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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Liverpool, European Capital of Culture 2008

Liverpool European Capital of Culture 2008 flag, flying in front of the Port of Liverpool building. Photo: Chris Howells

Culture and the City

John R. Gold, Oxford Brookes, and Margaret M. Gold, London Metropolitan University

On the evening of 11 January 2008, around 25,000 people gathered in central Liverpool to attend an imposing open air concert complete with acrobats, light shows and assorted pyrotechnics. It marked the start of the city's year-long designation as European Capital of Culture (an award that it would share with Stavanger-Sandnes in Norway). Although less prestigious than an event such as the Olympic Games, Europe's cities still actively compete for the right to stage a cultural festival with considerable implications for their status and economies. Since its relatively inconspicuous introduction in 1985 as a brief summer event held in Athens (see Table 1), the festival has steadily grown in size, prestige and income generation. In the case of Liverpool, it is anticipated that during 2008 the city will stage more than 350 separate events, which will attract an extra two million visitors and boost the local economy by an estimated £100 million. (1)

Table 1: European Cities of Culture and European Capitals of Culture, 1985-2008

European Cities of Culture

  • 1985 Athens (Greece)
  • 1986 Florence (Italy)
  • 1987 Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1988 Berlin (Federal Republic of Germany)
  • 1989 Paris (France)
  • 1990 Glasgow (United Kingdom)
  • 1991 Dublin (Ireland)
  • 1992 Madrid (Spain)
  • 1993 Antwerp (Belgium)
  • 1994 Lisbon (Portugal)
  • 1995 Luxembourg
  • 1996 Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • 1997 Thessaloniki (Greece)
  • 1998 Stockholm (Sweden)
  • 1999 Weimar (Germany)
  • 2000 Avignon (France), Bergen (Norway), Bologna (Italy), Brussels (Belgium), Helsinki (Finland), Cracow (Poland), Reykjavik (Iceland), Prague (Czech Republic), Santiago de Compostela (Spain)
  • 2001 Porto (Portugal), Rotterdam (Netherlands)
  • 2002 Bruges (Belgium), Salamanca (Spain)
  • 2003 Graz (Austria)
  • 2004 Genoa (Italy), Lille (France)

European Cultural Capitals

  • 2005 Cork (Eire)
  • 2006 Patras (Greece)
  • 2007 Luxembourg, Sibiu (Romania)
  • 2008 Liverpool (United Kingdom), Stavanger-Sandnes (Norway)

Cultural festivals such as Liverpool 2008 of course have a historical context which, serves on the one hand, to highlight that they are heir to an enduring tradition of spectacular events designed to promote the interests of the host city and its ruling elite, and on the other, to indicate the new agendas that these festivals embrace. In this paper we discuss both the continuity and disjuncture of these festivals against the background of a constantly evolving reciprocal relationship between culture and the city. The opening section considers the nature of city culture in more detail, noting the close links between culture, power and economy. This provides the basis for a more nuanced analysis of the role of cultural festivals in urban life, which we exemplify by considering the development of the European Cities of Culture/Capitals of Culture programme. Culture, Power and EconomyStatements about the difficulty of defining the polysemic term 'culture' abound in the literature, to the point where some argue that it is currently too vague a term to be of much use. (2) That view, however, is less prevalent among urban historians, who clearly find culture to be a useful notion. There is broad agreement, for instance, about its importance in differentiating the populations of cities from those living in rural surroundings, in explaining the reasons for the initial founding of cities and their subsequent development, and when investigating the underpinnings of wealth and power in the city. (3) Indeed part of the concept's appeal may well stem from its ambiguity; embracing and often conflating two separate usages that relate, respectively, to social heritage and creative achievement. Seeing culture as social heritage identifies it as a reliable, taken-for-granted, connective framework of beliefs and practices that underpins everyday life. Expressions of culture are found, inter alia, in manifestations of shared values and ways of life in the urban landscape, in the typical patterns of behaviour associated with cities and in systems of meaning that bind particular groups of the population together and differentiate them from other groups. (4) While in normal circumstances, culture works conservatively to bring the thoughts and behaviour of individual residents of cities into line with the existing order, at key moments it has served to accommodate profound change. This occurred, for example, in west European and North American cities in the wake of 19th-century industrialisation, where the city acted as the prime forum for modernisation; serving as a cultural crucible that helped residents to adjust to a new dispensation and assisted them in coping with the flux of experience and a way of life synchronous with the factory clock. (5) Arguably, it has also occurred in recent years as processes of globalisation have changed the locus of power within cities. For example, cultural acceptance of the externally specified marketing strategies and branding policies of multinational food and retailing corporations has undeniably stimulated a growing 'placelessness', in which universally applied aesthetic standards have eroded the distinctiveness of place in the high streets and shopping malls of cities throughout the developed world. (6)

Culture also operates at different spatial levels. At one level it functions to bolster the city's leadership nationally and internationally, since new beliefs and practices frequently emerge from specific cities and then diffuse outwards. At another level it includes 'the cultural forms that develop within the city as a result of the impact of the urban culture on it'. (7) Over time, the buildings, open spaces, streets and neighbourhoods of the city take on meaning for the city's residents based on their own experience and that of previous generations. Endowed with meaning, the built environment of the city serves to reinforce identity among its citizens through direct means, such as memorials and monuments, and less directly, by acting as the mnemonics of individual and social memory. This tendency is found in the formation and maintenance of the mosaic of ethnic neighbourhoods that characterise many American and British cities. Such enclaves can give territorial expression to shared values, but equally their development may set boundaries that become sites of conflict between groups. (8) Having said this, it is important not to see the urban form as simply emerging from the typical ways of life of the city's inhabitants; cultural politics are also part of the equation. (9) In the hand of the elites that rule cities, culture becomes an important form of control since, as 'a source of images and memories, it symbolises "who belongs" in specific places', and who is excluded. (10) Seeing 'culture' as creative achievement recognises that cities supply opportunities for creative production and exchange that are unavailable elsewhere. The history of the fine arts highlights the way that artistic groups have gathered in particular cities. By doing so, they benefit from establishing supportive networks of associations, pressure groups and informal meeting places. They also gain from the presence of formal venues for performance and display (e.g. galleries, theatres and concert halls). Much the same process has contributed to the growth of the cultural industries, which include; advertising, marketing, architecture, fashion and design, popular music, publishing and new media. Often developing out of clusters of small premises in specific neighbourhoods (such as London's Soho or the district between South Bronx and Madison Avenue in New York), over time these cities develop pools of creative talent, sources of specialist finance and networks of dealers who trade in the products of creative endeavour. Conventionally, these creative activities were seen as being of minor economic significance compared with material production. This perception, scarcely questioned during the industrial age, saw the presence of cultural production as essentially testifying to the good taste of the local state and to the virtues of private philanthropy. While the presence of 'culture' might indicate the sophistication or even cultural leadership of the host city, the fact that a substantial subsidy was required to maintain opera houses, museums and theatres ensured that it was seen, more often than not, as a drain on resources rather than an asset. However, in recent years that judgment has changed radically. The reluctant recognition that deindustrialisation has irreparably eroded the city's manufacturing base, combined with new entrepreneurial approaches on behalf of city authorities, has transformed judgements about the value of culture in urban development. The cultural industries are now regarded as a key ingredient in a new 'symbolic economy', to which they contribute through production and consumption of fashion, food, music, visual imagery and tourism. (11) This new economy, in turn, is regarded as central to broader strategies that include; enhancing the urban environment by undertaking major infrastructural improvements and regenerating blighted areas, establishing cultural quarters, creating employment, encouraging inward investment and initiating 'rebranding' (the process of crafting and communicating a new image for a city). (12) Cultural Festivals

Seen against this background, there are both points of connection and of discontinuity that one can identify when considering the development of large-scale urban cultural festivals. Their use in support of political authority and local economy has classical roots. For more than half a millennium, for instance, cities in the Roman Empire participated in a cycle of recurrent festivals and entertainments that delineated the temporal rhythm of the year, swelled local coffers, proclaimed the power of city and state and, by incorporating rule-bound procedures and performances, defined the social relationships and status of watcher and watched. (13) From the 14th century onwards, occasional extravagant pageants were added to the mix of fairs, festivals, carnivals, and public rituals that were a standard element in the calendar of west European cities during the Middle Ages. The Grant Feste of 1313, for instance, saw Paris decked out as the stage for an elaborate week of celebrations to commemorate the knighting of Philip IV's three sons. Calculated to rival all historical precedents in the lavishness of its ceremonies and banquets, the festivities were a form of diplomacy (they were attended by the nobility and crowned heads of Europe), and in part, were intended to assert the primacy of royal power and to forge the bond between king and subjects. (14) This trend perhaps reached its apogee in 15th- and 16th-century Italy. Venice, Florence, Siena, Lucca, Genoa, the papal court of Rome and duchies such as Ferrara and Urbino, among others, vied with one another to stage the most impressive shows. When the occasion arose, each dug deep into its treasury to turn its city into a tableau on which poets, architects, painters, sculptors and musicians united to inscribe culturally significant messages through the media of tournaments, ballets, triumphal entries, fireworks or waterworks, alfresco fetes, intermezzi, masques and masquerades. Although their motives partly rested on the revival of the classical principle of magnificence - the obligation of the supremely wealthy to use 'money virtuously and for the public good' (15) - the resulting displays were again born out of inter-state rivalries and the desire to create cultural spectacles that might surround rulers with the mystical aura of authority that helped legitimise their power over their subjects. (16) Similar infrequent events also illuminated the late 18th and early 19th centuries. French revolutionary governments of the early 1790s introduced a wave of secular festivals to replace their pre-revolutionary counterparts. These sought to inspire, and often revise, a rapidly changing revolutionary agenda and redirect attention away from old religious and royalist associations. (17) The most notable of these was the Festival of the Supreme Being, held in Paris on 8 June 1794. Designed and choreographed by the painter Jacques Louis David, it involved huge effigies and processions and the construction of a plaster and cardboard mountain in the Champ de Mars that was sufficiently robust to allow the deputies of the Convention to sit at the summit for speech-making and other ceremonies. (18) Around three decades later, the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, would see an event of even greater magnitude, although of very different ideological intent. Designed to address key objectives for the United Kingdom, the visit of King George IV in 1822 comprised a fortnight's ceremonial activities stage- managed by the novelist and historian, Sir Walter Scott. Its most lavish features were: spectacular triumphal processions, decorations that embraced the entire city, evening celebrations that included placing lamps in every window facing a street and an immense bonfire on Arthur's Seat, a prominent local landmark.

It is from the mid-19th century onwards, however, that the fashion for new large-scale, prolonged and spectacular city-based festivals gathered pace, particularly after the staging of the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London's Hyde Park. Although itself inspired by earlier French industrial expositions, the Great Exhibition created a prototype for celebrating advances in science and technology that influenced a long series of subsequent International Expositions or World's Fairs. They would be joined by an ever-growing list that included sports meetings, garden festivals, song competitions, international arts festivals, major trade fairs, awards ceremonies, and scientific congresses. Some, often called 'hallmark events', follow regular timings and are held in the same city. These include the Salzburg Festival (1877), Chelsea Flower Show (founded in 1913), Edinburgh Festival (1946), the Festival d'Avignon (1947), and the Roskilde Festival (1971). Others, most often termed 'mega-events', are ambulatory, and are staged in whichever city has successfully bid to an internationally-constituted ruling body for the right to stage them. They include the summer Olympic Games (re-established in 1896), their winter equivalent (introduced in 1924) and the World's Fairs. (19) Capitals of CultureThe European Capitals of Culture programme falls into the second category, with cities from the European Union, and occasionally outside, enjoying designation (see Table 1). The original scheme was born out of the European Community's political desire to stimulate the non-economic dimension of the European Union and promote its greater cohesiveness. The 1957 Treaty of Rome had made no specific provision for culture, which was widely regarded as a sensitive area best left to national, regional and local administrations. Nevertheless, in 1969, the Hague Summit of Heads of Government declared that Europe was an 'exceptional seat of development, culture and progress' that needed preserving. (20)

Little occurred immediately, but thoughts returned to the cultural agenda in the 1980s, when European Community leaders looked for ways to relaunch the European project after years of stagnation. Lastingly associated with the Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, the proposal for the creation of European Cities of Culture (as then known) emerged from informal council meetings of culture ministers in September 1982 and November 1983, with resolutions setting out the objectives, selection criteria, organisation and finance for the event passed by the council of culture ministers in 1985. (21) The selection procedure stipulated that member states in turn would select a city to host the event. The format was permissive - as befitted a programme that aroused relatively little conflict between members and absorbed remarkably small amounts of European Community funds. (22) As a result, the festival was substantially shaped by the needs of the nation, and particularly, the city hosting the event. The first phase saw each of the 12 member states host the event, with a cycle beginning in Athens in 1985 and ending with Copenhagen in 1996. (23) Despite taking place in world-famous cultural centres such as Athens, Florence and Paris, the early festivals were primarily summer events staged for domestic audiences with little international marketing. (24) Glasgow 1990, however, changed the scale of the event and showed that the programme could evolve into something that played a stronger promotional and regenerative role than the founders had envisaged. Chosen as the result of a bidding process against opposition from eight other British cities, Glasgow fitted the Year of Culture into an established strategy for cultural festival-led regeneration that started with the 1988 Garden Festival and would continue afterwards into the 21st century. (25) Glasgow 1990 allowed the municipal authorities to undertake a rebranding exercise to confront the city's established image as a dour manufacturing city, build venues that would enrich local cultural life when the festival was over, and use culture as an engine to promote urban regeneration. Although there are doubts about the long-term economic benefits directly resulting from Glasgow 1990 (especially given that the festival was immediately followed by a recession), it clearly inspired other non-traditional cultural centres when their turn came to host the event. (26)

The success of Glasgow also greatly increased the interest of potential host cities in staging the second round of events, which began with Thessaloniki (Greece) in 1997 and ended with Lille and Genoa in 2004. For that period, the rules were relaxed to allow non-European Union cities and multiple designations of cities to stage the Year of Culture (see Table 1). The failure of the arrangements for the year 2000, in which nine cities were selected, was castigated for damaging the appeal and efficacy of the festival and provided an ingredient in the rethinking that took place before the third round (2005-2019) was declared. Rebranded as the European Capitals of Culture, and with an emphasis placed on 'the richness and diversity of European cultures, the features they share' and the promotion of 'mutual acquaintance' between European citizens, the aim was return to a single European Union host nation paired with no more than one non-European Union city. Subsequent enlargement has led to the new member states taking their turn to stage the festival (see Table 1). (27) A new selection procedure has been introduced for 2013 requiring host states to hold a formal competition whereby a selection panel, including seven European Union nominees, select the nominated host city. (28)

Liverpool 2008, along with Stavanger-Sandnes, stands as the 36th city to host the festival. Buffeted by deindustrialisation and afflicted by a poor reputation for labour relations, the city looked to the example of culture-led regeneration supplied by Glasgow 1990 as a potential template for its own revival. Its case for seeking the nomination rested on a combination of factors: the transparent need for regeneration, political will, public support, a longstanding artistic tradition and an existing cultural infrastructure (galleries, public architecture, orchestra and museums) that could be mobilised and expanded for the festival. This legacy, coupled with recent evidence of successful waterfront development, provided the foundation for the Selection Committee's confidence in awarding it the one-off, year-long festival. Hence, like Glasgow, Liverpool's municipal authorities sought to rebrand their industrial city in a manner that re-emphasised its cultural creativity. It was no more than the latest example of how the age-old link between the city and culture might be reactivated to craft a new vision for the future.

  1. BBC News, 11 January 2008 'City enjoys culture capital party', http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/merseyside/7182334.stm[accessed 11 January 2008]. Back to (1)
  2. See A. L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (Cambridge MA, 1952); P. Worsley, 'Classic conceptions of culture', in Culture and Global Change, ed. T. Skelton and T. Allen,(London, 1999), pp. 11-21; and F. J. Monclús and M. Guàrdia, 'Introduction', in Culture, Urbanism and Planning, ed. F. J. Monclús and M. Guàrdia, (Aldershot, 2006), xiii. For a view of the limited value of the concept of 'culture' see D. Mitchell, 'There's no such thing as culture: Toward a reconceptualization of the idea of culture in geography', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20 (1995), 102-116. Back to (2)
  3. Inter alia, see L. Mumford, The Culture of Cities (London, 1938); C. S. Fischer, The Urban Experience (New York, 1976); M. Castells, The Urban Question (London, 1977); S. Zukin, The Cultures of Cities (Cambridge, MA, 1995); P. Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation and Urban Order (London, 1998); and M. Miles Cities and Cultures (London, 2007). Back to (3)
  4. W. P. Handwerker, 'The construct validity of culture: cultural diversity, cultural theory, and a method for ethnography', American Anthropologist, 104 (2002), 106-22. Back to (4)
  5. G. Paolucci, 'The city's continuous cycle of consumption: towards a new definition of the power over time', Antipode 33 (2001), 647-59; D. Frisby, 'Analysing modernity: some issues', in Tracing Modernity: Manifestations of the Modern in Architecture and the City, ed. M. Hvattum and C. Hermansen, (London, 2006), pp. 3-22. Back to (5)
  6. E. Relph, Place and Placelessness (London, 1976). Back to (6)
  7. R. G. Fox, 'Definitions of the city and urban cultures', in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online http://www.britannica.com [accessed 13 January 2008]. Back to (7)
  8. See, for example, G. D. Suttles, The Social Order of the Slum (Chicago, 1968). Back to (8)
  9. Defined as the field concerned with the power behind meaning and the way that the exercise of such power advances the position of particular groups and their interests; see Zukin, op. cit., p. 1. Back to (9)
  10. For more on the 'symbolic economy', see J. O'Connor, 'Popular culture, cultural intermediaries and urban regeneration', in The Entrepreneurial City, ed. T. Hall and P. Hubbard (Chichester, 1998), pp. 225-39. Back to (10)
  11. F. Berci, H. Mommaas, K. van Synghel and M. Speaks, City Branding: Image Building and Building Images (Rotterdam, 2002); M. Kavaratzis, 'From city marketing to city branding: towards a theoretical framework for developing city brands', Place Branding, 1 (2004), 58-73. Back to (11)
  12. A. Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy's 'History' (Berkeley, 1998), p. 13. Back to (12)
  13. E. A. R. Brown and N. F. Regalado, 'La grant feste: Philip the Fair's celebration of the knighting of his sons in Paris at Pentecost of 1313', in City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe, ed. B. A. Hanawalt and K. L. Reyerson, Medieval Studies at Minnesota, 6 (1994), p. 56. Back to (13)
  14. A. Cole, Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts: Virtue and Magnificence (London, 1995), p. 17. Back to (14)
  15. B. Jarvis, 'Transitory topographies: places, events, promotions and propaganda', in. Place Promotion: The Use of Publicity and Public Relations to Sell Cities and Regions, ed. J. R. Gold and S. V. Ward, (Chichester, 1994), p. 182. Back to (15)
  16. ibid, pp. 183-4. Back to (16)
  17. G. Dart, Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism (Cambridge, 1999), p. 112. Back to (17)
  18. For more on 'hallmark events', see J. R. B. Ritchie, 'Assessing the impact of hallmark events', Journal of Travel Research 23 (1984), 2-11; and C. M. Hall, Hallmark Tourist Events: Impacts, Management, Planning (London, 1992). With regard to 'mega-events', see M. Roche, Mega-Events and Modernity: Olympics and Expos in the Growth of Global Culture (London, 2000); J. R. Gold and M. M. Gold, Cities of Culture: Staging International Festivals and the Urban Agenda, 1851-2000 (Aldershot, 2005); Sports Mega-events: Social Scientific Analyses of a Global Phenomenon, ed. J. Horne and W. Manzenreiter, (Oxford, 2006); J. R. Gold and M. M. Gold, Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning and the World's Games, 1896-2012 (London, 2007). Back to (18)
  19. J. A. McMahon, Education and Culture in European Community Law (London, 1995). Back to (19)
  20. McMahon, op cit, p. 134; European Union, Official Journal, C153 (22 June 1985), 2. Back to (20)
  21. The total direct cost of the 15 festivals between 1985 and 1999 was equivalent to a mere €4.381 million. Back to (21)
  22. This included Spain and Portugal, which both joined in 1986. Back to (22)
  23. G. Richards, Cultural Attractions and European Tourism (Wallingford, 2001), pp. 160-1. Back to (23)
  24. P. Booth and R. Boyle, 'See Glasgow, see culture', in Cultural Policy and Urban Regeneration: the West European Experience, ed. F. Bianchini and M. Parkinson, (Manchester, 1993), pp. 21-47; B. Garcia, 'Deconstructing the City of Culture: the long-term cultural legacies of Glasgow 1990', Urban Studies, 42 (2005), 841-68. Back to (24)
  25. Richards, op. cit., p. 162. Back to (25)
  26. European Union, Decision 1419/1999CE Article 1 Back to (26)
  27. European Union, Decision 649/2005/CE Back to (27)

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