European Capitals of Culture

A turning point

Joanna Sanetra-Szeliga: Do you think that culture could serve as a kind of “remedy” for the financial crisis?
Suzana Žilič Fišer: Definitely. Culture can generate a city’s development. In the case of Maribor the situation is more complex, as it is a city which in recent years, since the break-up of Yugoslavia, has changed tremendously. Formerly, it was a very important centre of heavy industry. When this collapsed the necessity emerged to create a new identity for the city. It is the focal point of the ECOC celebrations in Maribor – a new identity of the city based on culture and education (Maribor is, after all, the seat of the second largest university in Slovenia after Ljubljana). The current financial crisis is not confined to the economy, it is also a crisis of values. And broadly conceived culture may help to solve this problem. We must also appreciate the very significant role of culture as a factor in rebuilding communities – and this is another thing we want to underline in the Maribor 2012 programme.

So are local needs and criteria more important?
Not necessarily. It seems to me that the two criteria according to which applications for the European Capital of Culture title are awarded – that is the European character of the project and the “city and its inhabitants” criterion – may go hand in hand in implementing the ECOC initiative in Maribor. Maribor is of course a European city, although not so big and not so well-known. Participation of the city in the ECOC will have an enormous impact on placing it on the cultural and tourist map of Europe. And this is another thing we are trying to take into account in our programme.

Novo Mesto – one of the cities creating the programme of the Slovenian European Capital of Culture in partnership with Maribor © M. Wenzel, www.maribor2012.eu

What do the inhabitants think about the idea of the ECOC in Maribor?
My observations tell me that the inhabitants are above all hungry for events, action, and things happening. They realise that the city needs a kind of push in the right direction, that it needs positive changes. The cultural and creative sector may be the trigger for these changes. As organisers, we want everyone to find something for themselves in the programme. We have set ourselves the quite ambitious goal of uniting the community of Maribor into a single whole through our programme – the entire community with all its segments such as art, education, business, young people, old people, and people with special needs. As we have already said at the inauguration, the programme is a mosaic of small and big stories, in which an important role is played both by the inhabitants and the people visiting Maribor and its partner cities.

The original slogan of the Maribor 2012 programme, “Pure energy”, was replaced before the beginning of 2012. Why?
As you know, the programme of celebrations had to be changed, mostly for financial reasons. Taking this job in 2011, I had before me a new budget and we had to adjust our original ideas accordingly. I would not say that the new programme is worse, just smaller (after all, 16.5 million euros for the ECOC 2012 is not an insignificant sum), although there are, perhaps,
fewer large, spectacular events. The old slogan did not fit the redefined plans for 2012. “Turning point” seems to better reflect our aims and assumptions. I would say that it carries a positive energy with it, and encourages people to be active and get involved. Of course, the decision to change the slogan was not taken arbitrarily by me or the programme director. Both the programme and the slogan were discussed endlessly, and also through focus groups and opinion surveys. We really want the European Capital of Culture 2012 to become a turning point for Maribor, a beginning of positive change.

What challenges do you see here? Will everything go easily and smoothly?
I fear that the change we are thinking about, the change of mentality of the whole region, is not something you can do just like that, easily and smoothly. It is a long‑term project. It turns out that another enormous challenge is the cooperation between institutions, and above all, between all six cities involved in the programme and the central authorities. But cooperation between a wide range of agents is something which creates new values. Luckily the media are more and more positive about the ECOC. Initially sceptical (and not necessarily well-informed about the whole ECOC idea), they are gradually changing their mind. Undoubtedly, one reason for this was the success of the opening ceremony. Criticism, when it appears, is more and more constructive.

What is the meaning of the slogan, “culture as development stimulus” for Maribor, which crops up in the ECOC 2012 application?
Mitja Čander: The original application for the ECOC 2012 title was put together at quite different times, pre-crisis times, so to speak. Its authors focused on the economic effects of ECOC implementation; on new jobs for example. But now we are in a slightly different situation. What we want to achieve through the implementation of the Maribor 2012 project is to raise the quality of living in the city. Broadly conceived culture may be an instrument which will reconstruct our community. Maribor is a post‑industrial city coping with the lack of a clear identity. The collapse of heavy industry led to unemployment and the feeling of hopelessness. For many people the current situation is the end of the world. And for many people from western Slovenia, Maribor is the end of the world. But I think that based on our university (20,000 students), many small and medium size companies – including those involved in new technologies and needing well‑educated young people – and cultural tourism, we may try to build a new order in our city. And of course culture has to play a significant role.

Will the fact that the pre-announced investments which have not been completed, hamper the implementation of the programme?
It is true that Maribor 2012 hasn’t had any luck with investments. I fear that most of them won’t be completed this year. On the other hand, I do not believe that investments are the most important thing in our programme. The main thing is to know what to fill the buildings (both new and old) with. What is important is the programme – new facilities are not enough. And in my opinion, the programme we are offering is ambitious and may bring the expected results.

What if the MAKS Art Centre and Gallery are not be opened and the programme has to be changed?
The biggest question mark is over the exhibition of drawings from Tate Liverpool, which we may have to cancel. Of course it would be a pity, but luckily the programme includes a number of ambitious and unique artistic presentations, such as an exhibition of Oskar Kokoschka’s works and a cycle of exhibitions on great European artists called “Art always wins”. The Art Centre and Gallery will be built sooner or later, and more importantly, it will be located in the post‑industrial area on the right bank of the Drava River, which may begin the crucial process of revitalisation of this part of the city. I am certain that the Public Institute Maribor 2012 could oversee this process.

Has the Maribor 2012 programme changed from the original plan?
The budget cuts have enforced some changes. This year we have about 10 million euros for the implementation of the programme in Maribor (16.5 million for the region involved). This is not such a small amount and it seems to me that the programme we are proposing is appropriately structured to reach all social groups. One of the recommendations of the European Commission is to target the programme at the inhabitants of the region. And this is what we have done. Our programme contains large and important events, but we also wanted to go out to the people who live in our city and create it. Broadly understood culture also includes issues from the area of ecology, sports, and social problems. Maribor 2012 wants to take a look at all of these and become involved in these processes. Hence the unique programmes within Urban Furrows. Our city has undergone many changes in the last century – belonging to different states, changes in the ethnic composition (many Germans and Jews used to live in Maribor) and class structure (industrial workers were the most important social class under communism). It is time to build a new identity and work not only with the dominant social groups, but also with migrants or ethnic minorities.

And how have the inhabitants themselves reacted to these plans?
They are becoming ever more favourably disposed. Surveys show that a growing number of inhabitants are taking part in the cultural life of the city. We have adopted a small steps approach. It is obvious that a small Slovenia and small Maribor cannot compete with the world in the cost of labour, for example, but they can show their creativity and innovativeness. This is what we should focus on in the future.

So what will be the biggest challenge this year?
Unfortunately, I think that the biggest problem will still be politics. We have a new government, this time more compatible with the city authorities, which allows us to hope for better cooperation. It has been not easy so far with the municipality, the capital, and with our partner cities. If I could recommend some changes in the functioning of the ECOC to the European Commission, I would underline the autonomous character of the ECOC institution in a given country. The entanglement in politics, the constant reshuffles, and passing the buck is really killing the ECOC idea.

And if everything goes roughly according to plan, what do you expect from Maribor 2012?
I would like us to succeed in raising the quality of living in the city. I hope that we manage to activate the city centre, which is not only devastated in the physical sense, but also on the mental level. I am convinced that if we improve the atmosphere in the city, Maribor will become more attractive for investors and creative people with new ideas, not to mention tourists. Speaking about Maribor 2012, we often invoke the fact that we are not only affected by the financial crisis but also immersed in a crisis of values and attitudes. And we must also talk about these things – discussions about the euro, bank loans and economic growth will not change this situation, but culture might!