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EXCLUSIVE. Ecoc, what future after 2033? Interview with Franco Bianchini

The Deepest Shade of Green by Saolta Arts and Galway 2020 The Deepest Shade of Green by Saolta Arts and Galway 2020 Photo: Viriditas – Ceara Conway, 2019

After having interviewed Steve Green and Bob Scott, today we ask the same questions to another ECOCs expert, Franco Bianchini. He is one of the leading experts on European Capitals of Culture. Franco Bianchini was part of the jury of two competitions, the European one that in 2001 selected Cork as ECOC for 2005, and the one, chosen by the Slovenian government, which in 2007 led to the choice of Maribor as one of the two ECOCs for 2012.

In addition, he was part of the team of two cities that have become European Capital of Culture. In 2003 he contributed to the writing of the bid for Liverpool (one of the two 2008 ECOCs), under the leadership of Bob Scott, and from 2010 to 2014 he was part of the scientific committee for Matera’s successful bid for the 2019 ECOC title, led by Paolo Verri. With Liverpool he was also one of the initiators of ‘Cities on the Edge’, an artistic collaboration between port cities such as Liverpool itself, Marseille, Naples, Istanbul, Bremen and Gdansk, and contributed to the implementation of this project .

In 2018 Franco Bianchini was one of the initiators of the research project “Heritage Opportunities/Threats within Mega Events in Europe” (HOMEE). The key objective of this project (led by Davide Ponzini, Polytechnic of Milan) is to research the potential benefits as well as the risks of introducing mega-events into historic European cities. HOMEE is based on case studies about the role of heritage resources (with a particular focus on built heritage) in the 2015 Milan Expo, in Hull UK City of Culture 2017, and in four European Capitals of Culture: Genoa 2004, Wroclaw 2016, Pafos 2017 and Matera 2019 (here).

In 2019 Franco co-founded the “Cities of Culture Research Network: Turning Evaluation Into Policy” (funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council) here

After 35 years, does the ECOC programme still have a future?

For some countries it may still work, for others less. For larger countries like Italy, Spain, France and Poland this competition will still be able to make sense. But in the case of some smaller European countries we are already beginning to run out of suitable towns and cities. Perhaps we could consider a different kind of format for the ECOC  initiative . From 2034 the ECOC title could, in my opinion, be held simultaneously by two European cities from different countries that are named on the basis not of belonging to a state, but of a joint cultural programme around a different theme chosen by the European Union every year. The ‘European dimension’ aims of the ECOC are usually the most difficult to achieve They include promoting intercultural dialogue, greater mutual understanding between European citizens and co-operation between artists and cultural managers from different countries. My proposal would lead to unprecedented levels of collaboration between two cities in different countries, including joint funding and project management, and the creation of a transnational Culture Company or foundation to deliver the ECOC.

What are the main implications of the pandemic for European Capitals of Culture?

The pandemic could represent a very important turning point for the ECOC. Some of the EU’s criteria for the ECOC for 2020-2033 concern the event’s contribution to a city’s long term cultural strategy, including impacts on tourism, local economic development and urban regeneration. In the period during and after the pandemic it will be necessary to re-design public spaces and cultural venues, and to rethink local development models by imagining, for example, how to rebuild retail, tourism and night-time economies in a more sustainable way. City centres in the future may need less space for offices and shopping, which could be freed up for residential and cultural uses.

The viability of individual artists and small cultural organisations has been particularly undermined by the COVID crisis. It is good to see that ECOCs like Novi Sad 2022 and Eleusis 2023 are trying to respond to this problem by developing forms of financial support for the more vulnerable parts of their local cultural sectors.

What should ECOC cultural programmes focus on, in addition to the European dimension and the other criteria specified in the EU’s official guidelines?

It’s important to reflect again on the effects of the pandemic. Following the example of ECOCs like Galway 2020, cities hosting the event in the future will continue to offer substantial digital contents and perhaps will develop broadcast units. This will provide opportunities to reach audiences worldwide. However, it will be important to make sure that there is strong local engagement with both live and digital activities, also by dealing with potential issues of digital exclusion.

Cultural projects focusing on well-being (and on mental health in particular) will probably become more important.

Lastly, the structural economic and social changes brought by the COVID crisis will require new urban strategic visions, in a situation of great uncertainty.  The ECOC will continue to be important because it is a catalyst for different stakeholders in a city to work together, explore difficult issues and possible conflicts, discover resources, experiment and develop  an idea of ​​the future.

What could the European Union do to increase the visibility and profile of the European Capital of Culture initiative?

The ECOC potentially offers great opportunities for the EU to communicate positive stories and messages, and the values of European co-operation and integration. Perhaps there is still a fundamental problem at EU level of not fully recognising  the potential of culture, otherwise there  would be more investment in the ECOC scheme. The winners of the ECOC title need more financial and political help from the EU  to strengthen their  communication activities and have more impact on both traditional and social media, at European level and globally. Matera 2019 is one of the examples of good practice in communication terms, but it could have achieved even more with more support from the EU. In short, the EU needs to give even more recognition to the strategic function on the ECOC and fully develop the media potential of the initiative.

Several countries have national or regional Capital or City of Culture initiatives. Is there a risk of overlapping with the ECOCs?

I don’t think there is such risk in larger countries, with a number of culturally rich large and small cities. For example, in Italy there is strong interest among city governments in both the Italian and the European Capital of Culture titles. In the case of the Italian Capital of Culture, perhaps it would be a good idea if the event took place every three or four years, instead of every year. This would allow more time for event planning and fundraising and would make the event more special, also for the media. On the other hand, it is true that there is a  sufficient level of interest at the moment to make an annual designation sustainable.  

Serafino Paternoster

Ecocnews Founder, Journalist, repentant jazz guitarist, music critic and film lover.