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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

European Capital of Culture

The year 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most prestigious cultural projects of the European Union: the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). When Athens was selected as the first Cultural Capital in 1985, the official purpose was to bring people in the member states closer together, and to celebrate the cultural diversity within the European Union. In the following years the project has slowly escalated, with various results. Some cities have experienced the project as a great cultural vitamin injection, while in others the champagne has been overshadowed by political intrigues, overrun budgets and insufficient planning. While Lisbon is often used as an example of the positive consequences of being selected as a ECOC city, researchers contend that the status has had less notable effects in well-established cultural cities such as Paris and Berlin.

Over the years, the aims of the ECOC-project have grown increasingly ambitious. Not only should cultural heritage sites be protected and restored, but cultural tourism should be encouraged, jobs created and foreign investors attracted. On top of all of this, there is the old social aim of bringing culture out to the local communities through increased artistic activity and accessibility. Briefly, the European Union wants to simultaneously help cities achieve sustainable development and become tourism magnets. Is this possible?

In the early years, the cities selected as European Capitals of Culture were national metropolis, then smaller cities, and finally in the last decade two or three cities at the same time. In fact, three different cities are given the honor in 2010: Istanbul in Turkey, Essen in Germany and Pécs in Hungary. While the Ruhr-area around Essen presents itself as a model for decentralization, Pécs represents the “new east” within the EU, whereas Istanbul has been one of the most important points of contact between Europe and the rest of the world ever since it went by the name of Constantinople.

Research on the consequences of being awarded the status of an ECOC-city unavoidably faces one challenge: what should be the criteria for success? Culture researcher at Rutgers University Kimberly DaCosta Holton argues that Lisbon’s year as a ECOC-city in 1994 was a success, referring to the great increase in visitors to galleries, concerts and museums, and underlining that many of the visitors were Portuguese tourists. For others, the character of the process itself is a more crucial criterion. When Porto was selected as ECOC-city in 2001, great conflicts between institutions and an amount of seemingly never ending construction works resulted in a deterioration of the city’s public image according to some researchers. In addition, budget overruns combined with a number of incomplete projects, led to a fall in the population’s confidence in Portuguese authorities.

While in the early years being a cultural capital meant a year long festival consisting of a number of separate events, the EU today underlines that a central intention is stimulating long-term urban change. For this reason, the EU has been criticized for encouraging urban development based on rapid planning and hurried decision-making. The consequence, critics say, is fast transformations and leaps in prices in historical areas prior to the ECOC year rather than sustainable improvements. Another objection to this type of urban development is that it does not occur to the benefit of the local inhabitants as much as to that of investors, brokers and the tourism industry. All ECOC-cities receive a standardized economical contribution from the EU. But a just as important source of economical support is contributions made by multinational corporations, banks and other private sponsors. Cultural analyst at Leiden University Dragan Klaic is critical to how this is affecting the urban development in Istanbul prior to the year of celebration. In a report he writes that politicians are turning 2010 into an advertisement for the construction and travel industries. According to Klaic, Turkish politicians admit that the main aim is creating jobs and attracting investments rather than giving culture and arts the lift they sorely need.

A consequence of being a European Capital of Culture, which is harder to measure, is the opportunity for a city – and indirectly the entire country – to reformulate its identity. For example, Lisbon’s status as a ECOC-city in 1994 offered Portugal the chance to push its national identity from the semi periphery and closer to the European center. This was done by underlining certain aspects of the country’s history, while keeping silent about others. Although the slogan was “Lisbon, a cultural meeting point”, most of the events gave more attention to Portugal’s multicultural present as a consequence of its liberal immigration policy than to the country’s past as a colonial super power.

2010 is of particular political importance for Turkey, which has been knocking on Europe’s door for decades, but has been locked out in eternal quarrels with the gate keeper. According to EU Observer, 2010 is the last time a country which is not a EU member is allowed to become a European Capital of Culture. Istanbul found itself in tough political competition with Kiev in winning this privilege, and the perceived political implications are obvious from the project descriptions. The delegation from Kiev expressed that the main motivation behind their application was to reinstate “the historical truth about Kiev’s European identity and cultural heritage”. In addition they wanted to highlight Ukraine’s position as a bridge between East and West. A delegate of the European parliament told EU Observer that there was little doubt that all delegates negative to a Turkish EU membership would support Kiev in the competition for the ECOC-status.

With Istanbul as a European Capital of Culture, Turkey has a unique opportunity to face criticism that the country is not taking good enough care of its multicultural and multireligious past and present – a criticism which has been recurrent in the negotiations for EU membership. On the program for 2010 we find both ecumenical meetings and celebrations of minority culture. For Turkey, 2010 might turn into a chance for greater acceptance as a part of the European community. What is certain is that the hotels will be full-booked of European middle class tourists.

Facts:?2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the European Capital of Culture project (ECOC). Athens was selected as the first European Capital of Culture in 1985.

?The intention was to bring people in the member states of the European Union closer, and to celebrate the cultural diversity within the union.

?During the 90s urban development and renewal increasingly became a more important part of the ECOC-project.