Hall in Rijeka moved in to cover the PR and marketing, and international marketing stopped. A streamlined structure was introduced: staffing levels went from 70 to 24, and the leadership changed with Kregar Šegota, previously director of partnership networks and development participation, appointed as CEO.

Rijeka2020 had a communication challenge when lockdown hit. “We went into communication silence, because all we had was bad news, layoffs, cut budgets.” Irena Kregar Šegota admits this was not a good approach, for “the perception was that the ECoC was dead”. But after the initial shock, those left in the organization changed tack. “The greatest value of the human race is adaptability. We realized we needed to sit down and adapt the programme, restructure the organization,” she told me.

“Just as in Galway, stakeholders played a huge role in the restructuring. But I get the sense that things were harder for them than for those in Galway. The ECoC took a 40% cut in government funding. By June of this year they were faced with a new budget and had to rethink. The 40% cut has not resulted in a 40% cut in the programme. Some things we had to give up, such as visiting international companies and large outside events – they were too expensive.” They cancelled The Anachronic Bath-House, a Heiner Goebbels audio-visual installation in an abandoned swimming pool. “It was either that or 30 community projects. We had to make choices. For the future. Our priorities were legacy, communities and visibility.”

Performing arts events took the hardest hit, whilst exhibitions and visual arts kept their big international names. “But then people expected everything to be online … National partners did shows online, but these are artists. To commission a true online digital work takes time, money and artistic knowledge. lt doesn’t happen just like that!”

As with Galway, the Rijeka ECoC decided to focus on the local — on community events. “This made a huge difference to public opinion. We had endless talks. It was important that we said, I hear you. l don’t have all the answers or the money. But let’s see what choices we can do.” People were happy just to be heard.” And the financial challenges continue. “We are still trying to fundraise, but since Covid-19 governmental companies are facing a ban on sponsor investment …This was possibly a paternalistic restriction due to an unknown future. Government sources account for 90-95% of cultural funding. Private money goes to humanitarian goals, opera, and festivals anyway – not to new projects.”

Rijeka had secured many infrastructure projects, and with the finance mainly coming from the EU and allocated in advance, fortunately building and renovation continued. As for creativity, Kregar Šegota said, “Artists never stop! Creating is like breathing, you never stop … There is nothing greater than art and culture to help us keep going in this uncertainty.

We will have a transformed landscape post-Covid. lt’s a life-changing experience. We’ve learnt lots of lessons from these times. And l think these lessons must be built into new cultural policies. New reflections on how we invest in culture I hope public policy makers will understand and let themselves be shaped by culture makers They need to listen to what culture is and to what it means to people. We must talk, listen. How do we work with our audiences? What is success when we talk about cultural projects? And let us reflect on the very initiative of ECoCs. What is its future?”

That was a sobering question, so l asked Sylvain Pasqua, Team Leader at the European Commission in Brussels for the ECoC Initiative, if he saw a role for European Capitals of Culture in the devastated cultural landscapes we are seeing emerging from the crisis. He told me that one of the goals of ECoCs is connection – bringing Europe to your local people; the local context and the European. “lt’s very intimate. The ECoCs’ connection is very physical; you have to experience it in your city. The locality is important; ECoCs must be rooted in the local context. They are events imaged locally; they are your message to the rest of Europe.”

But in our increasingly globalized world, is this focus on Europe out-dated? Pasqua answered, “We see so many global tensions today and Europe has to make its voice heard. To send strong messages about what it wants to be as a continent. We cannot think of an ECoC today without thinking about Europe and the rest of the world, those connections. The world has such a huge impact on us, and as Europeans we must contribute to the international discussion about the kind of world we want. China, America, Russia — they don’t wait for us. We must speak out. Culture has the power to send strong messages.”

Brussels as well has had to face the reality of Covid-19 and its impact on this year’s ECoCs. The Melina Mercouri Prize is awarded annually for excellence in preparation and how well the city plans to deliver the programme as outlined in the Bid Book. As the pandemic hit, it was obvious that neither Galway nor Rijeka could deliver their programmes as outlined in their Bid Books, but under these pandemic circumstances Brussels decided to award the prize regardless.

Extensions into 2021 for this year’s ECoCs also need to be sanctioned in the Brussels EU corridors and chambers of power. As does the proposal that, because of the enduring impact of the pandemic, Novi Sad (Serbian ECoC 2021) move to 2022, and Eleusis and Timisoara (Greek and Romanian ECoCs 2021) move to 2023. Sylvain Pasqua describes the complex negotiation route he has to follow in all these discussions, starting with Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth in the College of Commissioners located in Brussels. Discussions were held with all title cities in the 2021-2023 period (“Moving to 2022 and 2023 meant checking with Esch (Luxembourg), Kaunas (Lithuania) and Veszprém (Hungary) if they were willing to have new ECoC brothers and sisters in their years …”). Their input was brought back to the Brussels negotiating table; discussions were then enlarged to include all relevant national ministries, and then the matter went back to the

European Council and Parliament. Ultimately the Vice President of the Commission has the say in all matters relating to culture, so Pasqua’s job is to brief, converse, and persuade on a multitude of fronts in order to work out the best way forward for ECoCs in the crisis of the pandemic. He said, “it is too early for lessons. By the middle of next year, we will understand much better. The ECoC cities have to submit evaluation reports by mid-2022, with their reflection on how Covid-19 impacted them. Esch, Luxembourg, is setting up a workshop to reflect on ECoCs and Covid-19. We have to use digital means, joining together in exploring and better understand: Q. the impact the virus has had on ECoCs.”

And as the ECoC machine keeps going, with countries currently bidding for future titles, the pandemic has had inevitable impacts on those selection procedures. All steps on the ECoC road have had to reshaped, re-evaluated.

As for the EU dimensions, what about that crucial function of the ECoCs “bringing Europe to local people”? Be it audiences or artists, this dimension of 2020’s cities — so fundamental to the whole ECoC initiative – was devastated by the virus, and yet both Galway and Rijeka speak of the networks and connections that were made during the long journey towards winning the title. Irena Kregar Šegota states that, “European networks and dialogue are still there. Physical travel has stopped, but the ties are still there.”

Galway is hosting IETM (the international network for contemporary performing arts) in December. The Irish [participants] will attend in person, international guests online. “We are meeting our European promises, just in a different way. But the relationships are absolutely still there,” Marilyn Gaughan-Reddan said. She continued, “We have had artists here from other countries, but they were tested first and quarantined. You have to plan much more in advance, and this needs extra money. We are delivering an EU project in Connemara true to the three themes of language, landscape, and migration. We have remained true to the Bid Book.” So much preparation [for trans-European projects] happens in the years ahead — we delivered all the workshops in 2019 and early 2020. And those relationships still exist. We just had to find alternative ways of presenting.”

l asked Sylvain Pasqua what he thought of how Galway and Rijeka tackled the Covid-19 crisis, and he answered, “I was full of admiration for their resilience, their creativity. They did a lot of reshuffling over the summer months in such difficult situations and with a limited team. They had reduced funding, no visibility in terms of what you can achieve, constant stress, changes in safety measures. Organizers’ energy once the ECoC year starts is fuelled by the positivity of the people participating, by the press … But communities, businesses were on the brink of collapse, people were afraid of losing their jobs. I could not do much, only helping gain an extension of some extra months. We need moments when we are together, even when in turmoil. lt’s such a big tempest. I feel so privileged; l am on the coast, and they were in the sea. But their boats are not sinking …”