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Classroom, Cultural Diplomacy, News

Panel on participatory governance in ECOC programmes: ECOC primarily an opportunity to exercise democracy among youth

Each year two or three cities become European Capitals of Culture, guided by the massive amount of work, from the candidacy until the end of the year, numerous reasons and expectations, and ultimately acquiring invaluable experiences. What connects all these cities is the desire for prestige, particularly in the preparatory phases, while post-ECOC year experiences vary.

The panel was organised on the third and final day of the international conference Participatory Governance in Culture: Exploring Practices, Theories and Policies. DO IT TOGETHER. on 24 November in the Croatian Centre of Culture on Sušak. The panel was dedicated to questions regarding the ECOC title: how to plan ECOC programmes based on participatory governance? Which steps should be taken in order to achieve collaboration on ECOC programmes? What is the role of collaborative planning and evaluation in the successful realization of programmes, long-term cultural strategies, and sustainable cultural practices?


Those and other questions were discussed at the panel Local Perspectives: Participatory Governance in the European Capital of Culture Programme by Bernadette Lynch (University College London), Roland Zarzycki (ECOC Wroclaw 2016), Ivan Šarar (Head of the Department of Culture of the City of Rijeka) and Valerij Jurešić (Head of the Administrative Department of Culture, Sports, and Technical Culture of the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County), and the discussions was moderated by Szilvia Nagy from the Local Operators’ Platform, Budapest.

The conference attendees first had a chance to find out more about the current experiences in Rijeka.

As described by Ivan Šarar, Croatian politics often suffer from politics, but he is lucky enough that he does not get calls to fulfill the desires of political groups as part of his job involving ECOC. As Head of a city department, he also does not make moves which could be interpreted as intervening in the business of his colleagues who are preparing the project.

This positive dispersion of political power in the ECOC context can also be witnessed in the fact that a part of the ECOC expenses, primarily infrastructural, is in the hands of Rijeka’s cultural institutions and the NGO sector, so it is detached from direct politics.

Šarar also reminded that, as part of the candidacy process, multiple public debates had been held which had assembled numerous stakeholders interested in the project and had given them a chance to present their opinions and suggestions. The collaborative process had thus been implemented in defining the programme, teams had been formed for shaping the flagships, including representatives of the University, County, NGO sector, etc.

He added that the process was not without some questionable points, primarily the fact that the current phase of the project implementation did not directly involve the City, yet the project was very expensive and the responsibility for its realisation lied with the City.

Valerij Jurešić remarked that his department was the youngest in the County, founded in 2013, so that it had immediately been necessary to enact a cultural strategy on the County level. In light of that, they had started calling cultural stakeholders to obtain an analysis of the state of matters, they had organised 130 face to face interviews, and in 2015 there had been 15 public debates, including seven on the regional level, and in 2016 they had started preparing the ECOC programme on the County level.

This process had given way to two models. First is the flagship 27 Neighbourhoods whose aim is to acknowledge diversity in multiple communities and to focus on the people instead of spaces, by approaching culture as a framework which can successfully connect communities. The other model is the flagship Lungomare, focused on cultural tourism and its connection to cultural development.

He added that the County had also initiated its own e-network (County cultural network), which aims to more closely connect audiences in an area with content creators.

Roland Zarzycki from Wroclaw reminded the audience what Wroclaw’s experience was in obtaining the title, the preparatory phase and ECOC year, emphasizing that he would focus less on the good experiences, and more on the bad.

Wroclaw become a candidate city in 2010, and Zarzycky said that the main errors his team had done had been the high optimism at the onset of the project, neglecting working with people, being convinced that resolving the issue of money would resolve everything, not sharing responsibility for the realisation of the project among collaborators, tackling grand ideas without making sure there were adequate capacities for their realisation…

Additionally, it was a mistake to create a situation in which local cultural activists fought over financial assets. It was also a mistake to naively believe that the European Union cared about the success of Wroclaw’s ECOC project. The truth was, he added, that the EU was only interested in the project appearing successful.

He concluded that the local authorities, especially political, were too interested in bringing European stars into the programme in order to present itself as European. A large number of festivals in the programme was also not a good thing because it leads to cultural emptiness after the ECOC year. “If you want to responsible organisers, you must be responsible for the entire story, not just for the segments directly within your purview.”

As a university professor, Bernadette Lynch was not directly involved in ECOC projects, but she considers them to be an excellent opportunity to achieve intense cooperation which paves the way for users of cultural programmes to become participants.

“Festival and similar content is not the key. The most important part is the process you undertake to define the aims and realising them. The trap lying in the process is when you offer a vision of the future that will not come to pass, which will be seen as false promises and lead to the dissatisfaction of the project participants who expect changes at the local cultural plan, whether they are individual participants, organisations, or institutions.”

She also feels that it is important to establish cooperation in the full sense of the word in order to reduce the odds that someone will perceive the project as something foreign with which they cannot identify. ECOC projects has to be seen as an opportunity to exercise democracy among youth, the group which is nowadays easy prey for political radicalisation. “Ultimately, whatever you do, you’re doing it for yourselves, your city and its inhabitants, including tourists, and not for someone else.”

Questions from the audience focused on ways in which the local community could participate in managing the ECOC project, on the community’s capacity to achieve positive changes ingrained in the ECOC projects, and on the perception of the ECOC project as a problem if the creativity of the local cultural scene does not get involved, and festivals are given priority instead.

“We are not afraid of spectacles,” said Ivan Šarar as part of his reply. “In fact, the people of Rijeka are going to be disappointed if the ECOC programme does not include spectacles, a show. That’s why this programme is a mixture of everything, primarily it serves as shock-therapy for the city, an agent of change. Of course, managing expectation is important. When discussing expectations, we think that we currently live in dangerous times in Rijeka, as part of the NGO scene and part of the public are starting to perceive the project as something directly relevant only to its employees. This is something we still have to work on,” said Šarar, emphasising that the work “cooperation” is the key part of the entire project.