Talking to ... Ulrich Fuchs: Experience from Linz, Marseille and the EU jury

Ulrich Fuchs is a university lecturer and culture manager. He heads the EU panel that selects, supports and evaluates current and future European Capitals of Culture. He will hold this position until the end of the year, which means he will not be responsible for selecting the Austrian bid for European Capital of Culture 2024. Before that, he was deputy director and programme director for Linz and Marseille-Provence, the Capitals of Culture in 2009 and 2013, respectively.

As programme director for two European Capitals of Culture and as the current chairman of the EU selection panel, you are a leading expert on this title. What does it take for a city to become European Capital of Culture, and what is vital for the jury?

For the jury, the most important aspects are quality and credibility, based on six accurately defined criteria. To meet these criteria in a bid, you need candour, curiosity, and a sense of humour; you also need to embrace European values such as tolerance, democracy, solidarity and humanity. Of course it makes sense to question former achievements, assess their quality, and define new horizons. Every candidate city should ask itself: what can we tell Europe about ourselves, and what can we learn from our European partners. 

Long-term strategy is a recurring feature in the application documents. The EU wants each candidate city to define a long-term perspective that goes beyond the Capital of Culture year. That was not always the case. Why has the EU made this change?

In the past, nominated cities have confused the project with a one-off city marketing campaign. In fact, the aim is to use the Capital of Culture year as a catalyst for a long-term development concept for the city and region, and to view a broad-based concept of culture as a driver of this process. By requiring applicants to develop a cultural strategy and establish it politically, the EU is asking the responsible politicians to think beyond their terms in office. 

How do EU institutions assess the success and effects of the European Capital of Culture project?

There are many official and unofficial ways to evaluate the project, both generally and related to individual cities. And there are numerous doctoral theses and publications on this topic. Monitoring and evaluation are mandatory for Capitals of Culture. Winning the bid and becoming “European Capital of Culture” alone is no guarantee for success. Some Capitals of Culture have been successful, some have been less successful, and some have failed. As with any undertaking, such a project also poses risks.

The aspect of sustainability has become much more important in recent years – for good and important reasons. For the jury, one aspect of sustainability is how politicians handle the culture sector once the Capital of Culture year has passed.

You have implemented Capitals of Culture in Austria and France, which are very different countries, and you have prepared a bid in Germany. What role do political expectations play, and how does the jury deal with this issue?

When it comes to a project like the European Capital of Culture, political expectations and, on occasion, a little political pressure, are quite normal and justified. The project director, for instance, is responsible for ensuring that many millions of euros of public money, tax money, are spent sensibly. And it is the duty of a supervisory committee, which also includes politicians, to ensure that all this is handled professionally.

But it must also be clear that designing a programme for a Capital of Culture is not a task for politicians or the supervisory committee, but for the artistic directors of the project. The same is true for the contents of the bid process. I was granted this artistic independence and freedom in both Linz and Marseille; it was part of my contract, which I would not have signed without this assurance. The European jury also expects bid books to include the relevant phrasing.

In St. Pölten, the obvious mental leap is to Linz09. What can St. Pölten learn from Linz’s year as Capital of Culture and its preparations?

In short: it can learn from its successes and mistakes. It is worth examining Linz09 more closely. Let me give you just a few examples: to me, one highly successful aspect is the way that Linz tells its own story today, credibly and authentically. And that is mainly due to the collaboration between culture operators and the Linz tourism association, a collaboration developed thanks to Linz09. One of our biggest failures was that we did not force the culture policy of the city and state to continue down the chosen path.

You have spent ten years implementing Capitals of Culture, and almost five years on the jury. What do you find fascinating about this title, and how would you describe a successful year for a Capital of Culture?

When you consider how little money the European Union spends on art and culture, the success of the project is pretty surprising. I am fascinated by the unbelievable diversity of cultural expression in Europe. In terms of geography, our continent is comparatively small, but it is also wonderfully heterogeneous. We should defend this wealth against those who talk down Europe and put nationalist dullness on their populist banners. A successful year as Capital of Culture inspires openness and curiosity about this diversity in the largest possible audience.

18 May 2018

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