Lessons for Liverpool

Cork 2005 demonstrated how the Capital of Culture accolade can become a curse, writes <strong>Brian

Across the road from Kent Station in Cork, last year's European Capital of Culture, a ragged advertising billboard sums it up neatly: "Culture - it's purely a matter of taste."

As you travel through the city barely six months after the cultural year ended, there is little sign that Cork is the new Milan, or even Cologne, for that matter. Two of the main arts venues are promoting reruns; the only cinema in the city centre has been sold for apartments; and an independent art gallery on the city's north side has been forced to close its doors due to lack of business. It seems Cork is suffering from something of a cultural hangover. "The only culture round here is compensation culture," observes a local taxi driver wryly.

Cork's experiences should have been a warning to Liverpool, where the preparations to transform the city into the Capital of Culture 2008 have already become mired in chaos. Following the resignation of their Australian artistic director, Robyn Archer, the Liverpool organisers have been locked in crisis talks. Important projects, such as the plans for a new building at Pier Head, have been scrapped. The whole business has earned the ire of local artists, including the playwright Willy Russell, who said that he had "no sense of Capital of Culture being under any effective control".

Exactly the same problems were abundantly evident in Cork. The Cork School of Music, a major project planned for 2005, has yet to open its doors. The opening of the Capital of Culture information centre was delayed until half the year had already expired. Disaffected residents set up a local pressure group, "Where's Me Culture?".

"The general mood among the people creating culture in this city was one of non-involvement," says the Cork artist John Adams, a vociferous critic of the city's tenure of the title last year. "There was a lack of trust among working artists like myself. I would say to any other country that gets the chance to host the European Capital of Culture: please make it for the people. Let the politicians and administrators take a back seat for once - it is the people themselves who are the culture of a city."

This year's Capital of Culture, Patras in Greece, has fared little better. Barely two days into the year, the director resigned, accusing the organising committee of delays and errors. "Its structure and provisions do not befit a contemporary cultural institution, especially at a European level," he said.

So why does this supposed accolade seem to be less a blessing than a curse? The Capital of Culture project has inherent tensions. The official line from Brussels is that culture consists of "arts, tourism, architecture, the built and natural environment, parks and open spaces, media and sport". Yet any definition of culture is at once nebulous and problematic, raising questions about the role of high and low culture, and about how local culture works in a European context. In fact, the Capital of Culture designation has become less to do with culture itself than with the cash that culture can bring to a city.

It was not always thus. The initial hope of Melina Mercouri, the former Greek minister of culture who instigated the concept in 1985, was to showcase European cities with a long-standing cultural heritage. But this project was transformed in 1990 when it became groggy Glasgow's turn to champion European culture. The run-down city used investment in culture as a tool to revive its flagging economy. It proved, up to a point, that showcasing culture could become a byword for tourism, business ventures and jobs, as well as museums, concert halls and, of course, fireworks.

Since then, similar cities have clamoured for a slice of the cake. And yet, as the independent cultural consultant Robert Palmer has written, "From a distance, the European Capital of Culture programme can appear like a great cruise liner, sailing stately and glamorous into port, surrounded by an unconnected flock of com munity sailboats, wary of being crushed if they get too close."

Jason Harborow, chief executive of the Liverpool Culture Company, is conscious of the flaws inherent in the overall concept. He is determined, however, that this city will learn from the mistakes of past holders of the title. "I'm aware that there is no set format for hosting the Capital of Culture year," he says. "We set in train a series of themed years in the lead-up to the event. So last year, for instance, the theme was maritime and next year it's heritage. The idea is to build on our experience and get mistakes out of the way in advance of the year."

Harborow nevertheless admits that it can be difficult to manage the expectations that such a project raises in deprived areas. "It is very tough, and one of the challenges of the designation. Although it is the responsibility of the host country to make the most out of the year, I also think there could be more assistance from Brussels. The brand itself could be more easily identifiable and the transfer of knowledge between previous and future cities could be a lot more formal."

If the European Capital of Culture designation is to have any meaningful resonance with the residents of each chosen city, the programme will need to address its multiple tensions - between cash and culture, and between local and European input. If not, the Liverpool experience is likely to differ little from that of Patras or Cork, and the potential of the whole project will, ultimately, remain unfulfilled.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?