Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

About European Capitals of Culture

Short review of what happened in Tallinn during 2011 when it was the European Cultural Capital.

Published in English and Russian by Project Baltia 2012, No.1

In 2011 Tallinn in Estonia and Turku in Finland shared the title of the Culture Capital of Europe (ECC). The Culture Capital as such is a 27 year old format. The legend tells that two Ministers of Culture - from France and Greece - came upon this idea quite accidentally when talking to each other in the airport of Athens. As a result one more typical “Euro- project“ was born. It is fed by euro-optimism imposed on the member states by politicians. It also reveals the symptomatic distress in the EU – how? oh, how? can we make everybody in which ever corner of Europe feel all equally European?


In the beginning only the capitals of the member states could apply to become the Culture Capitals (Athens being the first in 1985 followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris). By the beginning of the new millenium all the capitals had had a chance and countries started to propose towns of minor importance ( 1999, Weimar in Germany,  2000, Avignon in France, 2002, Salamanca in Spain). Today the contest to win the title has become a real battlefield of smaller towns, especially in Old Europe. For these towns this is a chance that could really make a differnce.


Consequently there is a risk among culture capitals that it will all turn into a top- down project where creativity has nothing to do with the inherent quality of the community any more. This sort of creativity has not been triggered by intellectual needs or capabilities of the town but rather initiated by politicians and PR people and their desire to gain from the economic and cultural privileges associated with the title. Coping as culture capital depends a lot on to what extent are the existing capacities (people, communication and social networks, cultural institutions, political will etc) used for enhancing creative economy. The question is whether it will be sustainable and capable to develop further during the years ahead.


When Estonia was trying to make up its mind about which town to propose to the EU in 2006 as our culture capital, the local culture elite supported almost unanimously the candidature of  Tartu. Still for inevitable economic reasons the Ministry of Culture preferred Tallinn as an obviously safer choice backed with all its financial, statistical and geographical figures. As an afterthought it could be said now that Tallinn was a good choice in many ways. Firstly because the history has shown that former industrial towns tend to be more successful culture capitals (e.g. Liverpool 2008, Essen 2010) just by giving new breathing with relatively little effort to the otherwise neglected factories or even whole industrial areas.  Thus the reevaluation of the existance of  the seaside Tallinn industrial heritage became the essence of the Tallinn2011 programme.


Paradoxically for Tallinn2011 the global recession also came in handy. Due to the financial crises the EU funding shrunk considerably. As a result  instead of investing into bricks and mortar the focus shifted  onto people. The Culture Capital Foundation Tallinn2011 instead of becoming an organiser and manager of construction became rather an intermediator. The existing resources were allocated to people who had submitted a myriade of project ideas - exhibitions, festivals, concerts, conventions etc.  The only building with a clearly Culture Capital label attached to it was the Straw Theatre which also seems to have become one of the top events of the programme of the whole year. Its success  could be explained by being a perfect  venue for the theatre programme as well as a skillful solution to turn it into a kind of radiation source for activating public space otherwise left out of the community`s turnover.


From the point of view of architecture and using public space there was another success story in the programme of the of the Culture Capital Year. The Urban Installations Festival LIFT11 with its 11 installation around Tallinn. These installations gathered a lot of praise as magnificent site-specific and critically-minded works, but it has not been noticed that during the festival no politically charged installations were made. All of the eleven installations where largely descriptive hence none of them could become a signifier of the future of this place as well.


There were a few powerfully determined installations on LIFT11’s list but for bureaucratic reasons we never witnessed the actual erection of these installations or they finally appeared in a somewhat trimmer and thus also “safer“ manner. For example “FACE IT!” was supposed to give the spectator a chance to meet eye to eye the 1902 “Russalka”, a sculpture by Amandus Adamson. The authorities were worried that it might have irritated the Russian speaking community of Tallinn who like to take wedding photos with the monument in the background.


Therefore it is not surprising that the “bureaucratic trimming “of the installations turned them into consumer friendly and nicely packaged products which could serve as the face of the whole Culture Capital. It was convenient relying on these examples to tell the citizens: „You see, we managed! Contemporary art meets the public and no conflicts or misinterpretations. Contemporary art popularised and public space with a new quality added!” The good thing is that there is no reason for me to be ironical about it. LIFT11 really did take place under the auspices of and thanks to the funding and moral support of the Foundation Tallinn2011. All in all it was reasonable for both parties – curators, artists, project managers and others got their (somewhat adjusted) creative freedom and Talinn2011 got its credits and paperwork.


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