Speech by Spyros Mercouris

Concept & Spirit of the 25 years of European Capitals of Culture

The European Capitals of Culture began as a vision, developed into a big
cultural event and became an institution of the European Union.

On November 23, 1983 at the Zappeion Megaron in Athens, the then Minister of
Culture Melina Mercouri gathered all the Community Culture Ministers together in
order to submit to them the following question: “How is it possible for a
Community which is deprived of its cultural dimension to grow?” and continued:
“our role as Ministers of Culture is clear. Our responsibility a must. Culture
is the soul of Society. Therefore, our foremost duty is to look at the
foundations and nature of this Community. This does not mean that we should
impose our ideas. On the contrary, we must recognize the diversity and the
differences amongst the people of Europe.

The determining factor of a European identity lies precisely in respecting
this diversity with the aim of creating a dialogue between the cultures of
Europe. It is time for our voice to be heard as loud as that of the technocrats.
Culture, art and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce and
the economy.

Cultural diversity is the basic heritage of thousands of years of history. It
is the collective product of mankind.

The European community, a commercial and economic community up to that point,
had not given special attention to its cultural dimension and Cultural Ministers
met informally.

When Melina proposed to the Ministers of Culture to designate each year a
European city as a European Capital of Culture, she did so in the belief that a
real contribution would be made which would enhance the reinvigoration both of
the individual citizen and of the peoples of Europe.

Also, it was certain that through efforts to achieve a higher quality of life
the event of the Cultural Capital would expand to cities of European countries
outside the Community according to the principles of Democracy, pluralism and
rule of law.

The proposal was unanimously accepted and the institution of European
Cultural Capital was created with Athens being chosen as the first European
Capital of Culture for the year 1985. Thus, I had the honor of being its first
director and coordinator. Athens was a big success. Two Presidents were present
for the opening ceremony on the 21st of June 1985 at the Acropolis; the
President of France, Francois Mitterand, and of Greece, Hristos Sartzetakis. The
Prime Minister of Greece, Andreas Papandreou, the Foreign Ministers of Germany,
Belgium and Ireland, and all the Ministers of Culture of the European Community
with their presence gave their support to this event. With the success of Athens
and the cities that followed, the institution of Cultural Capitals was assured.

Although she was first on the list, Athens had from the beginning a wide
vision of this cultural event and its prospects.

The institution of European Capital of Culture was created, so as to show the
character of each city which had been nominated. This included its history,
traditions and its contemporary creativity.

We especially wanted the event of Cultural Capitals, NOT to be a Festival,
but a meeting place for discussion, exchange of ideas and communication, where
artists, intellectuals and scientists would bring their work and efforts
together towards the promotion of European thought.

To be a tool which would allow the citizens of Europe to be more than mere
spectators, to participate, to understand, to feel, to define and shape new
ideas and relationships in the process for a politically unified Europe.

In 1990, another decision was taken by the Ministers of Culture of the
European Union. Every year and for one month, one city of Europe, but outside
the Community would organize cultural events and have direct contact and
dialogue with the nominated Cultural Capital for that year. So, Cultural Month
was created.
During that same year a meeting of the up to then coordinators
and organizers of Cultural Capitals took place, to benefit and interchange from
their experiences. As a result the ECCM Network (European Cultural Capitals
& Months) was formed to link former, current and future European Capitals of
Culture. Its aim was to serve the institution of European Capitals of Culture
and thereby deepen the understanding of Europe’s cultural diversity.
what we have said up to now, it is clear that the event is not only what a
Cultural Capital offers and does on its own, but the contribution of all the
European Cultural Capitals offer together as a whole.

To enhance cultural co-operation and the promotion of culture on a European
wide basis the ECCM network undertook to share information and pass on
experiences made during that year. This was another way of interpreting and
promoting European Cultural projects. For that reason the ECCM has organized
European programs.

As examples: projects such as solidarity with Sarajevo meant collecting money
in support for the rebuilding after the Yugoslavian War, the library of
Sarajevo. The waves of the Black Sea and the Art Gender Biennale brought
together 14 cities around the Black Sea to show works of young artists. Also the
Aegean Archipelago Symposium focused on the Aegean world in order to protect its
environment. Then the EU-Japan festival produced numerous projects during
Antwerp ’93, Lisbon ’94, Luxembourg ’95, Thessaloniki ’97 and Stockholm ’98.

Milestones of the ECCM network are:
· Declaration of Delphi, 3rd of
July 1999 when representatives from 22 cities stated that it is not enough to
pursue solely economic and technocratic goals, but a much greater emphasis needs
to be made on cultural dimension.
· The initiation of a day of culture
in Europe on the 5th of May underlined by a first Symposium held in Athens in
2000 called “Freedom of Expression & Dialogue”.
· To strengthen the
link between European cultures and the very concept of European civilization,
the network started discussions around the theme “Diversity versus Uniformity”.
As part of the 5th of May 2002 activity, an essay competition was created for
school children on the theme “Europe’s cultural diversity: a threat or a
chance?” 20 cities participated and three awards were given.
· The
Athens Symposium with the title “20 Years European Capitals of Culture” in the
year 2005 culminated with the Pnyka Declaration which was read out at the former
seat of the ancient Athenian assembly. It stressed the importance of culture,
dialogue, freedom of expression and respect for the opinion of the other.

· The Athens Symposium 2007 with the title “Productivity of Culture”
focused on cultural policy, the role of culture and the relationship between
culture and the economy. Many other and similar institutions have been started
world wide, in the form of the European Capitals of Culture. The symposium had
the idea of networking further and to create a Network of Networks.

· The travel exhibition “A Journey through Europe: European Capitals of
Culture – 20 years” gave the opportunity to create an archive from what 25
cities had done, and which laid to the foundation of the Documentation Centre of
Athens for European Capitals of Culture.   

Rodolfo Maslias, ex General Secretary of the Network of Cultural Capitals of
Europe, suggested in 2007, to the present Mayor of Athens, Nikitas Kaklamanis,
the establishing in Athens of a Documentation Centre which would include all the
programs and activities of all the Cultural Capitals of Europe. This has now
been achieved.

The Documentation Centre is a panorama of cultural activities of all the
Cultural Capitals of Europe up to now. It shows the huge amount of cultural
events, infrastructures, editions, experience, know-how etc. that has been
produced during the past 25 years. A unique Cultural Reference Centre.

Up to the year 2000, the whole spirit from the cultural cities and their
directors was enthusiasm, inspiration and imagination. I want to thank Ingo
Weber, Berlin 1988; Bob Palmer, Glasgow 1990; Eric Antonis, Antwerp 1993; Max
Aufischer, Graz Cultural Month 1993; Ivonne Fehlman, Lisbon 1994; Guy
Dockendorf, Claude Frissoni and Simone Beck, Luxembourg 1995; Simone Beck, also
served as General Secretary of the Network, Thanassis Papadopoulos, Thessaloniki
1997; and Carin Fisher, Stockholm 1998, for the close collaboration which
created a deep understanding of the tasks ahead and a tremendous friendship over
the years.
Unfortunately this way of networking, as above, had to face a new
situation. The European Commission in the year 2000, the new millennium, had
designated nine cities for this year to become European Capitals of Culture, and
naturally they formed their own communication so as to be in contact with each

Many directors and coordinators of past cities that participated in the ECCM
ceased being connected with the cultural capital cities they had worked for.
Thus it became an issue whether any network connecting European Capitals of
Culture should be official and formal or informal. By the time the ECCM held its
General Assembly in Patras 2006, a schism prevailed. On the one hand, the ECCM
faced demands to live up to its formal character, while the newly designated
cities tended towards the creation of just an informal network. But once there
were so many cities, such an idea to continue networking at an informal level
was deeply flawed. The ECCM network struggled to exist but it became, after
Patras, very clear that it was impossible to continue in the same way.

Undoubtedly the Network of European Capitals of Culture is a success story.
For the members of the network involved were people who had the abilities to
think, to innovate, to create, to develop, to communicate, to understand, to
exchange ideas, to create a constructive dialogue between cultures and above all
to respect the opinion of others and the diversity of cultures which makes up

I strongly believe that a new network of ECOC is much needed to link the
future ECOC to form a communication with the Documentation Centre and the past
ECOC and to create European Programs.

In 2007 the European Commission published a study which confirmed that
culture is of central and growing importance to the European economy. The study
speaks about no less than 5.8 million people who are employed in the cultural
sector. While elsewhere unemployment increased, the cultural sector had started
to employ more and more of Europe’s best educated and most flexible workers,
namely artists, film makers, designers, writers etc. The facts speak for

The study merits a welcome. But those of us who are involved and concerned
about the future of European culture, the study carries with it, a certain risk.
It comes at a time when progress is too often defined in purely commercial and
material terms, and the study may reinforce this tendency to look upon cultural
activity as being merely another form of economic activity. This would be a
mistake. In the long run of history culture has never been a mere or even
primarily an economic activity.

Here we must be careful. Culture is much deeper and wider. The Productivity
of culture is generated by culture’s own power to renew itself and to create out
of itself a momentum to go forward. This is culture’s perennial strength.

We must never forget that culture is horizontal. Culture is at the centre of
our social, economic and political life. It goes straight to the human being for
the betterment of the quality of life.

Despite this productive role of culture the newer European Capitals of
Culture have narrowed the goal of ECOC. Especially, Liverpool 2008 and Essen
2010, concentrated on strengthening the economic impact. Of course, this had a
considerable success, but it is only one factor of the philosophy of the
European Capitals of Culture.

Today, developed countries of the world form a global village. Never in the
history of mankind has there ever existed such easy contact. Each country and
each continent is in constant communication. But it is doubtful if such
communication promotes a straightforward and constructive dialogue between
peoples and civilizations.

We live in a time that is dominated by cynicism, mistrust, insecurity and
fear. The pursuit of profit corrupts and changes the characters of people. 
We must understand that when there is an increase in material goods, which is
not followed with a parallel development of ideas and values, then the lifestyle
created flattens every cultural creation and is doomed to wither and decline.

Unfortunately, with the political, economic and social relations of today
–and especially because of the economic crisis– the transnational capital,
controls and checks the world economy, and thus is ostracizing culture from the
decision making process.

We have to react.

We have to believe in the power and productivity of culture.

Civilization – culture absorbs from the past, shapes the present and
perceives the future.

Throughout the ages, mankind has consistently sought progress and

In the long history of human civilization there has been a whole series of
renaissances, each one making its contribution to moral and intellectual
regeneration and to the betterment of the quality of life.

Man is the driving force.

If man wants to develop and progress he must not forget the eternal values
that he himself has created. If he wants to dream again he must create new ideas
and values.

And who knows?  Perhaps the institution of European Capitals of Culture
may assist the old Continent of Europe with new ideas and values so essential
for nations, communities and especially man.

Spyros Mercouris
First Director  & Coordinator of “Athens
– Cultural Capital 1985”
Melina Mercouri Culture Centre -  “Europe and
its Greek Legacy”
Athens, 18/09/2010


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