Nine routes to cities of culture in Europe

By Antony Thorncroft

The selection of one city each year to be the cultural capital of Europe was one of the European Union’s better ideas.

Nine cities made serious proposals to be the cultural capital in 2000. The EU, in a typically irresolute compromise, ducked a choice and gave the sobriquet to all nine. So during this year there are many, many good reasons to visit Avignon, Bergen, Bologna, Brussels, Krkow, Helsinki, Prague, Reykjavik and Santiago de Compostela.

Of course, the original optimistic idea that the nine cities would co-operate on joint projects which would show how Europe was coming together culturally as well as politically proved pie in the sky. Artistic directors were sacked, or resigned, with amazing alacrity in many cities, especially among the southern group, where politics often reared its ugly head.

The choice of nine cities also revealed interesting differences in approach to culture across Europe – for cities in the south the traditional hugh arts, especially opera and classical music and drama, seemed paramount, while the northern cities favoured a more modern, populist and all-embracing approach.

There was also a tendency to pitch northern business-like planning and efficiency against southern short-termism and improvisation.

This was noticed most in Helsinki which, with 30m to invest, by far the largest budget of any of the nine cities, was quite prepared to take a lead in initiating concepts, such as Caf 9, a caf in each city which, through video screens, links the day’s cultural activities, and touring exhibitions which could help to meld and confirm pan-European amity.

It was Helsinki that created the glass cubes, reflecting light and promoting events, which it sent to its eight companions in 1999 to help publicise the Millennial cultural explosion. In the event Helsinki is co-operating most closely with its northern neighbours, and its proselytising zeal has not permeated to the Mediterranean lands.

Perhaps it does not matter much. All nine cities will be much more exciting places to visit this year because of the layers of culture which are being spread across them to varying degrees. To a great extent the culture will be more like folk art, digging deep into the traditions of the cities, and placing great emphasis on local customs. It will be most apparent at street level, rather than in opera houses, and probably more appealing to tourists.

Helsinki senses that its time has come

Helsinki is unmatched in its commitment to making the most of its designation as a cultural European city this year. It has poured in much more money than any rival and it has planned its programme more rigorously and lengthily.

It has come up with 450 events, one for every year of the city’s history; and it has attempted to lead the other eight cities in joint projects, not always with their total co-operation.

It was Helsinki that:

      created the crystal glass sculptures that promoted the event last year, sending one to each participating city;

      organised the biggest touring exhibition, an interactive, hands-on, exploration of the communications revolution;

      created the virtual reality caf, and sent one to each city to act as an ever changing video window on daily events in all nine.

The Finnish capital has clear ideas of what it wants to achieve from the cultural beanfeast: to become a better place for its inhabitants and to raise its reputation in the outside world.

It should achieve both aims. It is mounting 48 festivals during the year, which it hopes will put down roots, and it is promoting itself vigorously abroad.

The city feels that its time has come. It is an enthusiastic member of the EU and Helsinki is a city transformed, with better lighting, smartened-up buildings, and a much more carefree attitude. It is a place of bars and smart restaurants. It rather sedately rocks.

Most of the year’s cultural programme will cross language barriers, and, as well as arts events, visitors will be able to experience such novelties as getting married in a temporary snow church in the main square, and enjoying a sauna in a church, or with more than 100 other people in a barracks – each month a private sauna will be newly open to the public.

There are a host of cultural attractions in a country which has developed a global reputation in the field of classical music. A new opera based on the life of the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi will be performed in the Olympic Stadium; there will be the first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Finland; and there is a new opera by the leading Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen, King Lear.

Throw into this vibrant city a tango festival, the world winter swimming championships (in February), visits from the best of St Petersburg’s culture, contemporary Baltic art, and Placido Domingo – and you have a heady mixture.

Antony Thorncroft writes for the Financial Times



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