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EXCLUSIVE How do Ecoc change after the pandemic? Interview with Beatriz Garcia

Liverpool Liverpool Photo by Luigi Paternoster

 

After having interviewed Steve Green, Bob Scott, Franco Bianchini, and Chris Torch today we ask the same questions to another ECOCs expert, Beatriz Garcia, Associate Director – Centre for Cultural Value, University of Liverpool.

Dr Beatriz Garcia is Senior Research Fellow in International Cultural Policy and Mega Events at the University of Liverpool and Associate Director at the AHRC-funded Centre for Cultural Value. She is a member of the European Capital of Culture Selection Committee, nominated by the European Commission, and an expert member at the Culture & Olympic Heritage Commission, nominated by the International Olympic Committee.

Beatriz has been at the forefront of research on the rhetoric, impact and long-term legacy of culture-led city regeneration interventions since 1999 and was a founding member, head of research and director of the Institute of Cultural Capital (2010-2019).

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

It does have a future. There is enormous thirst across Europe for cities to celebrate their identity, their heritage and their cultural projections for the future. Building on an established programme like the ECoC feels inspiring to cities – although, as always, the challenge then is how to balance local agendas and priorities with those of the broader European project.

There has been a rapid growth of similar initiatives (national capitals of culture, Boroughs of Culture etc) which indicates that celebrating ‘place’ is meaningful. The key to the future of the ECoC is to ensure that it offers room for openly reflecting about what it is to be part of Europe; that the ECoC programme acknowledges (rather than be frustrated by) how the European narrative continues to evolve; and that ECoC leads within the EU / the European Commission demonstrate the capacity for the ‘European project’ to remain inclusive and sensitive to change.

Without the above, the ECoC could become irrelevant and replaceable by other initiatives.

What can the pandemic teach European capitals of culture?

The pandemic has taught us a lot – as human beings, in general; as researchers and hosts of major events and festivals; and as stakeholders of the ECoC programme specifically.

It is important to place any lessons learnt from the pandemic within this wider context: this is not only about ECoCs, but about how the ECoC reflects the kind of society we can be during – and, hopefully, after a pandemic.

An important ‘teaching’ during 2020 has been the need for major events – and, of course, ECoCs – to learn how to adapt. I refer to the importance of remembering what this is all about, so that ECoC hosts and supporters can prioritise, reduce (or eliminate) the superfluous and protect what really matters.

The pandemic has forced festivals, events and ECoCs to dig deep into the origins of their vision and values. Why does any given city want its ECoC? What is it that citizens really need out of an ECoC year? What does the EU / the European Commission truly value out of an ECoC? What do people across Europe value out of an ECoC they are not hosting?

I am being broad with the answers to your questions because I think that the most important lesson emerging out of this pandemic has been the importance of remembering core values – and confronting competing agendas if we realise that we are not all valuing an ECoC for the same reasons.

The pandemic is teaching ECoCs to adapt, to demonstrate why they matter – and why we should not do ‘without’ them. Amazing projects have emerged out of the pandemic that have been inspiring to people, both virtually and physically. New techniques have been learnt about how to operate in ‘hybrid’ formats; how to be more inclusive and reach out to people even when they cannot leave their homes. Importantly, a lot has also been learnt about how to ‘tell the story’, how to explain and share ‘value’ in more creative and efficient ways; how to showcase projects that very few people have been able to see; how to keep people connected even if they cannot meet in person.

The social media advancements in the ECoC programme during this pandemic have been very impressive and I trust they continue to evolve – not just as a formatting or packaging platform, but as another important space to create meaning and create ECoC communities.

In addition to the European dimension and the relationship between cities and citizens, what should the cultural programs of the Ecoc focus on?

Each ECoC host has a reason for wanting to host this title. This means the focus of a cultural programme, beyond the essential European Commission requirements you mention (which provide the mark of an ‘ECoC’), could be very varied.

Overall, I believe that what matters with a title like an ECoC is to give cities/places the chance to reflect about themselves as broadly as possible. To establish connections across all fields that are relevant to the place and its people and to figure out ways of sharing this with others in inspiring ways.

The European Commission, from our point of view, is quite weak on the communication front of the Ecoc. What could it do to disseminate the program among European citizens?

There is a lot that must be done to improve EC-led communications about the ECoC. I offer more reflections about this in response to question 5.

I think this is an exciting time for the European Commission to up its game as a communications platform. We need more exciting messages about the European Union (something we have learned, the tough way, in the wake of Brexit) and we certainly need more exciting, centrally coordinated messages, about the ECoC.

As I say below, the enormous advancements we have all been forced to make in our use of digital platforms provide valuable grounds for future ECoC communications. There is no excuse : we all need to get better at using social media platforms; all initiatives need savvy online comms managers; brands are more flexible and more fluid than ever; content gets generated faster than ever.

There is an extraordinary amount of material out there (images, stories, strategies, plans) accumulated after 35 years of ECoCs. We also have a growing amount of good quality research and evaluations, including some ‘meta-evaluations’ (or comparative studies) about ‘ECoC success stories’ and their ongoing challenges. It is about time someone works on this material to explain commonalities and remind us all of why the ECoC programme continues to be so attractive and inspiring to cities, no matter the difficulties securing funding and no matter the limited avenues for promotion compared with sporting mega-events.

(On a personal note: I would be happy to help advancing this important communication & branding agenda – there are valuable learnings to be made by observing the way other major events, such as the Olympic Games, achieved this since the 1980s. )

Many nations have invented national cities of culture, isn't there a risk of overlapping with the Ecoc?

Not really. As I mention in response to question 1, the broader Cities of Culture movement takes place in many directions – and it is simply evidence of this thirst that places have to celebrate themselves (cities, in particular, but increasingly also regions, neighbourhoods – boroughs etc)

The ECoC has a clear mission: it is about reflecting about what we mean by Europe, what it is to be European and how European cities manifest this, in as diverse a range of forms as needed, with as many commonalities as our common heritage allows. ECoC candidates need to understand these differences – they should know when it makes sense to try to be an ECoC, as opposed to trying to be something else (a capital of sport, a national capital of culture, a green capital).

Entrepreneurial local authorities and most economic stakeholders in a city will be always on the look for opportunities to position their cities, in whichever way feasible, in order to advance economic agendas. This is understandable. City stakeholders also care about cultural agendas and the ECoC programme has been able to prove, over more than three decades, that culture can result in transformative – and long lasting - economic, social and environmental impacts. 

The ECoC model has been considered useful to advance agendas not related to the European project. It is logical that other initiatives emerge, with similar formats but without a European reflection focus.

The ECoC programme will continue to thrive if its European dimension remains exciting and attractive to hosts. Having greater ‘competition’, so to speak, rather than be a problem could be the kind of incentive the programme needed to keep refining its focus and clarifying its mission statement.   Ultimately, it should also lead to a greater push for stronger / a more exciting communication strategy from the European Commission. All ECoC stakeholders should assist with this

I believe that setting up a clear and distinct ECoC communication strategy coordinated centrally by the EU / the European Commission, is one the key priorities for the future of the programme. After everything we have learned these last two years re: social platforms / meaningful virtual communications, I also think this should be one of the easiest – and most rewarding - for our European Commission colleagues to tackle.  

Serafino Paternoster

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

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