With responses from:
Juliana Engberg (JE) - Programme Director, The Secretariat for the Aarhus 2017 Foundation
Laura Sillars (LS) - Artistic Director at Site Gallery, Sheffield. Previously Programmes Director at FACT, Liverpool during Liverpool ‘08 Capital of Culture
Martin Thim (MT) - Founder, The Coal Bridge project, and organiser, Creativity World Forum
Julian Weyer (JW) - Partner, Architect maa., C.F. Møller
1. Why do you think cities want to be the Capital of Culture?
LS: The short answer is that they’re searching for a ‘trigger’. Of course a shorter answer would be ‘money’. Although honestly, I think these cities are searching for more than cash - rather looking for something to build around which shifts gears, a story that expresses change, to show that that places have transformed. For Liverpool, a constant theme was the desire to puncture holes in stereotypes that were pretty entrenched nationally about who and what it was as a city. That the 2008 Capital of Culture was a huge success there is now part of its history. The European Capital of Culture status then operates as an external frame of reference, a benchmark and an indicator that the place has got it together. That’s when the money comes in because investors and speculators have evidence that there will be a return on their investment and so you get a snowball effect. This might sound like a cynical narrative of why this status matters, but this is not my view. The experimental culture that my professional life has been concerned with absolutely benefits from a place shifting gear. To be successful, there needs to be an authentic set of links made between ambitious new forms of cultural production and the indigenous cultures embedded into the values of the every day lives of citizens and residents.
JE: Aarhus is a city that thinks very carefully about its growth and has a great pride in its unique, youthful and clever DNA. It wants to grow well, better, sustainably and smarter, and bidding for the opportunity to be the European Capital of Culture gave a focus for these ambitions. It’s also a city that has a big spirit and generous heart and one of the most inspiring decisions Aarhus made when constructing their bid, was to invite the entire mid-Denmark region to join in, which it did. Undoubtedly in going for the title there was a hope that this would bring attention to the city and region. And it does of course, and with that comes very many opportunities for enhanced business, tourism capture and a kind of civic pride that cannot be measured but is tangibly felt.
MT: Aarhus is part of a global tendency that you could call ‘the second city phenomena’ and in recent years Aarhus has really risen and grown its own identity. I think that it was very natural that Aarhus would make the bid as part of this development and also that we won, because Aarhus is really the rising star in the north right now, so the timing is perfect.
JW: While each city might have individual reasons and ideas for aspiring to the title, they probably also share the ambition to attract investment, development and ultimately to be able to decide their own fates. Cities see themselves more and more competing with other cities, both national and internationally, in what almost resembles a pre-modern race for resources. In Aarhus’s case, it certainly has been a factor that Aarhus is constantly in competition with (or rather: has long been eclipsed by) the Danish capital, Copenhagen, and has long felt that it deserved more international recognition, and a bigger share of national investments. But the actual timing coincided with a sense of the city undergoing a profound transformation: Aarhus is currently changing faster than it has for the last 70-80 years. Typically these developments happen in leaps, and what is currently happening is similar in scale to the transformation in the early 1930’s when the university was established and the city began the ongoing transformation from an industrial port city to a regional hub and knowledge city. So the bid is very much a quest for balance, to acknowledge that Aarhus’s role in the future will be greater and that this will change the way the country is perceived.
2. What do you see as the key outcomes of the Capital of Culture title?
JW: In my view this has varied greatly for the individual cities in the past – looking back at Copenhagen’s 1996 title, there is now clearly a before and after: the year marked the definite departure from Copenhagen’s grim, post-industrial era to become what has now been named the world’s most ‘liveable city’, a quite radical transformation in a short time. But I believe this was only possible because the city was on the cusp of this transformation anyhow, and that the most successful capitals of culture (i.e. where the outcomes last after the spotlight has gone elsewhere) were those where the timing was right, and the title boosted the already imminent changes – both in physical and immaterial qualities such as reputation and self-esteem. In that way, maybe the key outcomes of the title is in the process of the application itself (before the actual year of holding the title), because it is here that cities have the opportunity to re-formulate their goals and ambitions, and where awareness of their own potential can become clear.
JE: Unlike many ECOCs, Aarhus 2017 has not embarked on infrastructural projects. In many ways we are fortunate that the city of Aarhus and several of the other municipalities decided to create new infrastructure anyway. Aarhus was ready to roll! Instead, our year has put emphasis on projects and creating opportunities for organisations to make dream works, think large and think long. Make contacts, networks and new works that have brought the local practitioners together with international peers to ensure a greater cross-pollination of ideas, approaches and outcomes. This creates a more sustainable system of cultural delivery.
MT: I actually don’t think that you can bid for or truly claim the Capital title if your city has not already taken significant steps towards a strong cultural infrastructure, both mentally and physically. People living here, businesses operating here, the city and region have really started to work together in so many new ways. The ‘silos’ have been torn down just a bit and new collaborations and adventures and being born. This will have a huge impact in the coming years I’m sure.
LS: I moved to Liverpool to work at Tate Liverpool in 2004 and stayed in the city until 2010 having then moved to FACT. When I first arrived you had to trek across a cold, somewhat abandoned field, take your chances across a dual carriageway to get from the city centre to the Albert Dock. By the time I left, this whole area was developed with a pedestrian walkway through boulevards of restaurants and hotels and across a pedestrian-prioritised crossing linking the whole riverside complex and the city centre. There were plenty of capital projects which site the ECOC title as their trigger but the artistic strategy was all about events, experiences and moments which brought people together. For a cultural worker in the city, the outcomes were felt in the lived reality of the city becoming a much better place to live and work. Additionally, ambitions were unalterably raised.
3. Who does the Capital of Culture title impact?
JW: Ideally, it would impact everyone. Now, from a Danish perspective of the social collective, when we say “everyone” we truly hope for including everyone, so that of course is extremely difficult to live up to. The truth is of course that almost everyone is affected somehow, but in very different ways – some find their pride asserted, some get more business, some get to dream and some get to complain more. I find that most people actually do like the idea of Aarhus 2017, and because the city’s evolution is so clearly evident, it is not hard to create a positive vibe around the event. A more ambitious part of Aarhus’ bid, however, was to extend the title beyond the city itself, including the entire region of central Jutland, and therein also a number of former ‘rival-cities’. This was a clever move, aiming to both create a stronger regional cohesion by declaring the end of rivalry, and at the same time gain more momentum in relation to the capital region. It remains to be seen whether citizens outside of Aarhus feel the same level of involvement in the Capital of Culture.
MT: I have lived in Aarhus for 40 years and I’ve never experienced the kind of engagement and amount of different cultural offers as we have seen this and the last couple of years. At the same time, when you are literally standing in the middle of it all, it’s a bit hard to tell whether or not it has reached far enough. There has been some critique especially when it comes to the diversity of (rhythmic) music and whether enough is being done to involve projects and initiatives from our talented youth and the city’s entrepreneurs. On the other hand, the music scene in Aarhus is growing on its own with Northside, Spot, new venues like Tape, Godsbanen and the south habour and acts/exports like Liss, Karl William, Lydmor, Bæst etc. A lot of new players are popping up and creating great projects like Aarhus Volume, Square Space, Kulturentreprenør, Jakob Bjørn Galleri etc. However, I don’t see our city ‘breeding’ a lot of very interesting visual artists and maybe this could have been a focus area for the Capital of Culture. Or perhaps we will see the outcome in a few years time.
4. For you, what is the ideal legacy of the Capital of Culture title?
JW: I would say that the most important outcome would be a collective new vision for what our city can be, a shared idea. Momentary fame or assertion of coolness is fine, but for the title to have that lasting impact it must coincide with a change in our thinking. Especially in the case of Aarhus, I would personally hope that it also marks a change in national thinking: Denmark has for a long time failed to acknowledge the fact that it becomes more and more bipolar, with the greater Aarhus region numerically matching the Copenhagen capital region. Yet politically this has simply been ignored, and as a result the entire Danish infrastructure and investment strategy is skewed – hopefully, the exposure of Aarhus 2017 can help correct this in a longer-term perspective.
JE: Ideally, the legacy will be that organisations will start planning for the next five years and put in place the next opportunities to capitalise on the new audiences that have been captured. That the networks that have been created are sustained and grow. That people are more prepared to experiment and take risks and that the generations to come have enhanced capacity. That the region understands and grasps the cultural tourism potential we have demonstrated works if you cooperate and have fantastic projects that join the dots. That the creative industries produce the next Nordic Noir product. That the ingenuity of our Region is embraced and celebrated the world over… oh, and that more people visit and fall in love with Aarhus and the Region, because frankly, what’s not to love?!
5. Are there alternatives to the Capital of Culture approach?
JW: Yes, of course – I see the title itself as merely a manifestation of results that have already been achieved, or are in the making. The title itself doesn’t bring change, so as a reward it points to the successful implementation of such ‘other mechanisms’, especially in cities like Aarhus that are not primary cultural monuments. Today, for example, Aarhus is also a landmark city of architecture and design, with a unique cluster of educational facilities and professional practices that far exceed what could be expected from any comparable town – in terms of size, and in terms of global success and reputation. The city is working actively to implement an architectural policy and make this cluster of design firms an integral part of the identity of Aarhus.
LS: Perhaps there are broad-brush civic alternatives such as the Olympics or a major sports event, but the European Capital of Culture status is quite unique. Models that build infrastructure are clear alternative ways of doing things but to really change external opinions you need a shock factor followed up by visible, tangible and believable change.
JE: Of course you do not need a title to invest in culture…but it helps! The scheme and the title, which is so clever really, provides a frame of reference and joins you to a legacy of cities eager to meet and share knowledge. The European Capital of Culture is a strong and trusted brand and to have the title means you have been rigorously assessed as being a worthy and inspiring participant in the scheme. Importantly, and this is the genius of the idea, in bidding for the title, a city starts to invest in itselfand starts to believe in itself. Being an ECOC is a fantastic opportunity to reflect on what strengths you have as a place and culture and to enhance these attributes. You do not need a title, but it is a very strong incentive for politicians to direct funds to culture. If our ECOC is anything to go by, it pays back manifold. Culture is a hidden treasure in most cities, and the title helps to bring it to the surface.Read Less