Košice and Marseille: European Capitals of Culture

This year has seen Košice and Marseille honoured as European Capitals of Culture. Jules Gray looks at how they won the award, and whether it offers a lasting legacy to host cities

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Each year, Europe celebrates the cultural diversity and spirit of new – and often little-known – cities. The chosen city is awarded, years in advance, the honour of being the European Capital of Culture (ECoC). While it may seem a token announcement to boost tourism to scarcely visited destinations, the benefits that the award brings can be substantial.

The ECoC is an award offered by the EU to cities across the continent for one calendar year. Designed to boost tourism to these cities, special events are held throughout the year that emphasise the city’s strong European links and unique cultural heritage.

The programme was conceived in 1983 as the ECoC award by then Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri. The former actress and singer believed that the cultural characteristics of many of Europe’s cities were being ignored, in favour of political and economic issues. The inaugural year saw Athens named Europe’s first cultural capital in 1985.

Changing perceptions
Past ECoCs include such industrial cities as Liverpool in the UK, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Dublin in Ireland and Greece’s third largest city, Patras. All four cities are commercial hubs with large ports, and by choosing such cities as the ECoC it is thought that it could change people’s perceptions of them as more culturally diverse locations.

While it has usually been just a single city to hold the title each year, exceptions have occasionally been made. At the turn of the millennium, nine cities were chosen across the continent: Avignon, Bergen, Bologna, Brussels, Helsinki, Krakow, Prague, Reykjavik, and Santiago de Compostela. The following two years had two cities each, while 2007 saw three. Since then, it has been customary for two cities to hold the title, with this year’s representatives being the Slovakian city of Košice and the southern French city of Marseille.

The attraction to cities in being named ECoC is the interest it brings from investors that want to harness the attention the award garners. Regenerating areas previously thought to be run-down or neglected often comes hand-in-hand with the awarding of the title.

The selection process for the award takes around two years, with many cities leading exhaustive campaigns to persuade the committee of 13 to choose them. At the handing over ceremony for both cities, EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said: “The ECoC has been a fantastic EU success story for more than 25 years: the title is a unique opportunity to boost a city’s cultural vibrancy and long-term development, as well as being hugely important for tourism, job creation and urban regeneration. I wish both 2013 Capitals of Culture every success.”

Marketing Marseille
The southern French city of Marseille, also the country’s second biggest, is another city with a large commercial port and is one of France’s key trading cities. It certainly has a higher cultural profile than Košice, from its world-famous Bouillabaisse seafood dish to its yearly music festivals and notable opera house. However, it is often overlooked as a tourist destination in the south of France for the more glamorous cities of Nice, Cannes and the sovereign city-state of Monaco.

Notable events Marseille has hosted throughout the year include the Laterna Magica visual arts event, the Galerie Detaille photographic exhibition, the Palais de la Bourse maritime exhibition, as well as a sculpture exhibition by Bernar Venet at the Palais du Pharo.

While most of the events are geared towards promoting the cultural heritage of each individual city, there are also international aspects to some of the things organised.

Somewhat oddly, the Northern Irish punk band The Undertones performed in Marseille as part of the city’s celebrations, while Košice hosted a performance of English band Jamiroquai – at a reported cost of €250,000 – at one of its events, much to the consternation of some of the local press. There have also been a number of cross-over events in each city, where Slovak performers have travelled to events in Marseille and vice-versa.

A rocky start for Košice
Košice, Slovakia’s largest eastern city, was selected in 2008 to hold the title of ECoC for 2013, and is the first Slovakian city to gain the honour. With a population of 240,000, it is the country’s second largest city and is known as an important industrial centre. A cultural melting pot of Hungarian, Czech and Slovak-speaking people, the city is hoping that the award will focus the world’s eyes on its cultural attractions for years to come.

The title is a unique opportunity to boost a city’s cultural vibrancy and long-term development

Otto Brix, a member of the City of Košice Council, told reporters at the launch ceremony: “The city of Kosice is expecting to hold several hundreds of events, such as the opening ceremony, Use the City Festival or Nuit Blance, which had tens of thousands of visitors from Košice and the surrounding areas. I am glad that the city of Košice will get a new face, a lot of cultural infrastructure will change, we will have an opportunity to see new parks and the biggest art centre – Kulturpark – will grow in the city.”

However, more recently, the city has been in the news for the wrong reasons. A wall built to segregate Roma people in the city has drawn heavy criticism from the international community, and is threatening to cast a shadow over what should be a year of celebration for Košice. Vassiliou, who had previously been so enthusiastic about the choice of Košice as the capital of culture, criticised the construction of the wall in a letter to the mayor of the city Richard Rasi. She wrote in August: “I strongly believe that the construction of physical barriers represents a breach with the values on which our European Union is founded, notably respect for human dignity and human rights, including those of people belonging to minorities.”

Social and economic impact
The economic benefits of being named ECoC have been shown in a number of reports conducted in the aftermath of both 2008 and 2010. In 2010, a report by the University of Liverpool and Liverpool City Council looked at the economic impact of that city being award the title in 2008. Specifically, it looked at the increase in visits to the city in light of the award, and whether it had made a long-term contribution to Liverpool’s tourism prospects.

The study found that in 2008, Liverpool managed to attract 9.7 million visits to both the city and the wider region, generating direct visitor spend of £753.8m. An additional £201.1m was also generated through indirect spending. It also supported 14,912 jobs in the whole of the North West region of England.

The total number of visits in 2008 for Liverpool city centre grew 19 percent on the previous year, while the wider region had 34 percent more visitors as a result of the award. However, it is unclear whether this newfound tourism will be sustainable in the long run. The report concludes “Liverpool’s challenge for the future will be whether it can convert the wealth of first-time visitors it attracted through the ECoC title back to the city again, and whether it can continue to maintain some of the high profile which its Liverpool 08 programme garnered, to raise the perceived ‘offer’ of the city to potential visitors.”

In a study commissioned by the European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture in 2011, it was shown that in 2010’s three ECoC cities – Essen in Germany, the Hungarian city of Pécs, and Turkey’s largest city Istanbul – there had been some impact on tourism numbers in each city. Although Istanbul is a popular tourist destination in its own right, statistics show that 11 percent more visitors travelled to the city that year.

What impact the award will have on Košice and Marseille in the future remains to be seen. While the award has been shown to boost tourism figures for each city, it is unclear whether it translates into a lasting benefit to the cities that are named European Capital of Culture.